Wednesday, June 30, 2010
Hello everyone, my name is Samuel Perez and I am working on microbial communities at Harvard Forest with Professor Anne Pringle from Harvard University. I am a rising senior majoring in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology.
This summer, I am working with decomposer fungi in the Chronic Nitrogen Plots and the Soil Warming Plots in Barre Woods. My project at the Harvard Forest is to study the effects of nitrogen deposition and soil warming on the species diversity of decomposer fungi.
The process of decomposition is important because it allows nutrients sequestered in living organisms to return to the soil to be used by other organisms in building their physical structures and powering up chemical processes. If everything living continued building matter without breaking things down, the Earth would run out of basic nutrients required for building new things. Part of the microbial community provides the essential ecological benefit of breaking down dead organic matter to feed themselves, and in doing this, they release nutrients back into the soil to be used in other terrestrial processes. Microbial communities that are involved in the process of decomposition include bacteria, protists and fungi, and my particular interests lie with the last of these.
Harvard Forest provides many great opportunities for studying global change, and in the umbrella of global change, factors like global warming, nitrogen deposition, soil warming and other large-scale changes will be important in predicting the future of Earth's ecosystems. These large scale changes have been implicated in potential decreases in species diversity across many different types of organisms, and the Pringle lab want to see if species diversity in the decomposer community could decrease as a result of global change.
Decomposer fungi provide a good system for studying global change because unlike most microbial communities, they produce readily-visible fruitbodies, which is a clear advantage in biodiversity studies. This summer, I have been collecting all the fungal fruiting bodies I can find and culturing them at the Torrey Lab's microbial facilities. Later in the summer we will do a species identification for them. We will record the species diversity of plots with nitrogen deposition (control, low nitrogen deposition, high nitrogen deposition) and with soil warming (control, +5 C above ambient temperature).
We predict that we will see fewer species of decomposer fungi in plots with excess nitrogen in the soil and with warmer soils, but the negative effects will be disproportionate, with some groups able to adapt to their environments while others will be unable to grow in the manipulated conditions or be at a disadvantage.
The project will form part of my senior thesis and will be used by the Pringle Lab and the Frey Lab at the University of New Hampshire in their long-term studies of microbial communities in the soil.
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
Outreach and Communications Intern
On Thursday, I noticed that we were running low on our cache of blog posts. Based on this observation, I concluded that it was once again time for me to bust out my camera and go adventuring. And by "adventuring," I mean "cow visiting."
Upon exiting the office I share with Aleta (an REU proctor) and venturing into the hallway, I was confronted by a curious sight.
After a short walk up the hill, a glance to the left showed me that my grief was unwarranted.
Monday, June 28, 2010
REU '05Mentor: Jacque Mohan
Project: Physiological Girdling of Forest Trees: Developments of a New Method to Understand Soil Respiration
Hometown: Eastchester, NY
College and major: Cornell University, Natural Resources & Environmental Engineering Technology (double major)
What you miss most about the REU program:The people and friends met there and the good times we had after our work days were complete.
What you miss least about the REU program:
The mosquitoes and humidity.
What about the REU program has stuck with you:
My appreciation for the dedication and efforts that ecologists devote to their research and the sciences that support it, despite the long hours, backwards politics, and modest pay.
Have you stayed in touch with other REU students?
|Yes. I still catch up with Jens Stevens fairly regularly and have recently been reacquainted with Katherine Lenoir.|
Did your REU experience support or change your school/career plans?
Definitely. I actually learned that I did not want to pursue pure research as a career. I admire those who do but realized that I didn't have the intrinsic motivation for the meticulous field work and effort necessary to do research full time. It was an invaluable experience. I've never enjoyed something that I didn't want to do so much.
What are you up to now?
After working for three years as an environmental consultant I quit my job and am now attending the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi, UAE studying for a masters degree in Engineering Systems and Management with a focus on renewable energy, sustainability, and biofuel life cycle assessments. I anticipate graduating in May 2011 and getting a job in sustainability consulting or another related field.
(Brian maintains a blog about his life in Abu Dhabi. Check it out!)
Want to see more alumni profiles? Check out our Harvard Forest REU alumni blog.
Friday, June 25, 2010
Last Tuesday, all of the summer REU students participated in Ethics Day, an annual event held at Harvard Forest to help the students consider some of the ethical dilemmas they may face while conducting ecological research. The program started with a presentation by Ben Minteer, a professor of environmental ethics at Arizona State University. He began by posing a “thought experiment” to the group: If only one human being remained on the Earth, and humans would be extinct after his/her death, and for whatever reason, it would make this person really happy to wipe out other species to extinction, would s/he be acting unethically in doing so? As the students raised points regarding empathy, motivation, and consequences, they came to the realization that these types of decisions are very difficult to make.
To help focus the students’ thinking about environmental ethics, the program divided into four breakout groups, each focused on a different set of ethical questions. In these smaller groups, students considered issues such as:
- When is it justified for scientists to harm individual organisms in order to gain knowledge that could help or save the whole species, and how can scientists work with other stakeholders, such as animal welfare groups, to avoid costly legal battles?
- What criteria should be used to determine which animal subjects need to be approved by a research board (currently, only projects that harm animals “with a backbone” are required), but what about cephalopods, like octopi, or spiders, butterflies, or ants? Why don’t experiments that harm plants require approval?
- At what point should ecological research, particularly research about climate change, be required to document or restrict its own carbon footprint?
- What are the ethical considerations for experiments on invasive species? What might justify an experimental introduction of a non-native species?
After lunch, each breakout group presented its questions and a summary of their discussion. Many issues were discussed across groups, such as the criteria for determining “best practices” in research and how to avoid standstills in important research while battling through ethical conflicts.
After the program, many students felt like the discussions had helped them be more aware of their own impacts on the environment while doing their research projects at the Forest. Even students who are doing mostly computer-based projects (using GIS, making models, distributing surveys, etc.) recognized that their projects are using energy and increasing their personal carbon footprints. Students realized that, even though some projects have greater ethical considerations than others, it is important for everyone to be involved in these discussions and decisions since they can affect the whole field of ecology and the scientific community."What was most interesting [about Ethics Day] was that even people who care about the environment care about completely different aspects of the environment, and often from completely different perspectives. Someone with a biocentric view may be in conflict with someone with an ecocentric view. It was interesting to see how difficult it is to figure out rules for minimizing pain to animals, and the reasons for including cephalopods (octopuses and squid) in this category [of animals for which permission must be obtained before conducting research] that formerly only had vertebrates." - Sarah Fouzia Choudhury
Thursday, June 24, 2010
The overall goal of this project is to understand the effects of tree care practices on habitat for cavity nesting birds, primarily woodpeckers. Most cavity nesting birds seek out dead snags for creating a nest. As cavity excavators, these birds provide habitat elements for a suite of species and are therefore important for biodiversity.
While the dead snags that are important for these cavity-nesting birds may go unnoticed in a preserved area, they can be hazardous in towns and cities. By assessing the prevalence of cavity nesting birds in snags throughout an urban to wild land gradient, we can begin to understand the importance of snag maintenance.
Our summer’s work is focused on monitoring nests found along an urban to wild land gradient to find out the activity of these nests. We are exploring this gradient with trips to the Quabbin Reservoir, Belchertown, and the Norwottuck Bicycle Path in Hadley. Our main study subjects include Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Downy Woodpecker. Each day we set out to locate the nest trees, set up the scope on the cavity, and monitor for any activity at the nest for thirty-minute observation periods. During these observation periods, we record the adult birds' visits to the nest, which allows us to determine the stage of the nest. At this point in the summer, many of our nests have reached the fledging stage (when the babies leave the nest), and therefore we will be completing the monitoring soon. We then will begin the second phase of our project, which includes vegetation surveying, as well as working more heavily on our individual projects.
The first of our individual project’s overall goal is to assess the relationship between various levels of urban development on arthropod density and snag abundance for the three main study subjects—Red-bellied Woodpecker, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Downy Woodpecker. The supporting objectives for this goal are: 1. Quantify arthropod abundance and feeding substrate throughout the summer season at replicated plots in wildland, suburban, and large (growing) town habitats; 2. Compare habitat quality for potential woodpecker use in known woodpecker nesting plots versus adjacent random plots for the three urbanization treatments; 3. Combine the data collected from this portion of our larger study to create possible management recommendations for snag maintenance.
Our other independent project will focus on noise pollution along the urban to rural gradient. Even preserved areas, such as the Quabbin Reservoir, suffer from noise pollution via low flying planes. With a temporal analysis of ambient noise at several plots, we hope to learn more about how urbanization may be impacting the acoustics of each location. Using a sound level meter and prerecorded woodpecker calls, we will be testing for the amplitudes of various noise pollutants (cars, trains, etc.), and for sound propagation in each environment.
Wednesday, June 23, 2010
Last weekend, I attended a summer solstice party with some of my friends. Christina Stinson, a researcher at Harvard Forest, was the host of the event and is the mentor of my friend. The party was quiet, but nice. With plenty of good food to eat and good company to share, it made for an eventful afternoon. We played games and relaxed on what was a beautifully sunny day.
On Sunday, a group of students went hiking in the Blue Hills right outside of Boston. It was very muggy that day, and eventually led to thunderstorms that rained down on us halfway through the hike. It felt good though, because the humidity was keeping us all nice and sweaty. The best part of the hike, however, was when we went to the bog near the blue hills. The bog hike was awesome. We took off our shoes, because at points the boards sank into the bog, getting us wet up to our calves. A group of us went swimming when we reached the lake. Even though the lake was really dirty, it felt refreshing. The bog was really cool; it had carnivorous plants, such as pitcher plants.
After the hike, a few of us went for sushi in Canton, MA, to refill our empty overworked stomachs. Opting not to eat the fried desserts at the sushi restaurant, we set off for a new venue. After talking to some of the town’s residents, we discovered the place to get ice cream. As we drove up and saw 30 cars in the parking lot, we knew immediately we were in for a treat. The Dairy Bar made homemade ice cream, and they even had the dairy cows nearby that we watched while eating the ice cream. Overall, it was a good day!
Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Mentor: Steve Wofsy
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
Major/Minor: Biological Sciences/ Environmental Studies, '08
What you miss most about the REU program:
The setting and atmosphere was so nice for focusing on science and making great friends. I loved going for evening runs in the woods and taking weekend hikes and trips with other REUs.
What you miss least about the REU program:
What about the REU program has stuck with you:
The project I worked on has guided my subsequent career moves, so I guess C and N dynamics and climate implications stuck.
Have you stayed in touch with other REU students?
Yup! I'm engaged to fellow HF REU alum, Alex Ireland, and have stayed good friends with Megan Woltz and kept in touch with a few others.
What you're up to now:I'm currently the Research Manager at the Rodale Institute, an organic agriculture nonprofit and exploring options for graduate school.
Want to see more alumni profiles? Check out our Harvard Forest REU alumni blog.
Monday, June 21, 2010
The second half of our project involves a lot less addressing of envelopes and sticking on stamps, and a lot more GIS. We'll be working on this second part at the same time as we process the returning surveys: ideally a fun and productive sort of schizophrenia. For this second part, we'll be using property records to trace the property history, over the past 50 years or so, of random points in 8-10 central Massachusetts towns. We'll be looking for trends such as increasing parcelization, rates of ownership change, and so on.
Which all goes to show that you can take the researchers out of the field and stick them in an office in front of a computer, but you can't take the awesome out of the research.
However, perhaps the word awesome works along a continuum, and there are thus different levels of awesome. The days that we hand-address one thousand envelopes tend to be on the less-awesome side of the scale. Fortunately, we've discovered This American Life Podcasts, so while our hands are developing through the early stages of carpal tunnel, our minds are still expanding. Huzzah!
Friday, June 18, 2010
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Hi, my name is Allison and I am working on Paleoecology with Wyatt Oswald.
About 5,000 years ago, all the Oaks and Hemlocks disappeared from New England, rapidly changing our ecosystem. Today, all the Oaks are dying on Martha's Vineyard in a similar fashion. Before our current ecosystem is radically altered, we would like to figure out what is causing this phenomenon. In order to do this, we travel to ponds across New England collecting sediment cores.
The cores can be viewed like a timeline (the deeper the core the farther back in time). We then use the mud from the cores to determine organic content and pollen grains from species that existed at different points in time. Currently, we are still collecting data to determine what caused the Oak and Hemlock die-off. We are leaning towards climate change, but don't have an official answer yet.
So far this summer, we traveled to Martha's Vineyard to collect two sediment cores to analyze in the lab. My job for the project besides day-to-day lab work is to shoot a documentary on the subject that will better convey the knowledge collected to the general public. Although the beginning of the summer was primarily spent collecting cores and learning how to do lab work, the rest of my summer will mainly be spent in the lab. I spend my time cutting up meter-long sediment cores into centimeter sections. I then proceed to take samples of these sections and place them in crucibles. The crucibles are weighed and baked (first at 95 degrees C and then at 550 degrees C) to determine organic content. When I am not completing those tasks, I am either capturing or editing footage for the documentary.
So far I have learned a lot. Firstly, I have learned that mud can be interesting! I am excited to make the documentary because I think we can really turn this into something people will want to get involved in. I have also learned how to turn everyday items into lab materials (like beard trimmers and spatulas). Overall though, I have learned that science is hard work and an extremely long process.
I know my work will take most of the summer and may not even produce concrete results. However, looking at the big picture I know all of my work is important and that is what keeps me going on a day-to-day basis.
For the rest of the summer my project will just consist of repeating the lab steps for all the sediment cores at both Martha's Vineyard ponds. I will also have a rough cut of the documentary done by symposium to show everyone. Maybe we will even be able to make a direct connection between the Oak die-off and global warming!
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
Last Friday, the whole REU program spent the day on a behind-the-scenes tour at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Split into two groups, the students visited five departments: Herpetology (reptiles and amphibians), Ornithology (birds), the Botany libraries and the Herbaria (plants), and Entomology (insects). Curators in each department spoke with the students about their methods for collecting specimens, the importance of preserving natural history collections for scientific research, and the different ways that they preserve and protect the specimens from damage and decay. The curators showed them where and how the specimens are stored and told some interesting stories! At the end of the day, many students took advantage of being in Cambridge on a beautiful sunny evening and enjoyed eating dinner out, followed by trips to the favorite local ice cream shop.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
My name is Roxanne Ardeshiri, I'm an undergraduate at the University of California-Berkeley, and I'm studying the community ecology of Sarracenia pupurea Pitcher Plants with Benjamin Baiser at the Harvard Forest. Because Pitcher Plants are essentially microecosystems, we are studying their community ecology to ultimately create model food webs for these systems.We will be measuring decomposition of prey (an ant) as a means of measuring the functionality of the system. This experiment will be conducted in the greenhouse, but all of the species we are using will have been collected from pitcher plants in the field. We are currently in the process of collecting, identifying, and culturing bacteria and protists, as well as rearing rotifers and invertebrates.
Once this is done, we will have treatments with high, medium and low species richness. Within the high and medium species richness treatments, we will also have treatments with varying functional diversity. We are measuring species richness and functional diversity in order to differentiate between redundant players and key players within the food web. Our goal is to have our experiment up and running by July 1st.
On a daily basis, I typically find myself looking under the microscope isolating and identifying different protists and invertebrates. It was really difficult and tedious at first, but now by the end of week 3, it's been rewarding to see my improving skills, and know that most of our cultures are still alive! PHEW!
So even though identifying protists is slightly TRAUMATIZING, my favorite part of our work is obviously going out into the field to collect our species! For our first day in the field we collected via canoeing in the Harvard Pond, which makes me feel like I'm living the life of Pocahontas! For our second day in the field we collected off of the docks in the Tom Swamp Bog. These docks are treacherously only a few inches wide, and sometimes feet apart! So I ended up falling into the bog but it was AWESOME because it was not only hilarious, but I was thankful to have been wearing my convertible pants for a reason, and the bog water ended up keeping my feet warm for the rest of the day.
By spending so much time sorting through all of our samples, I've most definitely learned a lot about the different species that live within the pitcher plant community. It's allowed me to gain an interest in Pitcher Plant community assembly, and now I'm considering doing a side project that will involve observing how these Pitcher Plant communities assemble themselves in the field.
I was doing some brainstorming, and thought of a question: Is it mainly the trough-shaped characteristic of Pitcher Plants that allow for these communities to assemble themselves in the way that they do, or are other aspects of the Pitcher Plant's physiology key for assembling these specific communities? To address this question, I'm thinking about having approximately 10 different field sites, of which each will have a Pitcher and a "Fitcher" (a Fake Pitcher!). I will assess what communities have assembled in each of these Pitchers and Fitchers over a 30-day period.
It's a simple experiment, with a naturalist's approach, but I'm hoping to take these observations, and develop a field study for biodiversity conservation for my senior thesis at Berkeley in the fall. I plan on using the California native Pitcher Plant, Darlingtonia californica. I'm curious to see what's inside of those guys!
Monday, June 14, 2010
The Warm Ants project consists of many mini projects taking place within the chambers. One of these projects is a 24-hour baiting, which means that we must observe which ants are attracted to tuna baits set out in the different temperature chambers for all hours of the day, on the hour. Two of us – Margaurete and Adam – took the night shift from 10pm to 6am, and encountered an unexpected visitor. While waiting near the shed to continue the data collecting, a large insect flew right into us, startling the stillness of the night. As it landed, we were so surprised to see a large Luna moth flying towards the light of the shed. Disoriented, the Luna moth stayed in our hands until the rare beauty joined the other insects attracted to the light by the shed. Later on, a second Luna moth joined it, and we were able to enjoy the moths through most of the night. It was a great experience to be able to see and interact with the two beautiful moths in the forests, and a first experience for both of us!
Friday, June 11, 2010
REU Summer Proctor
Yesterday, I tagged along with three students working on a collaborative project who were out, collecting data in the field, for the first time this summer without their research mentors. It is amazing how much they all have learned in less than two weeks here at Harvard Forest! For their project, they are studying changes in soil respiration under varying scenarios. Yesterday, they were working in the “dirt plots” – a series of 21 plots (each about 10 x 10 ft) in the Tom Swamp Tract of the Forest. The plots had been subjected to different treatments; for example, some had all of the detritus (dead, organic matter, such as leaves and branches) removed while others did not.
In addition to measuring soil temperature and moisture in each plot, Maya, Joanna, and Claudia are using a Portable Photosynthesis System (“the heavy machine”, as it is informally named) to record the soil respiration, or the rate that CO2 is released from the soil. Based on papers they have read in the last two weeks, they have learned that plots with detritus usually have higher rates of soil respiration since the detritus is actively decomposing.
Using GIS, these students already have determined 58 different combinations of soil type and tree stand in the Prospect Hill Tract at the Forest. Next week, they will be measuring soil respiration in each of these sites in order to learn more about how these different factors affect soil respiration. They are also learning how these questions relate to larger issues, such as climate change – both how global warming might affect soil respiration under warming conditions and also how soil might help mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration (holding CO2 in the soil without releasing it into the atmosphere).
After taking numerous biology, natural resource management, and ecology courses, these girls were finally seeing ecological processes happening right before their eyes. As Joanna said, “That’s what’s so great about using this machine out in the field and not just reading a paper with piles of data – I’m actually starting to understand what these numbers actually mean”.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
In their third week, the Warm Ants Triumvirate has dived into both the long term “Warm Ants” project and individual projects with a burning desire to elucidate the effects of climate change on ants. Each member is responsible for helping with the long term “Warm Ants” experiment which involves a monthly 24 hour baiting study and monthly pitfall trapping. In addition, each is responsible for his or her individual project involving ant nests, mutualism, and thermal tolerance.
Daily tasks have varied from spending time in the lab identifying ants, sorting pitfall collections from previous months, and collecting ants in the field.
Margaurete’s work on mutualism between ants and other insects is just getting started. From collecting butterflies in the field to clipping cottonwoods for scale insects, each project has its own challenges and rewards. As for her individual project, Margaurete says, “I hope to see how the temperature change will affect the stress on plants and in turn the relationship of the scale insects and the ants. This project is still new, so I’m working on creating a good design. Overall, I’m excited to see where the project will lead this summer!”
Adam is studying the communities of ant species that live in the test plots in the
Erik has discovered the maximum temperature tolerance for five of the most common ant species in the Harvard Forest. He hopes to test many more species throughout the summer. “I believe my work will demonstrate the differing heat tolerances for ant species and sizes of ants. This will help us understand how certain ant species might respond if temperatures increase.”
Fun fact: The Warm Ants Triumvirate favors the Lady Gaga radio and Eurotrash radio stations on Pandora during epic microscope sessions in the Torrey Lab.