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.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Just another day in the field...

Today we measured carbon flux in a subalpine meadow at 11,000 feet elevation. There were dense, tall patches of Veratrum tenuipetalum and Corydalis caseana. The view was spectacular!

Preparing for carbon flux measurements over a patch of Veratrum tenuipetalum

View of breathtaking Washington Gulch

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Pollinators and the Colorado state flower

The Colorado state flower, Aquilegia caerulea (Rocky Mountain columbine), is now in bloom around Gothic! I was waiting for this beauty to appear since I arrived in Colorado, and I am not disappointed!

Columbines are quite distinct in appearance due to long, tubular nectar spurs on the back of the flower. The nectar is located at the bottom of the spur, therefore, the longer the spur, the more the pollinator has to reach for its treat. This increases the chance that the pollinator will come in contact with pollen, triggering reproduction.

Pollinators have big effects on the floral traits of columbines. Over the years, in different parts of the columbine’s habitat, there have been shifts in pollinators from bees to hummingbirds to hawkmoths (i.e., shorter to longer tongues). These shifts caused the columbines to evolve nectar spurs to match increasing tongue lengths. Pollinators with shorter tongues will avoid flowers where they cannot obtain a sweet treat, so where tongues are long, evolution tends to favor long nectar spurs (Whittall and Hodges, 2007).

Pollinators can affect other plant traits as well. Hawkmoths actually prefer whiter A. caerulea flowers, whereas bees seem to prefer bluer flowers. As a result, when bees are more common than hawkmoths, blue flowers will set more seeds (Fulton and Hodges, 1999; Miller, 1981). Also, whiter flowers tend to have longer nectar spurs, perhaps because the hawkmoths that prefer them have longer tongues (Brunet, 2009).

Interesting to think about nectar spurs as I pass a garden of columbines in Crested Butte on my way to get my own sweet treat at Third Bowl Ice Cream!
Aquilegia caerulea, Colorado's state flower. Check out those nectar spurs!

A lovely garden featuring Aquilegia caerulea along Elk Ave in Crested Butte
Brunet, Johanne. 2009. Pollinators of the Rocky Mountain Columbine : Temporal Variation , Functional Groups and Associations with Floral Traits. Annals of Botany (2004): 1567–78.

Fulton M, and Scott A Hodges. 1999. Floral isolation between Aquilegia formosa and Aquilegia pubescens. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (Series B 266): 2247–2252.

Miller, RB. 1981. Hawkmoths and the geographic patterns of floral variation in Aquilegia coerulea. Evolution (35): 763–774.

Whittall, Justen B, and Scott A Hodges. 2007. Pollinator Shifts Drive Increasingly Long Nectar Spurs in Columbine Flowers. Nature 447 (June): 706–10.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Collecting data in the field

I enjoy knowing about the environment as I hike through a landscape, and I have spent a good part of my life collecting data on plants. I have measured the cover of plants by randomly dropping a pin flag hundreds of times a day and recording which species, if any, it touched. I have counted the number of different species in a given area, measured their heights, inspected them for signs of disease, dissected them under a microscope, and waited patiently on my hands and knees for the wind to calm down before I snapped photos of their petals. While collecting data, I began wondering why plant communities are the way they are. I decided to attend graduate school to learn more about how data can be used to discover the roles plants play in ecosystems.

I came to the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) to get a running start into grad school by helping to measure carbon flux along an elevational gradient. Measuring carbon flux is quite different than any of my data collection efforts in the past as it involves using equipment that greatly exceeds the technology of a pin flag! In the field, we seal a large, cube-shaped tent tightly to the ground over a patch of plants to create a closed system. We then turn on a Li-Cor gas analyzer to measure the decrease of carbon dioxide inside the tent as photosynthesis is occurring.

Since 2003, carbon flux measurements (both photosynthesis and respiration) have been recorded annually at sites ranging in elevation. Data has also been collected on the plant species composition, plant traits, and weather. All of the data can be combined and used to help predict ecosystem responses to climate change.

Understanding the connections between species, populations, communities, and the biosphere (i.e., ecology) is challenging. The fact that the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is increasing at an unprecedented rate makes understanding and predicting these connections even more challenging. It is exciting to be in a new place, learning new plants, and gaining new data collection skills. I look forward to using this data to hopefully make an impact on our knowledge of this planet.

Students measure photosynthesis at one of our research sites in Almont, Colorado. We place this cube-shaped tent over five predetermined plot locations at the site, seal it to the ground by placing a heavy chain at the bottom, and use a Li-Cor (pictured below) to measure the changes in carbon dioxide within the tent.
We mount the Li-Cor gas analyzer on a tripod and place it under the tent to measure
the flux of carbon dioxide. The fans ensure proper air circulation in the tent.