Monday, November 26, 2018

Travels near and far

This past spring, I traveled to Peru to spend five weeks working in the high elevation puna grasslands of the Andes Mountains. The puna grasslands are dominated by large tussocks of bunchgrass and also many short, mat-forming plants. The mat plants grow low to the ground, which is a strategy they have evolved to survive in the harsh climate conditions above 3,000 meters in elevation. 

Puna grasslands of Peru
Traveling to such a place was no easy journey. Every day we traversed incredibly narrow roads of nonstop twists and turns on the edge of steep cliffs. Our driver swerved to avoid small landslides and honked at every turn to warn oncoming traffic of our approach. It was the rainy season, and as the roads turned to mud, I dedicated all of my energy to watching the driver, convinced that my gaze would prevent us from sliding off the cliffs. During my weeks in Peru, I learned of landslides blocking roads and even tragically killing people. But I also learned to trust that the locals hosting us knew their land and were experienced at preventing any danger.

Once I stopped so closely monitoring the roads, I was filled with excitement to experience ecosystems filled with plants I had never seen before. Parts of the trip seem like a dream now. I walked through the orchid-filled cloud forest on my own listening to the birds. I stood on the highest peak I have ever been on, looking far into the mountain-filled distance. Without much distraction from my phone, the internet, or any other tasks, I worked constantly and calmly. I also worked alongside two other women who I got to know well and filled my time in Peru with laughter and companionship. Don’t get me wrong—the trip also involved a lot of trudging up mountains soaked in heavy rain gear, labeling hundreds of envelopes with information on leaves, and perhaps one too many potatoes. Nonetheless, this was the pinnacle of my grad school experience. It was my ultimate plant-filled adventure. But now, I feel, life is changing.

Plants cover every surface in the cloud forest
I left my hometown in Michigan nearly a decade ago, working a variety of jobs far away from my family. Each new place I traveled felt like another step into independence and adulthood. Moving from state to state multiple times per year felt like success. Throughout my adventures, I was contributing to many projects and helping to conserve the nature I love, yet I also had a very strong focus on growing and improving myself. I am fortunate to have had this time, but now desire different things out of life. I hope to be in a position where I can take what I have learned both in school and in life to support others in some way. I am eager to see where life will take me while staying in one place.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Stayin' alive

In early May, I traveled to Colorado again, driving the twisty roads and climbing hundreds of meters in elevation to check on my experiment. Eight months prior, a helper and I extracted 45 blocks of intact land from Rocky Mountain meadows. We carried and replanted the blocks in cooler temperatures up the mountain and warmer temperatures down the mountain with the goal to study how the plants respond to the changing conditions over the next few years. It was back-breaking work and I left Colorado in the autumn feeling accomplished but wary of the outcome of the experiment. Would the plants survive and regrow again the following spring? Or would our digging and transporting, the weather, and/or the fauna destroy them irreparably? Given that I hoped this experiment was the foundation of my graduate school research, risks were high.

Luckily after we finished the transplant work, I was so exhausted that not thinking about the experiment throughout the winter was a welcome break. I buried concerns about plant mortality deep in the recesses of my mind, ignoring reports that the life-giving snowfall in Colorado was at a near 50-year low.

When I returned in May, enough time had passed that I was ready to accept my fate, good or bad. I walked the familiar path to my lowest experimental site on the mountain. The ground was brown and hard under my feet, still compacted from the heavy snow that had just melted. Once I reached the first transplant, I kneeled on the ground and smiled at plants no taller than my fingertip sprouting from within. It was an encouraging sign.

Meadow rue (Thalictrum fendleri) making its spring debut
The summer ended up being rough for the plants as the dry trend from the winter continued. Yet the transplants mostly survived. I considered that the plants were likely striving to live with as much fervor as I wanted them to live.

The research station required us to cover the transplants with nets to prevent pollination from our experimental plants to the surrounding plants. As a result, our research sites became oddly charismatic tent cities. We crawled into the tents throughout the summer to count flowers and collect leaves. The familiar flow of the work was comforting and the banter and laughter with field techs was a joy. Trying to control everything in the field in order to conduct an experiment is futile, but we found the humor in our attempts. We felt giddy over tiny strawberries growing in our plots and took breaks to gasp at the continual beauty of the mountain-filled horizon.

Nets covering the transplants
Now it is autumn again and this second field season in the meadows is behind me. I successfully transformed the colorful flowers into sterile numbers on a spreadsheet. If I’m lucky, these numbers will eventually prove meaningful and help us decipher the secrets of nature. It is an exciting prospect, but seems to me a more onerous task than hauling 150 pound blocks of land around a mountain. Moving mountains took creativity and physical endurance and led to immediate results. Data analysis, on the other hand, takes a certain patience and trust in myself to figure it out, no matter how slow the progress seems against the ever forward current of life.

Monday, November 6, 2017


When I was in high school, I spent a lot of my time in a nature preserve in my hometown. It was a tiny pocket of land containing a forest, lake, and bog. I spent hours there, running on the loop trail lost in my thoughts. I felt awestruck by how fearless the deer were of my presence and sat on the dock of the lake reading books and dreaming of my future adult life. I continued visiting the preserve throughout college, but things began to change. The environmental classes I was taking opened my eyes to things I hadn’t noticed before.

Before college, walking down the trail, I admired beautiful, colorful flowers dotting the forest floor. But after, I noticed all of the non-native species, the creeping periwinkle taking the place of native plants.

Before, I enjoyed the shade of towering trees. But after, I noticed all the saplings on the edges of the forest overtaking the rare bog plant community.

Before, I enjoyed the solitude the woods provided. But after, I knew about landscape fragmentation and noticed houses barely hidden by the thin layer of trees.

Before, I meandered along the raised boardwalk looking down at the mushy ground of the bog and jokingly feared that if I stepped off, I’d sink and be lost forever. But after, looking down, I noticed all the unique carnivorous plants sliced to their bases by weed trimmers used to maintain the trail I enjoyed.

Before, I was in the woods. But after, I was in a fragile nature preserve.

Cypripedium acaule

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