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Katherine Pérez Rivera: Beyond science - collaboration, engagement, and identity

Katherine X. Pérez Rivera is an environmental
scientist. She came to the Czech Republic in September 2021 to study carbon dynamics in Czech streams impacted by acid rain. Katherine's host institution was the Czech Geological Survey located in Prague, but she spent many days and nights collecting samples and data in the Slavkov Forest, a sparsely inhabited protected landscape area, located in Karlovy Vary Region, famous for its spa towns. During her year-long Fulbright adventure, Katherine had to conduct fieldwork during the winter for the first time in her life. As someone born and raised in Puerto Rico, adjusting to Czech winter temperatures, hiking in a deserted forest covered by snow and wearing snowshoes was a life-changing experience. "Becoming a Fulbrighter permitted me to connect with others beyond my science and field of study. These connections were rooted in the core of our identities, who we are and what matters to us," reflects Katherine when adjusting back to her U.S. life at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech). 

Uncertainty was a recurring word when discussing my Fulbright plans. Often, the idea of moving abroad to the Czech Republic did not seem possible, especially amid a global pandemic. However, I still had hope and held on to the slightest of chances. Moving abroad meant an opportunity to conduct research at a new site, expand my network, get to know a new place, but also a time for me to focus on what I care about, reconnect, and reflect on the type of scientist I want to be. After many meetings, lots of paperwork and being able to defer for a year, I was finally able to start my Fulbright Research Grant.

Photo: Katherine collects surface water samples during monthly campaign, June 2022. Photo by Dr. Pavel Krám.

During my Fulbright, I was based in Prague and hosted by the Czech Geological Survey (ČGS). I worked closely with Dr. Pavel Krám and conducted fieldwork at the Slavkov Forest (Slavkovský les), which is located two hours outside of Prague near Mariánské Lázně. My project was focused on understanding carbon dynamics (the building block of life) in Czech streams that had been impacted by acid rain. Each of my study sites have different geologies (bedrock type) consequently resulting in different chemical properties of the water, which could influence the role of carbon in these streams. That was the uniqueness of my study, being able to study the same thing in three sites that had been impacted by the same phenomenon but had variable responses as the long-term effect giving their geology. Aside from my project I assisted with their long-term monitoring of stream water chemistry, which has been taking place for over 30 years.

Photo: Katherine and her host Dr. Pavel Krám from the Czech Geological Survey (Česká Geologická Služba). November, 2021.

Fieldwork was conducted monthly, and a variety of samples were collected: from rainwater all the way to soil water along three different small forested catchments. In September 2021, I deployed high-frequency sensors in three streams (Lysina, Pluhův Bor, and Černý Potok) to measure oxygen levels every 5-minutes, and model stream metabolism to further understand how carbon is used in these ecosystems. During my time working in the Slavkov forest I got to experience all 4 seasons in the field, which was a first for me.

Photo: High-frequency oxygen sensors deployed at the three study sites. Slavkov Forest, September 2021.  

I have been doing fieldwork for over 7 years, but all of it had been in the tropics or in deciduous forests during spring, summer, and fall, never in winter. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico; an island located in the Caribbean where it is summer all year round. Experiencing winter fieldwork for the first time was a life changing experience that required patience, resistance, and the ability to be flexible. These skills are key during any time you are doing fieldwork, however, during wintertime they are certainly tested.

Photo: Slavkov forest (Slavkovský les) during fall and winter of 2021.

For example, I never had to use snowshoes before and clearly, I had no idea how to use them, so picture the scenario of someone that has to walk about 13km in the snow wearing snowshoes for the first time. Yes, I struggled a lot in the beginning, it was challenging, and along the way I did question all my life choices that had led to that moment. But, in the end it was all worth it. I was living a dream, collaborating with scientists that I had read about their work for years, doing a project I care about and learning from locals about the significance and uniqueness of the Slavkov forest, while at the same time experiencing all the things the Czech Republic had to offer.

Photo: Katherine doing fieldwork during winter, February 2022. Photo by Dr. Pavel Krám.

Developing connections and engaging with others was key during my Fulbright experience. For me it was important to connect with the local community, and I was able to do so with the support of the American Center (US Embassy in Prague) which gave me a space to discuss not only my experiences as a woman in STEM but also connected me with H2OSpodař, a local non-profit that focuses on teaching about water management. I was able to collaborate with H2OSpodař and had an event where we discussed water consumption and usage in the Czech Republic with high school students. Similarly, through Fulbright and Education USA I was invited to do a webinar where I discussed how to pursue graduate studies in the USA. All these opportunities to expose myself to the local community served to get to know more about the people, their interests, and different perspectives.

Photo: Sharing Puerto Rican food with fellow Fulbrighters Julia Mead and Isabel Keleti. Prague, December 2021.

Narrating my Fulbright experience cannot be complete without mentioning my Czech adoptive parents: Moje maminka Dana a můj tatínek Pavel. Both my host Pavel and his wife Dana took care of me like no other person. From teaching me about the history behind events, monuments, and buildings; sharing their story of growing up in the Czech Republic, going to concerts, trying local food and drinks; to taking me to the doctor and getting vaccines. I am so grateful to have been able to experience Prague and other parts of the Czech Republic through the eyes and company of locals. Feeling a place as a local heightens the enrichment of one’s experience in it and I am glad I got to do that. During this exchange of knowledge and experiences I also got to share parts of my Puerto Rican culture with my host, collaborators, and fellow Fulbrighters that became close friends. Talking about my home, cooking our traditional food, and sharing with them my experiences of growing up in Puerto Rico strengthened our connection. I can confidently say that I made long lasting friendships as part of my Fulbright journey. For nine months, the Czech Republic became my home, a place where I felt safe and happy. The support I had during my time there was exceptional and the people I met along the way left a mark on me. Becoming a Fulbrighter permitted me to connect with others beyond my science and field of study. These connections were rooted in the core of our identities, who we are and what matters to us. Being able to engage with others, allowed to build community and create a sense of belonging.

Photo: Celebrating Julia Mead’s birthday at Letná Beer Garden with fellow Fulbrighter Dr. Alex Nowak. Prague, April 2022.

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