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Graduate is answering the calls of snakes, frogs and toads, oh my!

College of Integrative Sciences and Arts notable grad Margaret Huck’s research is supporting conservation of sensitive amphibian species as part of USDA project

Margaret Huck

Margaret Huck is graduating with a master’s degree in applied biological sciences from the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at ASU. She earned the Science and Mathematics Outstanding Graduate Student Award, presented at CISA’s spring 2023 Student Showcase. Photo courtesy of Margaret Huck

December 04, 2023

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

Aspiring ecologist Margaret Huck’s research is contributing directly to protect Arizona rivers and wildlife as part of efforts led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. In particular, her research is helping to inform the government agency’s water management decisions for the Verde River, a key tributary of the Colorado River.

Huck, who is graduating with a master’s degree in applied biological sciences in the School of Applied Sciences and Arts in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts at Arizona State University, is focusing on amphibian breeding as it relates to streamflow, habitat structure and sustaining biodiversity. She says climate-change-induced water flow reductions and human water development are threatening these riparian ecosystems, even in protected wilderness areas.

Huck co-authored an article about her research, which is under peer review with the high-impact journal Ecology.

She conducted her research in the Bateman Lab led by her faculty advisor Heather Bateman, a professor in CISA’s School of Applied Sciences and Arts at ASU’s Polytechnic campus. Huck said Professor Bateman inspired her decision to attend ASU and has “taught me so much about how to be a better scientist, writer and naturalist — and how to fail, pivot and problem-solve.”

Bateman said that Huck rose to every challenge required for the complex project in the Verde River basin.

“Maggie coordinated across researchers who study amphibians, birds and vegetation to install instruments in remote wilderness areas to collect high-quality data,” Bateman said. “She’s also trained an undergraduate colleague to safely collect field data in backcountry areas. She’s communicated her research results to both experts in the field and to non-scientists.”

In addition to working on this ambitious research, Huck helped refurbish the desert arboretum at ASU’s Polytechnic campus with a grant from ASU’s Sustainability Initiatives Revolving Fund.

“What started as an idea in Dr. Cindy Sagers’ Vegetation Dynamics class turned into a grant proposal and eventually $5,000 in funding to refurbish the arboretum and establish a long-term carbon sequestration study there,” Huck said. “Since then, we've partnered with Boyce Thompson Arboretum, which graciously donated trees, shrubs and cacti for us to plant. We've involved hundreds of undergraduates in soil sampling and processing, and a handful of enthusiastic students have joined the project and are running with it.”

Her dedication to these research projects earned Huck the Science and Mathematics Outstanding Graduate Student Award presented at CISA’s spring 2023 Student Showcase.

Following graduation, Huck says she wants to be a biological scientist for a federal or state agency and “conduct science that is contributing to solving a specific issue and will have tangible effects.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I realized I wanted to be an ecologist when I took Terrestrial Field Ecology as an undergraduate. Most of my classes had been micro- or molecular biology focused up until that point, and I was a junior taking this class when I finally realized that ecology and wildlife biology were career pathways. Getting out into the field during that class solidified my love for fieldwork, and it's why I'm now passionate about exposing students to fieldwork early on in their undergraduate careers.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom, lab or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: In Dr. Bateman's Applied Herpetology class, we had the opportunity to get out in the field: doing nighttime road-cruising to look for wildlife, checking out Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport lizard traps, and taking a two-night field trip to Peña Blanca Lake with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. These field trips were the first time many students had closely encountered herpetofaunareptiles or amphibians of a particular region or habitat in the wild — the first time they had held a frog or been near a rattlesnake. I took for granted having regular interactions with wildlife through my research and different outdoor recreational activities and assumed most people living in the desert would have had some experience with herpetofauna in the wild, but my perspective on human-wildlife interactions in the Sonoran Desert has changed. I can now imagine how many people live in the Phoenix Valley all their lives and never see a snake or a frog or toad. It shouldn't be an experience reserved for wildlife biologists, but getting students out in the field is an important step towards bridging that gap.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: For my graduate studies, I had hoped to land at a large university with broader ecological class offerings compared to my undergraduate institution. ASU offered the courses and resources I was looking for, but my choice ultimately came down to the advisor and the project. My research interests aligned closely with Dr. Heather Bateman's, and I knew from speaking to her lab members that she mentors her students with patience and care. Most importantly, I was drawn to the applied nature of my project.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Build a community inside and outside of ASU, and do not be afraid to ask for help. Connect with your lab mates, classmates and professors, and show up for your friends and colleagues when they're struggling. Success in grad school would not have been possible without the village of people that was there for me to lean on.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: I love the Polytechnic campus for its peaceful and secluded outdoor seating areas and naturalized landscaping. My favorite spot to sit is under the mesquite trees on the lawn behind the Applied Arts Pavilion.

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