Special to the Journal
In March 2017, Tara Nawrocki didn’t spend spring break on the Texas coast. She didn’t get a tan, wear a bathing suit, try a tattoo, drink frosty margaritas, or go to a concert. She didn’t chase boys, and she didn’t hang out with her friends. She didn’t even sleep late.
No, this 27 year old undergraduate student at A&M-Central Texas and wife of an Air Force tactical air controller did something that required her to get up before the crack of dawn, drive to a coastal corner somewhere between the Colorado and Brazos Rivers southwest of Houston and, equipped only with a pair of field glasses, count chickens.
Specifically, Attwater Prairie chickens.
“They are on the endangered species list,” she explained. “There are only 300 or so left.”
She laughs, brushing back her dishwater blonde hair, slate blue eyes shimmering with enthusiasm for a bird on the brink of extinction, explaining her motivation to sit patiently as the sun lazily rose over the dewy prairie grass.
In the company of four other student volunteers, all from A&M universities, and the supervising biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they adopted a perch of their own, and waited for the chickens to wake up and be counted.
“The males tend to look for elevated grounds where they can be seen easily by the females,” she explained. “They have these bright orange pockets beneath their neck that inflate with air, and they strut and dance and make a noise to attract a mate and breed. It kinda makes them easy to find and count.”
The noise she says, is called ‘booming,’ and it’s like the sound that comes from blowing into the top of a soda bottle.
Retreating into the chair a bit further, she smiles as if she might be about ready to make a self-depricating observation.
“I know,” she admits, flashing a 100 watt smile as if somehow lit from within. “Nerd alert, right?”
Tara discovered her love for the sciences after enrolling in Temple College in 2012, and even now, six years later, she recites the names of the faculty, excitedly recounting how much they influenced her decision to chose a biology major.
“Dr. Jason Locklin is really brilliant,” she began. “But so is Dr. Sharon Hoffman. Dr. Paul Foutz. Dr. Terry Austin. All of them. They’re so passionate about their subject matter, but best of all, they teach.
“Like Dr. Foutz. He was one of the best math teachers I have ever had. He would literally run back and forth on his white board in the classroom to the point where he was getting a complete workout – teaching calculus!”
Three years after she began, Tara graduated Temple College a member of Phi Theta Kappa with a 3.7 GPA and was quickly accepted to two private universities and A&M-Central Texas.
“I chose A&M-Central Texas because of its affordability and the accessibility of the faculty,” she began.
“There’s an emphasis here on the value of undergraduate research.”
Anticipating enrollment in a university “capstone” course, Tara began to stretch herself intellectually, browsing through what she continued to learn, determined to find an internship that would allow her “hands on” experience relevant to the development of her undergraduate thesis.
Reaching out to Jennifer Graham, of the Temple College Foundation, Tara learned the value of networking, identifying and accepting an internship with USDA within the first 24 hours of her search.
Now employed with the Agricultural Research Service, she is on a path to a career, hoping to attend Texas A&M University in College Station, pursuing a graduate degree in soil science.
Her undergraduate thesis, a study of plant and soil ecology on the 672 acre A&M-Central Texas campus, as well as her preliminary data for a proposed graduate thesis on the microbiome of prairie crayfish mounds, will be presented at The Texas Academy of Science Conference in Midland this March.
“So much has happened that I could have never imagined,” she says, excitedly describing the value of detritus material as she curls her hand beneath her chin in an animated tizzy of scholarly reflection.
“But when I look back, it makes sense. I took geology courses at Temple College and made straight A’s. Then went to work at USDA, working with plants, and analyzing soil.
“Really, I’m just very grateful to be able to study something I love, and grateful to know that a career I love is within reach. The strong partnership between Temple College and A&M-Central Texas was invaluable to me and always will be.”