Research update: April 2016

Data have been recorded from the temperature probes. They've been cleaned and are waiting to be reburied once again. They'll keep recording data until next fall.

Data have been recorded from the temperature probes. They’ve been cleaned and are waiting to be reburied once again. They’ll keep recording data until next fall.

In April, I started to transition some of my work outdoors once again. Not much yet, but I’ve been to 3 of my sites so far to recover data from the temperature probes that have been buried all winter long. From the data I can see so far, I can tell you that it was a pretty cold winter on the green roofs! I’m glad I wasn’t a rooftop plant all winter long. Next month I’ll get the temperature data from the rest of my sites. Then I’ll try and figure out how to interpret over 10,000 data points representing the temperature readings taken every 3 hours for almost 2 years now. It’s a little overwhelming but I hope I’ll be able to tell an interesting story about how different green roof plants help insulate buildings.

The lab got a new fancy machine that shakes up plant tissue so fast that the test tubes just appear as a blur. It kind of looks like some alien pod to me but it does its job beautifully!

The lab got a new fancy machine that shakes up plant tissue so fast that the test tubes just appear as a blur. It kind of looks like some alien pod to me but it does its job beautifully!

 

 

So that was it for the outdoor work. Back in the lab, things have been humming along. I just finished extracting the DNA from the second round of 2015 seedlings that I germinated over the winter. I’m almost finished with the DNA copying step for my 2014 seedlings (47/50 reactions – so close!). And I’m working away on genotyping the 2014 seedlings. The genotyping will tell me which types of genes my seedlings have for nine different sections of their DNA. When I’m finished, I’ll be able to match up the seedlings’ genotypes with their mothers’ genotypes. If it’s a perfect match, then I’ll know that the seedling was made by a process called “selfing” where a plant pollinates itself and is basically both mother and father. If the genotypes are not a perfect match, then I know the pollen for the seedling came from another plant. Then the search will begin to identify which plant is the pollen donor, or father. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Hopefully, I’ll be doing all those “paternity tests” by the summer, but with the outdoor research ramping up in May, well… we’ll just have to see.

Half green, half brown, the plants in my green roof trays are slowly starting to come alive after winter.

Half green, half brown, the plants in my green roof trays are slowly starting to come alive after winter.

This past month I also started taking a course about science writing. Taught by journalism professors, the class is helping me gain some experience presenting complex ideas in ways that a non-scientist could understand. While this is something I’m already very interested in (hence, this blog!) it’s great to learn some new techniques. By the end of the course, I hope to be able to write an editorial article for a major newspaper. If it gets published, I’ll surely write about it here.

Research update: February/March 2016

Could it be? Is spring on its way? After a lot of working in the last this past February and March, it sure sounds nice to be able to work outside again in the near future!

A kildeer has built its nest on the green roof at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This has happened every year and it's nice to see a sign that spring is here!

A killdeer has built its nest on the green roof at the Chicago Botanic Garden. This has happened every year and it’s nice to see a sign that spring is here once again!

Just a few of the many test tubes filled with plant DNA that I've been working with the past two months.

Just a few of the many test tubes filled with plant DNA that I’ve been working with the past two months.

The winter to spring transition months included a lot of test tubes! I’m happy to report that I finally finished extracting the DNA from all of my little seedlings. That’s almost 550 samples. Phew! It took a lot longer than I expected just to perfect the technique of getting DNA out of such little bits of plant tissue but I was able to get the procedure streamlined enough and finally finished. The next step was to start the DNA amplification – a process called PCR that makes many copies of the DNA so I can work with it in the future. I need to amplify 9 sections of DNA in each of my 550 samples. If you’re doing the math at home, that’s nearly 5,000 reactions. Luckily, there is a machine that helps me out with making temperature changes so the reactions can occur without my constant guidance but I still have the fun task of loading the test tubes with the correct materials – yep, all 5000 combinations. So that’s been most of my March and the project will continue into the future. By the end of the month I was able to test some of the PCR samples and see if they worked. I’m happy to say that I’ve got mostly positive results so far. There are still a few kinks to be worked out but at least I know that things are moving forward in the right direction.

The 2015 seeds have germinated. The seedlings are in these small tubes and are kept frozen until I can find the time to extract their DNA this spring.

The 2015 seeds have germinated. The seedlings are in these small tubes and are kept frozen until I can find the time to extract their DNA this spring.

Moving in the right direction is a good thing, especially in light of the fact that I’ve got another round of DNA extraction and amplification to go. I’ve just completed these steps with the seeds I collected at the end of the 2014 season. In March, I also collected the germinated seedlings from all of the 2015 seeds. The new little seedlings (only about half as many this time, thank goodness!) had finished getting as big as they were going to get in the incubators so I collected them in small test tubes and put them in a very cold freezer. In April or May I’ll start the DNA extraction procedure all over again with these new samples. Then more amplification…

Things are looking pretty dormant in my green roof plots. But I know my plants are there. Just wait a few months!

Things are looking pretty dormant in my green roof plots. But I know my plants are there. Just wait a few months!

As March came to a close, I ventured out to a couple of my roofs just to see if there were any signs of life. It was a pretty mild winter but it still looks too early for most of my little plants to start growing yet. I guess I was just getting a little hopeful – wishful thinking! I’m looking forward to getting out to all of my green roof sights again this spring and summer. It’s hard to believe (but kind of exciting too) that this will be the last summer of data collection for my dissertation research. In the future, I’m not sure what will happen to these plots that I’ve established, but I think at least some of them will be left alone and the plants will just do what plants do; grow, reproduce… hopefully survive for many generations. We’ll have to see. One thing I do know is that it’s going to be a busy summer.

 

By the end of March, a few signs of life started to appear in my green roof plots.

By the end of March, a few signs of life started to appear in my green roof plots.

My temperature probes have been recording data all winter long (hopefully). I'll collect them again this spring to see what happened on the roofs while I was inside staying warm.

My temperature probes (like this one taped to the roof) have been recording data all winter long (hopefully). I’ll collect them again this spring to see what happened on the roofs while I was inside staying warm.

In other fun news, my green roof children’s activity book has been featured, both on an industry website and in a non-profit magazine. My coauthor Olyssa and I were asked to write a little piece describing the unique features of our book for the international website greenroofs.com. Check out that story by clicking here. I was also interviewed by a reporter a couple months back (remember that photo shoot in December that I wrote about in my last post?) about the environmental education benefits of our book and a short piece was included in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s member magazine, Keep Growing. Check out that article by clicking here and going to page 74. We continue to have people download our free book and have recently even been asked to translate it into Dutch for a wider international audience. It’s great to know that people are enjoying the book and that our hard work is helping teach people about the benefits of green roofs!

Research update: January 2016

Winter = writing & lab work. After a few years as a botanical researcher I’m beginning to really understand this seasonal work pattern. So that’s what my January looked like. I spent time making revisions to a research report that I’ve been working on for a while now. This particular report keeps getting better little by little but it is quite a process to take years’ worth of work and write a technical yet brief summary of what it all means and why it all matters. It’s getting there!

Tiny seeds on agar plates experience simulated spring in an incubator.

Tiny seeds on agar plates experience simulated spring in an incubator.

I spin the small tubes filled with DNA and chemicals in a centrifuge to separate the layers and help purify the DNA

I spin the small tubes filled with DNA and chemicals in a centrifuge to separate the layers and help purify the DNA

Lab work has also taken on some different forms and was in full swing in January. In one part of the lab, I washed soil off of the roots of weeds collected from my green roof plots. The clean weeds were then dried in an oven and weighed to compare how much weedy plant tissue (called “biomass”) grows in traditional succulent green roofs compared to my prairie-style green roofs. In another part of the lab, I continued to extract DNA from some tiny plant seedlings for a different experiment. This DNA will later be used to measure how pollen moves between green roofs.

I use this computer hooked up to a fancy machine to determine if my DNA primers are working to make lots of copies of the DNA from my plant seedlings.

I use this computer hooked up to a fancy machine to determine if my DNA primers are working to make lots of copies of the DNA from my plant seedlings.

In a different part of the lab, I took some of my seeds already set out on agar plates from a refrigerator where they were experiencing simulated winter and moved them to an incubator where they are now experiencing simulated spring. I’ll later get all of their DNA too. And in still another part of the lab, I continued to work with something called “primers” which are used to help make many copies of small quantities of DNA. I know what you must be thinking: “Just how big is this lab?” Luckily, pretty big!

I weigh the dried plant tissue to determine how "weedy" my different treatments are.

I weigh the dried plant tissue to determine how “weedy” my different treatments are.

Aside from the writing and lab work, this month I also got to be in a research-related mini photoshoot of sorts. Remember that children’s activity book about green roofs that I wrote and published last year? Well, the Chicago Botanic Garden is going to be featuring the book in a small article published in their quarterly magazine. I got to feel like a celebrity for a few minutes while I got my picture taken for the article. Of course I’ll share the article on the blog when it comes out – maybe as soon as next month!

Smile! I had fun participating in a mini photo-shoot related to my green roof activity book.

Smile! I had fun participating in a mini photo-shoot related to my green roof activity book.

And finally, in case you’re interested in the more technical side of some of the research I’ve worked on in the past, my “Publications” page has been updated with downloadable full text versions of many of my research papers.

Happy New Year!

Research update: December 2015

Protected from the cold by a thick glove, I dip my test tubes into liquid nitrogen to freeze the plant tissue.

Protected from the cold by a thick glove, I dip my test tubes into liquid nitrogen to freeze the plant tissue.

As 2015 came to a close, my winter research got quite cold! But I wasn’t outside like you might think. I was actually in the lab trying out a new protocol using liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen can be used to flash freeze things extremely quickly. In my case, I used this liquid to freeze my tiny little plant seedlings before I crushed the tissue in order to extract DNA. I thought that that extreme freezing would help so that more of the cells in the plant seedlings would get shattered when the tubes were shaken a very high speeds. I think this technique is helping me to get as much DNA from my seedlings as possible. This is important because the seedlings are so small so they don’t have a lot of DNA to begin with. In December I used this technique several times to extract DNA from the offspring of the plants I was working with last summer. The next steps are to see if I can use another procedure to make many copies of the small amount of DNA that I was able to extract and then to see if I can determine where the pollen came from for each seedling. I still have a great deal of work to do for this project but winter is a good time to be inside the laboratory in Chicago.

I added small metal beads to my test tubes with the tiny seedlings to help break up the cells and extract the DNA.

I added small metal beads to my test tubes with the tiny seedlings to help break up the cells and extract the DNA.

This past month, I also did a lot of writing and continued to read work from other scientists and think about how their work relates to what I am finding from my own green roof data. In a study I conducted in Germany in 2013, I hypothesized that green roofs would have similar types of plants that grow during different stages. For example, maybe plants that were very good at spreading their seeds would arrive at green roofs shortly after they were built and then plants that were more competitive and better than others at using resources like water and nutrients would be more common later on. But what I actually found was that each green roof seems to play by its own rules with different groups coming and going at different times. So now I’m working on making figures, finding more resources and using the other similar studies to write up an official report that will be reviewed by a small group of scientists, edited and then submitted to a scientific journal for publication. I’m learning that this is actually a very long and involved process. But when it’s complete, my hope is that many scientists and other interested people from around the world will be able to learn something from my research. I’ll keep working on this writing throughout the winter.

Research update: October/November 2015

Fall was a time of big changes out on the Chicago green roofs. From summer temperatures to snow and beautiful blooming flowers to brown, dried grass, the plants changed almost daily on the roofs. Now they’re pretty much dormant and ready to face another cold winter.

The last of the fall flowers bloom on the green roofs in early October.

The last of the fall flowers bloom on the green roofs in early October.

The last of the wildflowers and grasses bloom on the green roofs in Chicago

The last of the wildflowers and grasses bloom on the green roofs in Chicago

As in previous years, this season was also a transition for me from outdoor data collection to indoor writing and lab work. I finished collecting the last of the temperature probes and finished the “checkups” on the green roofs. I recorded the temperatures and packed the probes back into their small water-tight bags and wished them good luck until I dig them up again in the spring. I made sure that all signs and little sticks I use for marking my sites were in the right place. I recorded all final observations and closed my notebook… for now.

 

 

 

All the fruits that I collected are carefully weighed on an electronic balance in the lab

All the fruits that I collected are carefully weighed on an electronic balance in the lab

In the lab, I cleaned and weighed the fruits that I had collected from the green roof and ground-level plants in one of my experiments. I then opened the fruits and carefully counted each little seed that was contained inside. These seeds are very tiny and have to be counted under a microscope. After the seeds were counted, I rinsed them off in a weak bleach solution to kill any fungus and put them on these little agar plates. The agar is a substance with the same texture as Jello that is able to hold moisture that the seeds can use later when they start to grow. I sealed up these agar plates with the seeds and put them in a dark refrigerator where they’ll stay for at least a couple months. Later, I hope I’ll get these seeds to grow so I can take a closer look at their DNA and see if there is pollen moving between plants on the green roof and plants on the ground.

As the season changed, it was also time to work on more writing. Yes, it turns out that scientists write a lot! I am currently working on writing the results of the experiment I completed when I was in Germany 2 years ago. It has taken a long time to look at all the data I collected very carefully. After some long days in the library reading, writing, reading, and writing some more, I am beginning to explain some of the patterns that I see in my data. This is a long process and I still have more writing to do this winter but I hope that soon I’ll be able to publish these results and share them with my fellow botanists and other scientists that are also interested in the ecology of green roofs.

I spend long hours in the library reading and writing about the results of my experiments.

I spend long hours in the library reading and writing about the results of my experiments.

Research update: September 2015

It’s fall once again in Chicago and you can really begin to tell on the green roofs. They’re still looking good, but most of the plants are starting to turn brown, shed their seeds and get ready for their long, cold winter up on the rooftops. It almost getting too chilly for this roof top botanist to enjoy collecting data outdoors so it’s a good thing that the work is starting to gradually move indoors.

It's fall on the green roofs. The plants aren't dead, they're just beginning to go dormant for the winter.

It’s fall on the green roofs. The plants aren’t dead, they’re just beginning to go dormant for the winter.

To start off the month, I spent a weekend in Michigan with the other Northwestern University Presidential Fellows. This group of outstanding grad students from a wide variety of departments in the graduate school is doing some amazing research! As one of the fellows, I got to share my research with the others in a relatively informal presentation. I really liked learning about what other graduate researchers are doing and I loved getting to answer some difficult questions about the motivations behind my own work. I’m looking forward to more presentations with this group in the future during my next 2 years as a fellow.

In a more formal setting, I also shared some aspect of my ecological research through a new course I’m teaching. Twice a week, 45 undergraduate students at Loyola University and I learn together about the environmental issues that impact us and the world we live in. As a former high school teacher and undergraduate instructor, this is something that I really enjoy doing! I get to teach the students a little bit about the ecological benefits of green roofs but also learn about some of the bigger picture concepts, like the importance of water conservation, right along with them. With a motivated and enthusiastic group of students, it’s looking to be a pretty good semester!

As I take a last look at my green roof plots this fall, I make a note of any new growth. This little native cactus started off with just one pad (the one on the left) and now it has two. Good luck over the winter little guy!

As I take a last look at my green roof plots this fall, I make a note of any new growth. This little native cactus started off with just one pad (the one on the left) and now it has two. Good luck over the winter little guy!

In terms of research, I started to conduct my last “checkups” on the green roofs. These checkups involve collecting data from the temperature probes that I have buried there and resetting the probes to collect data all throughout the winter. I also collect all remaining weeds from the green roof trays so I can clean, dry, and weigh them back at the lab over the winter. I fix anything that’s broken and make any final notes about the plants. After the final checkups at my 5 research sites, I won’t be back until April or May. So I cross my fingers that all the plants and probes are still there when I come back in the spring.

As the outdoor work winds down, the indoor lab work and writing start to take up more of my time. I’m now working on figuring out a new procedure for getting as much DNA as possible out of the tiny little seedlings that I was growing in the spring. In September I tried two new procedures and unfortunately neither of them really worked. So now it’s time to try procedure #3 – hopefully I’ll have some good successes to report in next month’s research update. Wish me (and the little seedlings) luck!

Small tubes full of plant tissue heat up as I try to develop new methods for getting DNA out of tiny little seedlings.

Small tubes full of plant tissue heat up as I try to develop new methods for getting DNA out of tiny little seedlings.

Research update: August 2015

Once again, August was a busy month, filled with field work, lab work and even a conference! It’s fun to look back and see what I was able to accomplish.

One lonely pinnate prairie coneflower blooms in my green roof prairie plot. It's trying to attract some pollinators - go little coneflower, go!

One lonely pinnate prairie coneflower blooms in my green roof prairie plot. It’s trying to attract some pollinators – go little coneflower, go!

The month started with completion of the vegetation surveys that I was conducting on 3 of the green roofs in the Chicago area. These vegetation surveys allow me to measure the height, coverage and reproduction ability of the various plants that I planted on the green roof. With the rainy summer we’ve been having in Chicago, most of the plants are doing quite well and my little plots continue to look like mini-prairies. Originally, August was supposed to be the last time that I had to take these measurements. But my mini-prairies are looking so good (and I’m such a botanist!) that I want to come back next year and measure them again. We’ll see if that’s still the plan come 2016.

Funny hat? Socks hiked up over my pant legs? It must be time for data collection in the prairie!

Funny hat? Socks hiked up over my pant legs? It must be time for data collection in the prairie!

Speaking of prairies, I also visited an actual prairie for my research (on the ground this time, as opposed to a rooftop). Two interns from the Chicago Botanic Garden and I took a trip to a large prairie in central Illinois to collect leaf tissue from the same species of plant that I’m studying on the roofs. I am looking at how pollen movement in this species can help increase the genetic diversity of green roof populations. But I wanted to know what the genetic diversity of this species is like in natural populations, in real prairies. So we collected leaf tissue from a natural population, extracted the DNA from the leaf cells, and are now working in the lab to measure the diversity. This is a work in progress, so stay tuned for the results. If anything, it was neat to see the plant species I’m working with in its natural habitat.

Interns from the Chicago Botanic Garden help me collect leaf samples from the natural prairie population.

Interns from the Chicago Botanic Garden help me collect leaf samples from the natural prairie population.

In addition to collecting lots of data, I was also fortunate to be asked to present some of the overall findings of my research so far. I’m still working on collecting some more data from internet sources and analyzing my results but I am beginning to find some trends with the data that I collected back on the green roofs in Germany in 2013. It seems like there are very few patterns that predict which plant species colonize green roofs and survive on them over time. It looks like each green roof is a unique place with its own community of plants and animals that live there. I was able to share these results (and others) at a special green roof session of the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Baltimore, MD. And not only did I get to present my research, but I got to attend lectures and workshops where I learned about other people’s research too. It was a busy week in Baltimore and even though I came back tired, I was also inspired and excited to keep making discoveries with my own research.

The hotel at the Baltimore Convention Center had a green roof. A great inspiration view as I prepared to give a presentation about my green roof research at the ESA conference.

The hotel at the Baltimore Convention Center had a green roof. A great inspiration view as I prepared to give a presentation about my green roof research at the ESA conference.

And finally, in August I started to work in the lab again to continue work that I’ve been doing for about a year now. The lab was super busy with summer interns but toward the end of the month things quieted down a bit and I could claim some work space back. I’m ready to continue the work I was doing back in the spring. It’s time to find out if I can determine the father plants of all the seeds that I collected last fall and grew up into little seedlings over the winter. It’s going to be a lot of work but I’m looking forward to being a bit of a botanical detective!

Research update: July 2015

July was truly summer time up on the roofs – hot, muggy, sunny, buggy. I have to remind myself that all of these distracting things are the ones I miss during the cold winter months. The fact that the green roofs are pretty darn beautiful makes up for it!

My prairie plants are beautiful when they're blooming up on the green roof!

My prairie plants are beautiful when they’re blooming up on the green roof!

A native bee from the genus "Anthidium" visits my blooming prairie plants on the green roof.

A native bee from the genus “Anthidium” visits my blooming prairie plants on the green roof.

The good news is that most of the plants have enjoyed the rainy July and are still looking quite well. Some species that weren’t looking too good last year at this time now have flowers. This means that they’re reproducing (or trying to anyway) and that there is a good chance that their offspring will be around on the green roofs next year. With my experimental green roof trays, I conducted the water retention and evaporation experiment again that I’ve described in past blog posts. Conditions need to be totally dry to do this experiment and with the extra rain in Chicago this month, it was tough to schedule this in. But, with help, I just barely made measurements before it started to rain again and was able to get the data I need. I think I’ve collected enough data from this experiment this summer to make some interesting conclusions, but I’ll have to see. Maybe I’ll do it again next summer to compare the effect of the plants when they’re a year older? We’ll have to see.

A bumble bee, prairie grass and a green roof ecologist: a pretty picture on the green roof in July

A bumble bee, prairie grass and a green roof ecologist: a pretty picture on the green roof in July

For my other experiment that measures the movement of pollen between green roof populations, I continued to cover flowers in florescent dye and look for movement of the dye by pollinators. Unfortunately, after trying this experiment on 8 different days, I didn’t see any evidence that the pollinators were moving the dye. Does this mean that they’re also not moving pollen between plants on the green roofs and the ground? I’m not sure. I’ll collect seeds from these plants and use DNA-fingerprinting techniques in the lab this fall to find out more information. For now, the plants are finished flowering and have all been moved from their ground-level or roof sites to be watched until their fruits ripen and I can extract their seeds and DNA. Aside from being attacked by a colony of biting ants (over 20 of them that somehow crawled into my shirt – talk about uncomfortable!), things seem to be moving along.

Research update: June 2015

I was as busy as a bee in June. Just like this carpenter bee I saw on one of my green roofs. It's too big to get in this flower's opening so the bee is actually poking holes in the flower with it's mouth to drink the nectar. So smart!

I was as busy as a bee in June. Just like this carpenter bee I saw on one of my green roofs. It’s too big to get in this flower’s opening so the bee is actually poking holes in the flower with it’s mouth to drink the nectar. So smart!

Summer, summer. The busiest and probably the most fun time of the year in terms of research. There’s lots to do out on the green roofs now that all the plants are growing and the pollinators are flying, but this is what I look forward to all winter long when I’m in the lab or working on my computer.

 

My green roof plots are starting to look like shortgrass prairies! I'll keep measuring them with my big 100-square grid.

My green roof plots are starting to look like shortgrass prairies! I’ll keep measuring them with my big 100-square grid.

 

I was happy to talk about the benefits of green roofs with the many visitors that came to the World Environment Day celebration at the Chicago Botanic Garden

I was happy to talk about the benefits of green roofs with the many visitors that came to the World Environment Day celebration at the Chicago Botanic Garden

This past month, I visited all five of my green roof research sites. I measured all the plants to see which ones had survived the winter and how much taller they were since last year at this time. I’m happy to say that there were a lot of survivors. Many of the plants are starting to bloom and some are bigger than last year. My prairie plots are actually starting to look like short grass prairies! After working on them for years, it’s quite nice to see!

I add the same amount of water to all my green roof trays when I measure their transpiration rate.

I add the same amount of water to all my green roof trays when I measure their transpiration rate.

This month, I also continued to work on some experiments with my green roof trays. I measured the transpiration rate in the experimental trays again – that’s a measurement of how fast water evaporates from the growing media and leaves the plants through their leaves. So far it looks like the prairie mixes in the trays are able to hold on to water in the same way that trays planted with non-native succulent plants can. This is a good sign because it means that native plants would still be useful for green roofs that are designed to hold rainwater.

My summer volunteer, Mike, and I clean the soil from the roots of the weeds we found growing in the green roof trays. It's a good project to do in the lab on a rainy day.

My summer volunteer, Mike, and I clean the soil from the roots of the weeds we found growing in the green roof trays. It’s a good project to do in the lab on a rainy day.

Some people think that using the non-native succulent plants will help prevent unwanted weeds from growing on a green roof, so this summer I’m measuring that too. It’s not too difficult but a little time consuming to measure this. Basically, I just pull out all the weeds, wash the soil from their roots, dry them in an oven and weigh the dried plant tissue. So far it looks like the common idea holds true – the trays that have succulent plants have fewer weeds. I’ll keep measuring this over the summer so I can make sure this trend is supported all year long (or maybe not… we’ll see).

And in June I also added a new experiment to see if pollinators are moving between my plants of interest on the roof and gardens on the ground. To do this, I placed some potted plants called Penstemon hirsutus or “hairy beardtongue” (I know – what a funny name!) on a green roof and at the base of the building on the ground. Then I painted the flowers on these plants with a powdered fluorescent dye. I returned to the plants at the end of the day with a UV light that helps me see even small specks of dye to see if any dye has been moved from the ground to the roof or vice versa. So far, there’s no evidence that this has happened but I’ll keep looking. If I see that the dye has been moved then I’ll know that a pollinator has been to both of my hairy beardtongue populations. I’ve got my fingers crossed!

This little syrphid fly visited this plant right after I finished painting the flower with florescent dye. I didn't find any red dye on the other populations from this little guy but I'll keep looking.

This little syrphid fly visited this plant right after I finished painting the flower with florescent dye. I didn’t find any red dye on the other populations from this little guy but I’ll keep looking.

Research update: May 2015

It’s hard to believe that spring has already come and gone. Yep, May is over and summer is officially here. It’s been a good past month for research with a lot of chances for me to collect more data on the green roofs and spread the word about the importance of native plants in cities.

The experimental green roof trays at Loyola University are looking good!

The experimental green roof trays at Loyola University are looking good!

Early in the month, I wrote a blog post of a different kind for the main blog at the Chicago Botanic Garden, describing different ways in which botanists like me can share their research with a wide variety of people. About a week later I was also able to “walk the walk” as they say, and give a presentation to the Will County Audubon Society about how native pollinators can be supported by using native plants in urban gardens like the green roofs I study. The audience was very attentive and had some great questions – they even built their own “bee condos” which are homes for native mason bees. Later in the month, I was an audience member myself at an event hosted by the West Cook County chapter of WildOnes, an organization that promotes awareness of native plants and animals. At their annual Native Plant Conference, I was able to hear Dr. Doug Tallamy speak – he is a real champion of native plants and both his presentation and his book, Bringing Nature Home, were really inspiring!

 

The temperature probes have all been read and are now buried in the green roof soil again. A little lady bug was also interested in my data!

The temperature probes have all been read and are now buried in the green roof soil again. A little lady bug was also interested in my data!

The native plants on the green roofs are still small but looking pretty good!

The native plants on the green roofs are still small but looking pretty good!

Out on the roofs, my research plants are looking good. For the most part. Of the 5 locations where I planted prairie plants, 4 of them are going strong and the other one… well… about 90% of the plants are dead. It’s a bit disappointing but that’s science for you. Not to worry though, I still have plenty of projects to keep me busy. In May, I finished collecting all of the temperature probes from the green roofs so I now know just how cold it got on all the roofs this past winter (very cold, in case you’re wondering!). I started recording data on all the plants that survived the winter and how much they’re grown since last summer. I’ll continue to gather these data for the rest of the summer, so stay tuned.

 

To record all the temperature data, I bring a computer up to the roofs. And then I cross my fingers that it doesn't rain.

To record all the temperature data, I bring a computer up to the roofs. And then I cross my fingers that it doesn’t rain.

I collected some interesting data about the evaporation rates in the green roof trays.

I collected some interesting data about the evaporation rates in the green roof trays.

This past month, I also started a new experiment, where I’m measuring the rate of water capture and evaporation from my experimental trays. I think that the trays with native prairie plants and the ones with the non-native succulent plants will be able to capture rainwater at the same rate. It is important for all green roofs to keep rainwater on the roof so it doesn’t run into already-stressed stormwater/sewer systems in the city. It’s also important for the green roofs to be able to release this water slowly in warm weather because this evaporation helps keep buildings cool. I measure evaporation rate by weighing wet trays every few hours. This was a great way to collect data but I learned that it’s also very physically demanding! Each time, you bend down to pick up a heavy (about 25-30 pounds) tray,  bend down to put it on the scale, bend down to pick it up, and bend down again to put it back in its place. Multiply that by 40 trays and 6 rounds of measurements in 24 hours… well you do the math on that. Let’s just say that there’s no need to go to the gym on these evaporation measurement days!

I carefully took about 600 tiny seedlings out of their petri dishes and put them into small test tube. I'll extract the seedlings' DNA soon.

I carefully took about 600 tiny seedlings out of their petri dishes and put them into small test tube. I’ll extract the seedlings’ DNA soon.

To get a break from the outdoor work, I also finished the task of germinating the seeds for my paternity experiment. I was hoping that the seedlings would get a bit bigger but they were just growing in this jello-like substance and they didn’t have the nutrients they needed to grow anymore. So I took about 600 of the seedlings, put them in tiny test tubes, and put them in a very cold freezer. I’m hoping that on rainy days this summer I’ll be able to start extracting their DNA and determine if pollen is moving between green roof to produce seedlings with parents from more than one green roof. There will be a lot more work involved with this experiment in the future.

And finally, this month I was officially inducted as a Northwestern University Presidential Fellow! I am honored to be part of an incredibly amazing group of graduate students and am really looking forward to learning from them as well as sharing my research with this talented group of fellows.