Recent grad interns as geo-scientist at Yellowstone and Mammoth Cave

McDaniel College alumna Melissa Fry at the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park
January 25, 2018

The ink was barely dry on Melissa Fry’s 2017 McDaniel diploma before the Biology major immersed in internships first at Yellowstone National Park and then at Mammoth Cave, where she discovered that you really can go home again.

Fry was born while her dad, John Fry, was serving with the national park service at Mammoth Cave, and her early years were spent living either on or near the Kentucky national park before her dad was transferred to Cumberland Island National Seashore in 2002, where he is currently chief of resource management.

Recent grad interns as geo-scientist at Yellowstone and Mammoth Cave Wearing a safety harness, Melissa Fry drills a hole to install the brass cave identification for the Mammoth Cave lesser cave, a 60-foot pit just out of the photo.

“I loved growing up near national parks and was able to do a lot of volunteer work on the island (Cumberland) in high school,” she says.

But returning to Mammoth on the second leg of her Geo-Scientist in the Park (GIP) internship was much more than a homecoming. There, she worked on the Lesser Cave Inventory Project, the same project her dad had started more than 20 years earlier.

“I helped the project by going back through all the databases and make sure everything was organized and the same between both the park and Cave Research Foundation,” she says. “I was able to bring some new ideas into the project as well. I even got to work with my dad for a few days on the project when he came up to volunteer.

“Everything just seemed to come full circle there.”

Working at Mammoth Cave marked a goal fulfilled — a lesson for the aspiring wildlife biologist that told her you are able to go home and reach goals you set for yourself.

Recent grad interns as geo-scientist at Yellowstone and Mammoth Cave
Melissa Fry ’17 in Mammoth Cave National Park

Even before her time at the world’s longest cave system at 400 miles explored, Fry was testing her career interests at her internship’s first stop: Yellowstone National Park and its 107,000 acres of forests, canyons and thermal springs that include Grand Canyon, Old Faithful and Grand Prismatic Spring. Her sights set on a career in wildlife management, she relished learning and working surrounded by some of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders.

The challenges and ultimate aha moment came with one of her summer assignments of renaming and organizing thousands of photo files involved with the climate-change study being conducted by the park. This meant stepping outside of her comfort zone to learn Python programming.

“It took me all summer to learn Python,” Fry says, explaining that she bought an intro book and got help from a friend in Geographic Information Systems (GIS). “I had been at my desk all day and nothing was working and I was getting so frustrated.”

Recent grad interns as geo-scientist at Yellowstone and Mammoth Cave
Melissa Fry checks a climate change transect station, which collects data on relative humidity, soil temperature and moisture, air temperature and solar radiation as well as recording audio and photos.

She had gone through the book and had half the code finished. Then, a half hour later, it all came together. She was able to get the rest of the code to work.

“I checked it several times to make sure. I ran down the hall to tell my coworker who had been helping me,” says Fry. “I was so excited I called my parents too. They had no idea what Python was, but they knew I had been learning it for a project.

“The experience taught me that I could do things I never saw myself doing, and succeed at them.”

Of course there were plenty of hours working outside too. She was required to carry bear spray at all times — also effective on other animals — and always did the obligatory bear calls while hiking through the woods.

Recent grad interns as geo-scientist at Yellowstone and Mammoth Cave
Crossing the Madison River to check invasive plant species in areas that had burned the previous year.

The mandatory bear calls are simply yelling “hey bear” or whatever is the hiker’s choice of words all meant to give the bears and other animals fair warning that a human had entered their domain.

“At first, I felt weird doing that cause I’m a shy person and that just felt awkward, but you do what you have to do to stay safe,” she says.

There were elk just outside their office building that could be dangerous if you came too close to their young or when the males were in rut. But the only bears Fry ever saw were viewed from inside a car when they were in the woods next to the road.

Recent grad interns as geo-scientist at Yellowstone and Mammoth Cave
GIP intern Melissa Fry gives this bison fair warning and a wide berth before climbing into a nearby tree to retrieve a climate-change sensor.

She did have a close encounter with a bison after climbing up onto a ledge to retrieve the last climate-change study sensor of a long day.

“We came up over this ledge that we had been crawling up and there he was, laying down right in front of the tree where the sensor was located,” says Fry. “We didn’t want to make the struggle up all for nothing, so we tried to be loud to let him know we were there and gave him a wide berth.”

The internships gave Fry the opportunity to explore grad schools and refine her course of study. She’s headed to Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in the fall to pursue a professional science master’s degree in wildlife administration and management to prepare for a career as a wildlife biologist.

Fry’s first Geographic Information System (GIS) course at McDaniel showed her that she enjoyed work on GIS and prompted her to apply for the internship.

“My time at McDaniel definitely played a role in what I’m doing because I was able to specialize my Biology degree in Environmental Science,” Fry says. “Being on the swim team all four years, I gained valuable skills in time management, dedication and hard work — and serving as vice-president of TriBeta (the biology honor society) and on the executive board for Green Terror Programs definitely helped me develop communication and organization skills.”