Friday, September 29, 2017

Now we wait

Doing research in the field requires a peculiar personality. As scientists, we have to be scrupulous and detail-oriented. We must take careful measurements and work hard to control the environment of our experiments. But the catch is that we also have to be able to live with outcomes that are beyond our control and care. When nature messes with our experiments in unpredictable ways, we have to let the consequences roll off our backs. Sometimes this means your plans are out the window, other times it means you have to redo a lot of work. But as a field researcher, you must remain adaptable under these imperfect conditions.

In looking back at the process of starting my field experiment this summer, I see it as a series of stages: site selection, data collection, plant transplant. Each stage had its own challenges. There was no manual for how to get through each stage successfully, nor any certainty that the problems I faced in a particular stage would even have solutions.

I can honestly say that I felt like I was kicked down a lot this field season. I would sit on the ground for a time thinking the worst had come, but always managed to stand and find a solution. When we finished our final transplant in mid-September, I felt a wave of happiness and pride.

On the day before I left Colorado, I went out to my sites one last time to take photos. I noticed a strange hole in a section of land we had just transplanted and eventually pieced together that it was perfectly hoof-shaped. The cows had started grazing on our sites.

I didn’t understand the implications of this for my experiment until I returned to Colorado this week and saw that over a third of my transplants had been heavily trampled to the point that I am unsure if the plants will survive.

Cows stage anti-science protest at ecological research site in Colorado

After all of the effort it took to stand after each problem throughout the summer, the feeling of seeing my work literally trampled was horrible.

When I bring this up to others, I am told simply (and somewhat reassuringly) that this is how science and experimentation is. It is often messy and prone to mistakes since we are standing on the edge of what is currently known. It makes sense that trial and error are fundamental parts of the scientific process, but when I hear presentations or read publications, I don’t learn of these parts. Why?

Perhaps it is because failure isn’t rewarded in science. Even while standing over a cow trampled transplant, my first thought as a second year graduate student was: how will this impact my timeline and my ability to publish? Only after that thought did I realize that the trampling doesn’t diminish what I accomplished or learned this summer. If anything, it teaches me more about the realities of field research and how to do better science in the future (i.e., the point of grad school).

On my drive home from Colorado, I listened to a TED Talk podcast called “Failure is an Option.” Fitting, right? But the podcast reminded me that trial and error is not failure; trial and error is learning. Failure is continuing down a path you have learned is unsuccessful. And my trial and error has not yet led me to that conclusion.

So now, we wait. We wait until spring to see if the plants survive. My brain starts ticking forward with possible solutions, plans, and ideas if they don’t. But I quiet it and, for a little while, I’m happy to just pause and wait.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Update on transplant experiment

My field season at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado is coming to a close. It has been an intense four months of fieldwork in order to start my first graduate-level experiment.

As predicted, this season has been full of the problem solving that comes with starting a field experiment. Last I wrote in June, I was just beginning to learn to extract square sections of land (which we call turfs) in order to transplant them down a mountain to study the effects of climate change.

After determining that the land wouldn't completely fall apart when extracted, we searched high and low for better tools for the job. When asking understandably skeptical hardware store employees about tools, I liked to describe the project as digging holes without disturbing the holes! It took months of turf extraction trial and error, but eventually we bought or invented all of the tools, boards, lifting mechanisms, etc that we needed to successfully extract a turf.

Framing the turf to make sure we cut it to the right size

Another major part of the summer was determining which locations to transplant turfs to and from. I listed my ideal site criteria and then relearned the lesson that fieldwork is never perfect! But my search did lead me to a brand new site where no one else at the research station is working, so we were fortunate enough to be able to name it ourselves after the strikingly beautiful Frasera speciosa or Monument plant.
Our "Monument" site, named after the tall and striking Frasera speciosa

Now the aspens are turning yellow and I am happy to write that I have collected ample baseline data on all of the turfs and successfully transplanted 30 (so far)! See the video below for a timelapse of the turf extraction and transplant process.

Turf successfully extracted and ready to be carried to its new home!
Carrying the very heavy turfs requires special equipment!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Attempting to move mountains

I am back in Colorado for another summer of fieldwork at the beautiful Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory. This summer, I am excited to start an experiment of my own.

The climate is changing in the Rocky Mountains where I am working. Increasingly warmer temperatures are lowering the amount of winter snowpack and advancing the timing of spring snow melt. The ability to predict how plant communities respond to a changing climate is increasingly a central challenge and focus in biodiversity and ecological science. In order to recreate the conditions of a warmer, drier climate, I will be moving whole sections of plant communities down an elevation gradient (ok, not quite moving mountains...). I will then measure a variety of plant and community characteristics to assess changes to plant community composition and functioning.

One of the most immediate and potentially experiment-ending challenges will be to uproot intact sections of land and transplant them successfully to new locations. I have accepted that this is a risky project and I am trying to anticipate problems in order to minimize the risk. I have been practicing digging up sections of land with different soil types and plant species using a variety of tools and techniques. Though I have found variable success, I am hopeful that with more practice and strategy, this process will go smoothly. Pending that success, I will then have to wait a year to see if the transplanted plants survive and grow next summer.

Scientific publications often highlight stories of success: a ground-breaking experiment, observation, or theory. It is important to keep in mind, however, that prior to publication there was likely a lot of trial and error, learning and revising. Science is problem solving and I have a feeling that this is what my summer will be all about. Regardless of the success of the experiment, I am certain that by the end of the summer, I will have gained a greater understanding of what it is like to do field-based research. And likely some very muscular arms!

Our first attempt ended in a crumbled mess!

Attempt 2: Not bad, but too destructive to the surrounding plants.
Attempt 3: Our best yet. Time to move on to new types of plants!
Attempt 4: Struggling to remove a forb-dominated turf.
Attempt 5: Successfully removing a turf with bare ground. We're getting there!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

A Sonoran Desert respite

I am approaching my eighth week of graduate school. It has been an adjustment to get back into school mode after so many years of working, but overall I am enjoying it. Before I started, I heard graduate school was hard, stressful, and busy. I didn’t know how I would feel or handle it and I am still trying to figure that out. Every day, I am encountering new hurdles, both in the classroom and in my mind. I am working hard, but the material is also hard. Learning is not as straightforward as it was as an undergraduate, and I have to accept that some topics may take years to fully understand. As a result, it takes a conscious effort to appreciate the progress I’ve made.

I have received many valuable pieces of advice about graduate school, including that is important to take breaks and trust that you will complete the work the next day. Yesterday I finally left my computer and hiked for the first time since moving to the Sonoran Desert. Hiking helps me keep focus on my passions and goals. It reminds me of the amazing natural places my career has taken me, and gives me hope about the places I will go in the future.

Maybe the western fence lizard (Sceloporus occidentalis)? I am no herpetologist!
Quickly into my hike, the clouds moved in, casting the saguaros blue and amplifying the incredible desert smells. I laughed at the desert's fall splendor! The yellow ocotillo leaves are the only fall colors I suspect I will see this year, but I am not complaining!

The rain brought out many desert animals. I spotted many types of lizards, a friendly garter snake, and some hungry antelope jackrabbits foraging together.

The desert's version of fall colors in the yellow leaves of ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Large antelope jackrabbits searching for a bite to eat (Lepus alleni)
I was lucky enough to even see a western diamondback rattlesnake on my hike. Two nice people warned me of its presence by the trail, so I encountered it under the best possible circumstances. I stayed far away, but managed to get the blurry photo below. If I got within six foot of it, it would give me a short warning rattle. It was pretty awesome and the highlight of a fantastic hike!

Western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox)
Arizona barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii)

Mammillaria sp. with red fruit

Friday, August 26, 2016

Studying plant traits in China

I recently had the incredible opportunity to travel to China and study plants at the Alpine Ecosystem Observation and Experiment Station of Mt. Gongga. I was studying with a group of amazing students from around the world, including China, Norway, Chile, France, South Africa, and the US. Our goals were to 1) learn about the importance and practice of studying plant traits, 2) measure the traits of leaves along an elevational gradient in order to answer our own research questions, and 3) collaborate with fellow plant lovers.

Alpine Ecosystem Observation and Experiment Station of Mt. Gongga
Scientists have sought answers to many plant ecology questions through the identification and counting of different plant species in an area (i.e., species richness). While this gives us some information about the plant community, there is a wealth of additional information to be gained by studying the traits of the species.

Gentiana trichotoma
Anaphalis nepalensis

Traits are measurable characteristics of a plant (e.g., plant size, flower size, leaf area, photosynthetic rate, tissue isotopes). By examining plant traits, we can better understand the ecological strategies plants are using to improve their fitness. For example, if a plant is in a stressful environment, like a desert, it may have a small leaf area and be favoring resource conservation. A plant growing in a less stressful environment, like a jungle, may have a larger leaf area and be favoring resource acquisition.

Plant trait data also allow us to better predict how plants interact with the environment. For example, the variance of plant traits in different climate conditions can lead to better predictions of how communities will respond to climate change. Some species may go extinct, while others may alter their traits to adapt to new conditions.

Another benefit of studying plant traits is that it enables us to more easily compare taxonomically diverse ecosystems. Around the world, scientists are measuring plant traits and developing valuable datasets.

In China, we contributed to the trait dataset by carefully collecting, labeling, weighing, scanning (for leaf area), and measuring the thickness of nearly 4,000 leaves! We collected leaves at sites ranging from 3,000 to 4,100 meters in elevation and in experimental treatments plots. The sites were incredibly beautiful with foggy mountains, wispy fir trees, and trickling streams. At the highest alpine site, the green was broken by vibrant blue Gentiana trichotoma and colorful Tibetan flags.

It was such a joy to have this experience, and I am so grateful to have learned some of the fascinating plants of China and met some truly incredible scientists.

Fog surrounding the distant mountains at our highest alpine site (4,100m)
Polygonum runcinatum
Codonopsis nervosa
Rhododendron sp.
Fragaria nilgherrensis growing alongside the famous red rocks