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

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Winding road

I recorded this video yesterday while heading to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory on Road 317. I drove this road for the first time two months ago when the snow had just melted. Many times since then I have cruised under the shady aspen stands, turned the corners to face towering, red mountains, crossed the bridge over the river, and arrived at the tiny mining town turned science haven that is Gothic. Although I have only lived here for two short months, I suspect that even after 20 years it would be impossible to overlook the beauty of these everyday views.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Spotting plants on Gothic Mountain

This weekend, I went on an incredible hike with some awesome fellow RMBL people to the summit of Gothic Mountain (~12,600ft). It was one of the hardest hikes I have done due to the steep climb and descent, but we all made it to the top!

Hiking up the 403 trail
Nearly to the peak of Gothic Mountain

View of RMBL from the peak

The lack of oxygen was an excuse (though I doubt I needed one) to stop and photograph some different plant species. Some genera of plants that were long past seeding down lower were still flowering at these elevations (e.g. Ribes montigenum, Phlox condensata, Penstemon whippleanus, Eriogonum umbellatum). 

The result of spending so much time outdoors in a diverse, new place is that my eyes are trained for spotting plants I have never seen before. Such was the case with the small white flower, Saxifraga bronchialis. From a distance, it didn’t look too unique, but the fact that it was growing on a rocky outcrop peaked my interest. I walked a little closer and was pleasantly surprised. The Spotted Saxifrage had minute yellow, orange, and red polka dots on the tiny, white petals. When I finally stopped photographing it and caught up with my fellow hikers, I showed them the photos on my camera. As fellow nature lovers, they were pretty excited about the flower too, and I pointed it out when we passed it again. It was fun to hike and identify plants with everyone, hear others identify birds (because I am clueless in that department), and enjoy the mountains and meadows.

Look closer!
Saxifraga bronchialis

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Stronger together

We all desire for women to play a bigger role in leadership and science. It would be a huge loss to miss out on the insight, intelligence, drive, and skills of half the human race. Yet, so far in my career, the majority of sexism and workplace aggression I’ve felt has come from other women. I’ve experienced this from women who work alongside me and women who are in positions of authority greater than mine. This still surprises me, and I'm not sure what to do about it.

Let me be clear—I respect and admire assertive women and aspire to become more assertive myself. Badass women scientists are amazing. But being assertive and being abusive are different. The fact that women are often biased against their own gender in the workplace is something that should be talked about.

After such an experience occurs a few times, whether it be subtle or blatant, I start to accept that it’s not all in my head. I then tend to delve into both their and my psychology to figure out a solution. Am I being too sensitive? What would motivate that disrespectful response? Stress? Insecurity? Competitiveness? Why would she treat me differently than him? What can I do to change? Should I change? How should I respond next time? Very rarely have I gotten anywhere far with this.

In giving job interviews to numerous recent college graduates looking to start in the conservation field, I asked them that same question, “How would you handle a conflict in the workplace?” I only ever heard two responses: 1) Who me?! I would never have a conflict in the workplace! Or 2) Communication is so important. I always agree with the communication answer in my upbeat interviewer voice, “Yes, that’s huge.” But in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about times when open communication hasn’t gotten me anywhere. It takes two! And if two aren’t willing to be honest and talk, then what? Sometimes despite your best efforts, all you can do is refocus on your own actions and why you’re there—to complete your job.

When I feel insecure and threatened by another woman (or man) in my career (and it happens), I remind myself that she and I have unique skills and will make unique contributions. I remind myself that there is room for everyone. I remind myself that we are stronger together. In starting graduate school, I hope that I can find like-minded women to work with, learn from, and be inspired by. We’re all here to grow, contribute, and enjoy life. Let’s do it together.