Biological Science Technician (DHA)

 In Mosaics in Science
The DHA Resource Assistant internship (DHA-RA) is a unique internship opportunity within the Department of the Interior (DOI). The objective is to build a pathway to employment in the DOI for exemplary students in higher education.  DHA-RA interns will apply natural resource science expertise to NPS management and build a network with federal employees throughout the internship. These rigorous internships require specialized expertise and typically are available to upper level undergraduate or graduate students or recent graduates. The internships are designed to develop the participant's technical and creative thinking abilities, leadership skills, and problem-solving capabilities. DHA-RA interns will receive a weekly stipend of $480, park-provided housing or a housing allowance, and paid travel expenses. DHA-RA interns who successfully complete the internship requirements receive a 2-year eligibility period starting from the date of their degree during which they can be non-competitively hired by the DOI. Successful completion of the internship does not guarantee that the participant will be hired in to a federal position.  

The DHA-RA internship is focused on full representation of women and participants from Historically Black, Hispanic, Asian Pacific Islander, and Native American schools or other schools with diverse student populations. In order to be eligible for a DHA–RA Internship, applicants must be a U.S. citizen or U.S. permanent legal resident ("green-card-holder”) and enrolled or within one year of graduating from an institution of higher education.    

Position Description: This project proposal is written to recruit an intern for the Gulf Coast Network Inventory and Monitoring Program (GULN) during the summer of 2017.  The intern will be immersed in GULN's "vital signs” monitoring objectives through participation in, and the analytical exploration of, a tortoise monitoring project that has direct management relevance for one of GULN's network parks.    Specifically, the project will focus on installing GPS and radio tracking equipment on Texas Tortoises (Gopherus berlandieri), then tracking their movement patterns over the course of a three month period.  Although these tracking technologies have successfully been utilized to monitor other tortoise species, to our knowledge this will be the first application of these paired devices on a Texas Tortoise population.  The assignment will require input from the intern on all major project elements including experimental design, data collection, data entry, analysis and reporting. Following project initialization, and with general GULN guidance, the intern will take a lead role in organizing, conducting and reporting field work.  The GULN staff will collectively support and mentor the intern with a particular emphasis on two outcomes: (1) creating a safe and welcoming work environment that fosters diversity and inclusion in their staff, and (2) ensuring that all project elements adhere to robust standards that produce scientifically-defensible results and will directly inform resource management activities in national parks.  This proposed project will help the intern meet the requirements for a GULN Bio-Tech as described in the GULN Benchmark Position Description for Biological Science Technicians.

Project Background: In May 2007, GULN began development of a project to monitor the health of the Texas Tortoise population at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park (PAAL), which is a small, 696 hectare park in Brownsville Texas.  Texas Parks and Wildlife lists the Texas Tortoise as 'threatened', due to its limited geographic distribution –southernmost Texas and northern Mexico–, illegal collection for the pet trade and habitat destruction. To monitor tortoises within PAAL park boundaries, GULN has written and implemented a protocol for marking and recapturing individual tortoises.  GULN staff, collaborators and volunteers have visited PAAL in the Spring and Fall of each year since 2008 to conduct visual encounter surveys on what is considered to be the tortoise's preferred habitat—slightly elevated thorn-scrub patches called 'lomas'.  When a tortoise is encountered during a survey visit, participants record the animal's sex, age and morphometric measurements, along with a set of photographs and a GPS location.  Newly encountered tortoises are marked with a unique ID by drilling holes in their marginal scutes, using a pattern established in many existing turtle studies. Roughly 250 tortoises have been marked to date, yet of these, only 50% have been captured more than once over 18 sampling trips. For the three most recent visits where efforts were restricted to the same 13.5 hectares, the odds that a given individual would be captured more than once were slightly lower than 1 in 4. These findings indicate that despite this project's successes in population-level monitoring, there are large gaps in our understanding of the habitat preferences, daily movements, and post-marking fates of individual tortoises. Such data are key to developing appropriate management practices for tortoises in the park.

Resource Significance: The PAAL monitoring effort has already greatly enhanced park-level knowledge about the understudied Texas tortoise.  Concerning animal movement, GULN findings suggest that tortoises are relative "home bodies”, as they are typically re-encountered within the same habitat unit as their previous encounter (e.g., since 2014, 79% of recaptured tortoises were found within the same 2 hectare unit).  However, this work has also documented individuals crossing what are believed to be unfavorable habitats, to be re-encountered in a different habitat unit or loma.  Further, while some individuals are commonly recaptured, others are rarely or never captured again.  Have these individuals moved to an un-surveyed part of the park, off of the park, or are they just more cryptic? Are tortoise movement patterns related to weather, season or external stressors like feral pigs?  Movement patterns are of particular importance to park Resource Managers, because clearing invasive plants or conducting archeological surveys, for example, may detrimentally impact tortoises.  Directing these park activities away from certain areas or times of year could greatly reduce the risk of inadvertent harm to tortoises.   Furthermore, because the park is adjacent to a busy road that is considered a lethal barrier for many animals, the park staff has installed a fence on its southern boundary.  The impacts of this fence on tortoise movement are not yet well understood.

Project Need: It is imperative that PAAL Resource Managers know more about the habitats that tortoises use between GULN survey visits and whether the tortoise fence is effective at retaining tortoises in the park.  Due to recent technological advances, it is now possible to efficiently track and relocate small animals like the tortoise using compact radio transmitters and GPS trackers.  GPS trackers can record tortoise locations several times per day for up to six months on the same battery, thus providing an in-depth picture of tortoise movements throughout the park and answering general questions about when, where and possibly why tortoises move.  These trackers will more specifically address questions about the installation of a protective fence and its potential to impact tortoise movement.

Additional questions of interest to Resource Managers include whether small-scale movements like foraging, hiding and resting are influenced by particular food sources, interspecies relationships, or environmental factors. Detailed information on microsite preferences and interspecific interactions may reveal the critical components of 'favorable' tortoise habitat, thus informing management and possibly habitat restoration efforts. These questions require the in situ observation of animals on a regular frequency, which is possible with radio tracking equipment. The concurrent installation of radio tracking devices with GPS trackers allows for the efficient and certain recapture of an animal. GULN collaborators Kurt Buhlmann and Tracey Tuberville at the University of Georgia have experience with both techniques and will provide on-site training and support to the intern and GULN staff. The use of radio tracking equipment will increase the frequency of in situ encounters, which will reveal how tortoises use the available habitat at finer scales than GPS trackers can provide.  

Internship Focus:  The intern will assist with the initialization of a tortoise tracking project through the installation of tracking devices on PAAL tortoises (~10 males and 10 females in two different lomas) and the observation and analysis of their movements through time.  Under direct supervision of the GULN staff, the intern will:

  • prepare equipment for the tortoise sampling event
  • accompany the GULN-led crew to PAAL in May for the Spring 2017 sampling visit  
  • collect a standard set of tortoise encounter data
  • mark new tortoises
  • install tracking devices • download and post-process field data
  • clean and stow field gear
  • compose a brief field trip report

Following project initialization in the Spring 2017 sampling visit, the intern will take a lead role organizing, conducting and reporting subsequent radio recapture sampling events.  During all field work conducted at the park, the intern will be accompanied by GULN, Park, or University cooperator staff. The "buddy system” will ensure the safety of the intern and establish data accuracy checks through consensus.  The intern will make three repeat visits to PAAL in late May, June and July to locate radio-tagged tortoises in situ.  Upon re-sighting of radiotagged tortoises, the following data will be recorded:  

  • temperature and relative humidity at the start and end of each event
  • location – using a sub-meter accuracy GPS
  • tortoise ID
  • multiple photos to document the animal in situ at the time of encounter
  • activity notes to record what the animal was doing at the time of encounter – moving, eating, interacting with another animal or in its burrow/midden, etc.
  • the identity of all plant species being used directly by the tortoise, for either food or shelter.

This position is offered through the National Park Service's Mosaics in Science Internship Program in partnership with Environment for the Americas and Greening Youth Foundation.

Work Products: Final deliverables from this project will include (1) installation of tracking equipment on a set of tortoises, (2) database updates, and (3) documentation of the performance of tracking equipment and relocation methodologies.  The intern will assist with the installation of tracking equipment on a set of about 20 tortoises. The intern will also be responsible for updating the existing GULN Texas Tortoise database with project-related recapture data described in the elements bulleted above (i.e., 'temperature and relative humidity').  Last, the intern will be required to write a report to document "best practices” established in project initialization.  The report should contain a thorough description of: equipment and personnel requirements; methodologies for equipment installation; the process for relocating animals; procedures for the tortoise encounter, including data recording and handling; and post-field work procedures for downloading data and verifying records.  

Physical/Natural Environment: GULN HQ is located in Lafayette LA, and close to city-center, including: Downtown Lafayette, University of Louisiana, Girard Park, and numerous options for food and grocery.  Bike lanes connect many of the main city destinations and public bus transportation is also available.  Lafayette has most big city conveniences, but a small-town feel. The majority of field work for this project will be conducted in Brownsville Texas.  Lodging, transportation and meals will be provided through the internship for trips from Lafayette to Brownsville – GULN will pay for these costs if they cannot be covered through the Mosaics Program.  Brownsville is a city of over 180,000 people; numerous lodging and dining options are available.   GULN and PAAL are both located on the Gulf Coast where summers are hot and humid.

Work Environment: The majority of work directly related to this project will take place in an office setting at GULN HQ.  GULN has two offices and a lab within the NOAA Estuarine Science and Coastal Fisheries Building in Lafayette LA.  The intern's computer workstation will be located in the lab space, collocated with the Network GIS Specialist, Data Manager and Biologist.  Most field work will be conducted at PAAL.  PAAL is situated in the Tamaulipan Thornscrub, and as the name suggests, is home to many spiny plants, as well as biting and stinging insects, and venomous snakes.  These plants and animals, when paired with the frequent high summer temperatures, approaching 100°F, create a potentially dangerous work environment.  It is imperative that appropriate measures are taken to maintain safe working conditions.  GULN will provide personal protective equipment and training so the intern is well prepared for the environmental challenges.  The intern will never conduct fieldwork without a partner to ensure that a safety net is always proximal in the event of an accident.  Other GULN fieldwork that the intern may participate in, such as water quality monitoring or amphibian and reptile monitoring, may be located in remote, uncomfortable environments.  The intern will always be accompanying an experienced GULN staff member and will be briefed on and prepared for the field conditions that they will encounter in the course of their work.

Mentoring: GULN staff will work closely the Mosaics intern!  GULN staff shares a common workspace and the work environment includes daily collaboration with one another. The intern will be provided a computer workstation and share office space with the GIS Specialist, Data Manager, and Network Biologist – assistance with the project will typically be on-demand.  The GULN office is also located within a Federal Agency complex and includes: NOAA Fisheries, Corp of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service, USGS and Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.  The intern will have opportunities to meet employees from these agencies, learn about their fields, daily work and professional pathways.  GULN performs monthly biological sampling at five National Parks and the intern will have an opportunity to join Network staff in field work, providing an opportunity to meet other NPS professionals.  The Texas Tortoise Project at PAAL also brings GULN staff in contact with University cooperators, local non-profits like Nature Conservancy and State of Texas wildlife professionals.

Learning Goals: GULN will mentor the Mosaics intern on the implementation of the GULN Texas Tortoise Monitoring Protocol, the installation of GPS and Radio tracking equipment, and the development of a project methodologies guidance document. This project will benefit the intern, the GULN monitoring effort and the park in four major ways. First, although GULN will continue the tracking project through the spring of 2018, the 3month internship is sufficient to ensure the functionality of the GPS trackers, radio equipment and recapture methods.  Second, the intern will have gathered enough movement data over three months for the GULN to make preliminary assessments of park-scale movement and habitat utilization, which will be distilled and presented to park management.  Third, by being closely involved with GULN for data collection, processing, analysis and reporting on Texas Tortoises, the intern will learn about the processes and expectations that are common in other GULN biological monitoring projects such as amphibians and reptiles, vegetation, water quality, coastal geomorphology, seagrasses, and birds .  Last, the intern will learn about clearly documenting procedures and communicating results. Overall, Implementation of "vital signs” monitoring protocols requires attention to detail, persistence, effective communication and willingness to play both leading and supporting roles.  Exhibition and development of these qualities during the internship period will result in a pathway to permanent federal employment as a GULN bio-tech and will expose the candidate to multiple long-term monitoring projects that are fueling interesting discoveries about the natural world.

Leadership Development: The project supervisor in collaboration with the selected DHA intern will develop a Mentoring and Leadership Development Plan catered to the intern's specific interests and skills. The intern will work closely with an assigned mentor who will work to foster success with training and project goals. Additional NPS training opportunities will be made available as time and schedules allow.

As the GULN has a small staff, it is imperative that Network employees function as a team.   Staff members work closely together so that each individual has a comprehensive understanding of all "vital signs” monitoring projects. From the practical perspective, this allows for ad-hoc groups to conduct field work in a consistent and safe manner.  From the analytical perspective, shared knowledge and understanding of all monitoring projects allows for thoughtful input from all staff, allowing a deeper understanding of the interplay between and among the collective of monitored resources.  Although the intern will be under the direct supervision of the GULN GIS Specialist, all GULN staff members have a vested interest in ensuring that the bio-tech candidate know and understand the entire Network program.  The intern will be working in the same office as almost all Network staff members and will have quick, in-person access to each GULN employee and their shared and specialized knowledge.  Through training in, and participation on, multiple monitoring projects, the intern is expected to make strides toward an understanding of "vital signs" monitoring project implementation and expected outcomes.  The internship will provide an initiation that will prepare the bio-tech candidate for a leadership role, where they will eventually lead the planning and implementation of field activities related to "vital sign” protocol implementation.  These duties will include installation, operation and maintenance of sampling equipment; providing logistical support, advice and assistance to project collaborators and volunteers; and clearly and accurately recording monitoring data and field observations. The candidate will also assume responsibility for initial quality control of their field data and ensuring data are entered into a database in a timely manner.

Presenting Project Results: The detailed, clear documentation and presentation of project procedures is a key part of the inventory and monitoring program.  Without consistent and vetted methods for field work and data handling, it is impossible to make confident analysis about change over time.  It will be required that the intern write a document to record the best practices established in project initialization.  The report should contain a thorough description of: equipment and personnel requirements; methodologies for equipment installation; the process for relocating animals; procedures for the Tortoise encounter, including data recording and handling; and post-field work procedures for downloading data and verifying records.  It will also be expected that the intern clearly verbally communicate the content of the written report.  It will also be required for the intern to present a general overview of interesting findings such as basic information about movement patterns related to demographics or environmental conditions, habitat preferences, or movement off-park. The target audience for the presentation includes GULN staff, PAAL Park staff, and University of Georgia cooperators.  Other organizations and individuals who have collaborated or volunteered on the PAAL tortoise project will also be invited to attend.  As the audience is spread among many organizations and geographic locations, a webinar style meeting will be used for the intern to orally present the key elements in the written report and interesting findings. 

A strong background in natural sciences is preferred.  A degree or substantial coursework in biological sciences is a basic requirement for the vacant GULN 401 series bio-tech position.  Beyond this basic educational requirement, the intern should be able to demonstrate strong written and verbal communication skills.  Other preferred qualities include: Attention to detail, strong organization skills, willingness to travel overnight, willingness to work outdoors in sometimes unfavorable conditions.  Much of the interns work will be conducted at a computer workstation.  The intern must be willing to do this work in a structured and organized way so that data are valid and adequately prepared for analysis.

Prior to starting this position a government security background clearance will be required.

Applicant must have a valid driver's license and a good driving record. A driver's license will be necessary for the intern to travel between GULN Headquarters and PAAL.  Driving is an integral part of the work conducted by GULN and a clean driving record, safe driving habits and a willingness to drive long distances (570 mile from Lafayette to Brownsville) are all requirements for the internship.

Park housing is not available. GULN headquarters is not located at a park, therefore no park housing is available.  However, GULN HQ is located near the city center and close to numerous housing options including many apartments available for short-term lease.  Lodging and M&IE accommodations for field work will be supported by GULN if not available through the internship.

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Greening Youth Foundation (GYF, is a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization whose mission is to nurture environmental stewardship among diverse youth and young adults, while exposing them to conservation careers.
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