On a Laptop in the Desert: Drew Talley's Rural Scientific Research

Drew Talley is one busy man. In any given week, he can be found researching in the labs of Davis, knee-deep in the estuaries of San Francisco, or collecting specimens on Mexican beaches. A marine ecologist, Talley is always on the move and often in the field.

The nomadic researcher is and has been associated with a number of universities and organizations, among them UC Davis, the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the Centro de Investigacion Cientifica y Educacion Superior de Ensenada, and New Zealand's National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research. As a UC Davis Associate Ecologist, Talley furthers this university's studies on ecosystem interactions and habitat conservations. To that end, Talley's work, which--ironically--relies heavily on modern technology, often takes him to remote and uninhabited locations.

Bringing Science & Technology to Untamed Areas
Talley's studies focus on marine habitats and their interactions with surrounding ecosystems; one of Talley's southern California projects, for example, examines the impact of a salt cedar tree (terrestrial ecosystem) encroaching on the neighboring salt marsh (aquatic ecosystem). Talley hopes that this research will yield insight on the ways environments interact with each other and, in turn, reveal steps that could be taken to preserve habitats that are or may become endangered.

A similar project, in which he works with beetles, plants, and other living beings, is one that Talley and his colleagues have continued since its leader, Professor Gary Polis, died in 2000.


Dr. Polis, former UC Davis Environmental Studies department chair, was killed in a boating accident while studying natural habitats on Mexican desert islands and wetlands. Talley and his colleagues have committed themselves to continuing the late professor's research, despite the dangers of working in a remote clime populated with cacti, poisonous snakes, and scorpion s.

Talley explains that "Gary reveled in educating people as much as he did being out in and learning about the environment," a fact that led to the application of Polis' research in the form of an educational outreach program. The 20-week program, operated as a partnership between Aquatic Adventures (a non-profit educational organization) and San Diego's Hoover High School, brings kids to Bahia de los Angeles--the site of Polis' work--for five weeks each summer. The students act as research assistants, working to move science forward while simultaneously improving their own skills.

This rural town features few staples of modern life. Amenities like running water, air conditioning, and mail service are nonexistent. The students and researchers stay in the same rustic field station Professor Polis once used. Showers are limited to twice weekly, and clothing is washed with an old-fashioned scrub board. And yet, the field station features a satellite on its roof so that researchers can access the Internet and transmit data.

What's more, a glimpse inside the station reveals an arsenal of modern technology: seven laptops are available for data entry or--if information about a particular location or animal is needed--retrieval. Many members of the crew carry digital cameras to snap photos of research specimens, and they have the ability to send the photos right on to fellow researchers in the United States, Mexico, and even Spain, where one of Dr. Polis' former colleagues conducts similar research.


Talley and his team arrive at Bahia de los Angeles armed with aerial photos of the research site that have been retrieved and printed from the Internet. If some foul weather should thwart their Internet connection, Talley's iPod, configured to store documents, audio and video files, serves as a backup database of information on research specimens.


This union of technology, science, and research enable Talley and his crew to record inf ormation swiftly regarding the Sea of Cortez's aquatic inhabitants, the foodwebs of the islands, and the size of cacti. On many islands, there is no sign of "civilization" or other human beings for miles, yet Talley's band of students, teachers, and researchers have the most modern of equipment at their fingertips.

Lessons in Technology
\tThe teens involved in Talley's Mexico program come from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds; as such, many lack experience in science and technology. They are often using Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint for the very first time.

Talley and his colleagues handle this situation in two ways: before the program, students receive training in necessary skills such as basic computer use. During the program, Talley has "the tech-savvy students help their peers" with the technology. The students strengthen their skills and utilize technology to better understand their data, through using programs such as ArcGIS. Moreover, they return to San Diego with an unexpected benefit to the science-focused program: a greater knowledge of computing technology.

Conservation Research in Action
Fittingly, Talley researches in another professor's laboratory while on the Davis campus, as he doesn't have a lab of his own. Today, the ecologist sits slumped on a stool, typing diligently on his Apple laptop while post-doctoral students conduct experiments all around him. He looks up from his work to explain that he hopes Polis' research will shed light on the nature of marine habitats and will eventually be used to restore and protect threatened environments.

Ecology, Technology, and a Committed Scientist
For Drew Talley, technology is just the means to a very satisfying end: "the insights we gain with the help of technology will help us better understand the world around us and also train young scientists at the graduate, undergraduate, and even secondary s chool level, so we might make strides in environmental public awareness."

The quest to learn, teach, and improve ecology is one that takes Talley all over the world, but for this week, he's happy being in Davis, working from the comfort of an insulated building, complete with electricity and running water.