Nicole Puka was a research assistant with LUFA from March 2021 to March 2022. She wrote the following about her personal experience in the lab as she graduated last month from DePaul with her BA in Environmental Studies.
I worked for LUFA for an entire year, yet it felt like so much longer! So much happened within that time that it’s hard to put into words just how impactful LUFA has been on me. I’ve grown educationally, personally, and spiritually from my experience with the lab, which I know sounds a bit cheesy, but it’s true!
Working for the lab definitely gave me the hands-on experience that I needed to help me learn. Before starting, I knew absolutely nothing about trees. Even after taking the Openlands TreeKeepers course, the information just wouldn’t stick. But after being out in the field, my tree knowledge greatly expanded. Now, I bother my friends and family whenever we’re out, often pointing out different tree species or mentioning how I learned to distinguish different trees: did you know that swamp white oak leaves are fuzzy on the underside? I think everyone’s heard all of my field work stories by now, such as the time I was almost attacked by a squirrel, or the time the SCA crew let us drink from a fire hydrant, or the time I made Lukas stop for some ice cream on the way home, causing us to get stuck in traffic. One way or another, these stories helped me solidify new knowledge. A major reason why I was able to learn so much was because of how Jess manages the team: she’s there to help every step of the way, but really lets us be independent. This allowed me to solve problems and come up with new ideas on my own while also getting feedback to point me in the right direction.
On a personal level, I’ve grown quite a bit from the person I was a few years ago. I struggle with pretty bad social anxiety and it even took a lot from me to join LUFA in the first place. Looking back, it’s really interesting to see how nervous I was to meet the LUFA team, CommuniTree affiliates, my field partner, and talk to people in the field. But these fears were lifted right away. The LUFA team was so welcoming and supportive and quickly became my role models. The CommuniTree affiliates were not as scary as I thought they’d be; they’re just super nice tree lovers! My field partner, Lukas, also helped me, probably more than he knows, in feeling comfortable interacting with strangers and experiencing new things. I’ll never forget the first day of fieldwork where he offered me some dried grasshopper as a snack - not only was that my first time meeting Lukas, but it was my first time eating insects too!
One fieldwork story that changed my perspective and will always warm my heart involves Carmen, who was mentioned in a previous blog post. Lukas and I helped her move some mulch, and during this we had some insightful conversations regarding different life experiences. I’ll never forget what she told me: “Those who foster the greatest sense of community are those who don’t have much.” Her words helped me recognize the differences in experiences I’ve had from others and showed me first-hand just how important urban forestry, as well as any environmental discipline or movement, is for the benefit of communities.
I’ve grown spiritually in my appreciation for nature. Oddly, after going tree-by-tree out in the field, I’ve started perceiving organisms on an individual level. Each tree we inventoried, every insect Lukas held up to my face, and all the strange plants we came across widened my outlook on nature; not only is it made up of a variety of individuals, but it also exists in all different types of spaces.
I’m so grateful to have experienced working for LUFA. I’m sure the shy, freshman-year Nicole would have been shocked to know she would go on to do something so out of her comfort zone. She would have been elated to know that she did something so cool but would also probably cringe at how cheesy future Nicole is. ;) I wish the future LUFA team, as well as the CommuniTree team and project, the best!
A note of thanks from Jess: Thanks, Nicole, for all you've helped the team with! We couldn't have done fieldwork without you - you emerged as an excellent field worker and great leader during the year. And your attention to detail, creative problem solving, and knack for logistics really made the last year of data collection and analysis go smoothly. We can't wait to see what you get up to next.
Jess Vogt, Assistant Professor, Env. Science & Studies, DePaul University