Have you ever dreamed of combining your passion for the outdoors with your career? I interviewed Natalie Jones, Grand Canyon intern, about what she does and how she got there, starting out in undergrad. If you, too, are interested in doing work AND taking hikes in your “office,” keep reading …
Sipping out of pristine mugs, makeup done and summery outfit on, when I met Natalie for coffee in a local Philadelphia shop, I probably looked very different from the last time she had seen me. We had previously met months ago at a campsite in the Grand Canyon, on a trip I took out there this past spring, in around 30°F weather, both attempting to stay warm while we chatted about mutual friends in the frosty morning.
But I think some background information is due … Natalie is a University of Pennsylvania graduate; she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Earth Science with a concentration in Geology. She is also an Outdoors Club alum, which is the connection that caused us to get in touch with one another. But why was she in the Grand Canyon? Because Natalie is a hydrology intern with the Geoscientist Program, which is part of the Science and Resource Management division of the National Park Services. Science and Resource Management focuses on researching areas that will affect both park resources and the larger natural world. Additionally, a quick shout out goes to one of her internship’s largest sponsors, AmeriCorps, a network program which connects volunteers to service needs, country-wide, and provides them funding towards schooling in return.
So what does Natalie actually do?
The Grand Canyon is a massive and hugely popular national park, with around five million visitors per year. Water becomes a large need with that many people! Natalie’s job is to analyze the water in the canyon, which runs through many layers of thousand-year old built up rock. She is personally in charge of researching groundwater and surface water (sinkholes, caves, springs, creeks). She also mentioned that the position is half-field (hiking to the sinkholes/caves/etc.) and half-office work (research and data management) – a major draw for Natalie, as she had been dying to get out in the field and get her hands on some rocks.
And as an added perk, she logs lots of hours doing field work/hiking around the canyon/living the dream.
How did she find out about the internship?
A question we’re all probably wondering, considering I had no idea awesome opportunities like this exist. The answer is that she had a class with a friend in a PhD program who happened to casually mention that she should look into this Geocore position (Geocore used to run this type of internship).
When was her first time seeing Grand Canyon?
She was 11 years old and went on a huge six-week road trip with her parents to visit a bunch of national parks. She remembers that they stopped at the North Rim, and when she looked out over the canyon, she was overwhelmed. Her dad took them to a spot near the trail where people like to sit and take pictures, pretending they’re sitting on the edge (I definitely have done that), even though there’s a ledge beneath. She vividly remembers lying and looking at the canyon upside-down, and thinking it had to be unreal. Above all, she was mesmerized by the rock layers. She bought awesome stacking blocks that showed all the different layers, but, she added, unfortunately they have since been given away, unbeknownst to her, during some spring cleaning.
What cool research is she doing right now?
Well, technically, she’s doing a lot of cool research right now. Her first project was gathering data about sinkholes on the North Rim and conducting automated measurements on them. She tried to describe the surface karst (features such as caves, sinkholes, conduits, that are dissolved out of limestone) based on geomorphologic measurements … her research is getting published in a book chapter soon (yay!)
Right now, one of the biggest things that she’s doing is a ditrate study, where she injects fluorescent dye into sinkholes, and after snowmelt they get flushed through rock layers and come out of the springs in different rock layers.
How does that work?
They, at the parks, have dye receptors (which are put in creeks/springs/things) that will adsorb these dye molecules and they are then able to see which dye is coming out where; the main purpose is to figure out where the water from Roaring Springs (a spring on North Rim) which happens to comprise nearly all of the parks’ water supply, is coming from. Right now, it’s still a mystery.
Best/favorite/coolest canyon experience?
One random day in October, her boss asked if she’d done her “A100 training” to be a flight crew member. She hadn’t, so the following week she flew on a helicopter with him to Roaring springs and she got to give a tour of Roaring Springs caves to some maintenance men in the park. At the end, they got to fly back. It was her first time seeing the canyon from a helicopter – and just being in a helicopter – and now she’s obsessed.
Her favorite hike at the canyon … well, she’s done three overnight work hikes, although a lot of her hikes are in repeat areas. She went on a pretty traumatic nine-day hike recently – short story, it involved a sunny day turning disastrously bad, into a snow/rain/hail storm and steep slopes in near blackout conditions, andddd having to find shelter and wait it out – but at the same time, it was gorgeous/amazing … it exposed layers she had never seen of the Supergroup (a sequence of sedimentary rock in the canyon) and they were beautiful. She loved being exposed to rock layers she never gets to see very often.
She also added that she loves seeing the canyon in late April and early May, because the whole Canyon is in bloom.
There are tech positions opening up through Northern Arizona University, which she is interested in exploring. If she got it, it would be a 1-4 year position, where she’d be able to continue her work investigating the hydrology of the park. She is excited to put her hat in the ring for these.
Any advice for possible outdoors-adventurers?
Quote straight from Natalie: “When you’re in school, if doing outdoors things makes you feel better? Make time for it!” She admitted and regretted that she didn’t do much while she was in college until her senior year (when she forced herself to make time for it), because she realized that it was important to her and made her feel better, physically and mentally.
Second important quote: “Make sure your passion shows if you want to do internship – don’t be afraid to talk up extracurricular experiences,” whether it be doing field work, or even going backpacking for fun; that was enough, she said, to qualify her, coupled with her passion for the job and the outdoors in general.