Research update: March/April 2017

ksiazek mikenas green roof prairie smoke Chicago

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) is one of the first plants that blooms in the spring. It was flowering on this green roof in Chicago among the short leaves of other native plants. This rooftop will look like a fully-functioning prairie in a couple months!

Welcome spring! It’s time for the plants on the green roof to wake up from their dormancy and start growing once again. It’s wonderful to see that some of the native prairie species that I planted back in 2012-2014 are still alive and doing well on the green roofs around Chicago. Though most of them are still tiny, I think they’ve been enjoying the milder temperatures and lots of rain. By mid-summer, things will look quite different!

ksiazek mikenas green roof prairie plants spring

Even though I’m not collecting data this year, my experimental prairies are still going strong on the green roofs. You can see the plants starting to emerge in the strip along the lower right corner of the photo.

allium cernuum green roof experiment mikenas ksiazek cactus

The native nodding onions (Allium cernuum) have survived another winter and are emerging in the green roof trays, along with some prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa)

I’m finished collecting data on the green roofs for now and these past months I’ve mostly been analyzing my data to see what patterns emerge and writing about my results. I’ll be finishing my graduate program this year and I’ve got enough data to write about for my dissertation. It already feels a bit strange not to go back to some of the same green roof sites that I’ve been visiting year after year, but I’m sure that my post-graduation plans will involve green roofs in some way so I know I won’t be away for too long. It’s also kind of nice to just go to the green roofs and appreciate their beauty without all the strenuous data collection!

ksiazek mikenas growing up in the city book children

For part of a virtual conference, I filmed myself talking about my children’s activity book “Growing UP in the City: A Book About Green Roofs.” The video was featured during the month of April.

Other than data analysis and writing, I was also involved in a conference this spring. Not a typical conference this time, but a “virtual summit” which is a type of conference that is 100% online. It’s the first time I’ve ever been a presenter at a virtual conference and it was quite a different experience. I was invited by greenroofs.com to speak about the children’s activity book I wrote for their 2017 Green Roofs and Wall of the World 2017 Virtual Summit. Being a speaker involved writing a script, videotaping myself, and collecting video clips and photos of people using the book. Thankfully, the organizers of the conference helped produce a nice video. Now people who are registered for the summit can watch it online to learn all about how and why my coauthor and I designed this fun book. There was also a live question and answer session about the book, which is similar to the Q&A sessions at the end of regular presentations in live conferences. All in all, this virtual presentation was a neat way to talk about some of my work with people from around the world. And I didn’t even have to leave my house!

ksiazek mikenas film WTTW green roof Notebaert urban nature

Back in August, I was filmed for the video series, Urban Nature. In March 2017, the video was released. Check it out!

Speaking of videos, in March WTTW Chicago put out the video series for which I was filmed back in August. The series of videos are all about urban nature and they include a lot of really interesting stories! The one I’m in is called Rooftop Refuges and you can watch it by clicking here. It starts off in New York where researchers are looking at how birds use green roofs. My part about native plants ended up being pretty short, considering the hours of filming (and extreme sweating in over 100 degrees F heat), but I think it came out very well. Be sure to take a look – I’m sure you’ll learn something new! There is also a short article about the video series that you can read by clicking here. Enjoy!

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: April 2015

Welcome spring – I think it’s finally here to stay!

April was a good month and things are finally starting to look a little more exciting up on the green roofs. For a botanist, “exciting” means that the plants are back!

The experimental seeds in the incubator are getting bigger!

The experimental seeds in the incubator are getting bigger!

My little germinating seeds in the incubator are beginning to grow up a bit. But even more exciting is that after a long winter (well, a typical winter – but in Chicago this always tends to feel a bit long), I am happy to report that many of the prairie plants that I planted on the green roofs last year or the year before are coming back. A lot of the species seemed to have made it through the winter and are starting to pop up through the surface of the rocky green roof soil. Among the dried leaves from last year are little bits of green – exciting to see!

The prairie plants are starting to grow again on the green roofs!

The prairie plants are starting to grow again on the green roofs!

Blades of a grass called "little bluestem" are starting to emerge around last year's dried up leaves.

Blades of a grass called “little bluestem” are starting to emerge around last year’s dried up leaves.

 

The winter data from the temperature probes has been recorded and they're ready to record data all summer long.

The winter data from the temperature probes has been recorded and they’re ready to record data all summer long.

It’s still a bit too early in the year to start taking measurements of the plants (that task will start next month) but I was able to find all the temperature probes that I buried in the fall. I dug them up, downloaded their data onto my computer, and re-buried them so that they keep recording temperature data all year long. It was interesting to see that it got pretty cold up on the roofs over the winter. Sometimes my probes were even encased in blocks of ice and continued to record 0 degrees Celsius (that’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or the freezing point of water) for many days and nights in a row. These green roof plants are a lot tougher than I am – no way I would have survived all winter up on the roofs!

 

The honey bees are buzzing on the green roofs again.

The honey bees are buzzing on the green roofs again.

In addition to the plants coming back to the roofs, some of the animals are back too. Although they are not part of my research, it’s still fun for me to see honey bees buzzing around their hives, geese nesting and little killdeer laying eggs on the roofs. Sometimes the green roofs where I work are not accessible to other people and I’m collecting data by myself so it’s nice to know that I’ve got a couple green roof buddies… even if they’re all of the flying variety.

 

 

A killdeer nest on a green roof. I can't wait to see the cute little baby killdeer!

A killdeer nest on a green roof. I can’t wait to see the cute little baby killdeer!

A mother goose keeps her eggs warm on one of the green roofs where I have my experiments.

A mother goose keeps her eggs warm on one of the green roofs where I have my experiments.

Dr. Kevin Rice visits from California and talks about his plant science research.

Dr. Kevin Rice visits from California and talks about his plant science research.

As the outdoor data collection season starts to ramp up, I’ve also been doing some indoor work, especially giving and organizing presentations. I had the privilege of helping to organize a visit from Dr. Kevin Rice, a plant scientist from the University of California in Davis. Along with some smaller meetings and social events, Dr. Rice gave a presentation about his research. It was really interesting to learn from a more experienced scientist, especially hearing about how he and his research team have been saving blue oak trees from severe drought in California.

"Design your own green roof" worksheets from my new activity book, Growing UP in the City, are ready to bring to a group of 5-8 graders.

“Design your own green roof” worksheets from my new activity book, Growing UP in the City, are ready to bring to a group of 5-8 graders.

I also gave four presentations myself this month, three of them in Pittsburgh through the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens as a current Botany in Action Fellow. During my trip to Pittsburgh, I talked to about 120 students at an all-girls school, a group of interested community members, and various Phipps staff members.

 

 

I bring a variety of resources and some of my research tools to my presentations so people can get a better visual of what I discuss in my presentations.

I bring a variety of resources and some of my research tools to my presentations so people can get a better visual of what I discuss in my presentations.

Back in the Chicago area, I gave a presentation to a local group of beekeepers who were interested in learning more about native pollinators and native plants. It was a pleasure to be able to talk about my research to such a diverse group of people and I look forward to doing a lot more of this type of science communication in the future.

I had a great time talking with a group of 5th-8th graders in Pittsburgh about my life as a botanist.

I had a great time talking with a group of 5th-8th graders in Pittsburgh about my life as a botanist.

Research update: January 2015

This is the cover of the children's activity book I just published about my green roof research.

This is the cover of the children’s activity book I just published about my green roof research.

This month’s research update is starting with something quite different! I am very proud to share that I am now the coauthor of a published book! It may not be a very long one (24 pages) but it’s on sale on Amazon.com, so I figure that’s pretty official. As part of an outreach project to share my plant research with people other than scientists, my friend and fellow botanist/educator Olyssa Starry and I wrote a children’s activity book about the benefits of green roofs in cities. The book was beautifully illustrated by Ryan Patterson, who did a fantastic job bringing our ideas to life. Now children everywhere (and grown-ups kids too) can learn about green roofs while completing activities like a word search, coloring, reading temperatures, stepping-stone game, roof design, and bug hunt, just to name a few. There is even a part at the end that guides the reader through designing and carrying out a green roof research project, so if you’re interested, you too can bring botany to action in your city. Olyssa and I have been talking about this idea for years now and it’s really exciting to have come this far. Our goal is to be able to provide books to environmental education programs wherever there are green roofs – which is pretty much all over the world! I added a new page to this blog site with more information on how to get a free digital copy if you’d like.

Winter weather means lots of lab work for botanists like me!

Winter weather means lots of lab work for botanists like me!

This plate with nearly 100 little wells is filled with liquid and then used to help me separate my parental plants according to their unique DNA.

This plate with nearly 100 little wells is filled with liquid and then used to help me separate my parental plants according to their unique DNA.

As far as my research progress goes, I’ve been spending a lot of my time in the laboratory, working on my genetic paternity experiment. I’m making sure that my plant seeds are all “hibernating” in their winter-temperature incubator, and I’ve been performing a lot of tests to try and figure out how to sort out all of my individuals according to their DNA. Unfortunately, most of the plants I used in the experiment have very similar DNA because they all came from the same plant nursery. I’ll only be able to find a unique DNA “fingerprint” or DNA sequence for each individual if I keep looking at more sections in each plant… so I’ll keep looking.

In addition to writing and lab work in January, I also started taking a class about “population genetics” – this is the study of how organisms spread their genes or DNA over time. It’s a really tough class, but it will be useful when it’s time for me to explain how pollinators move pollen (which has plants’ DNA) between the rooftop populations of my test plants. I’m also helping to teach a class about statistics, which is the fancy math that plant biologists use to describe the relationships that we see between plants and their environment. Together, the population genetics information and the statistics will help me find the trends in my data once I’ve collected them all. So as the winter continues to move on, I’m continuing to gather little pieces to help solve my plant research puzzles.

I've loaded tiny little wells in this gel with my DNA samples and a blue dye. I'll run electric current through the submerged gel to see if my experiments worked.

I’ve loaded tiny little wells in this gel with my DNA samples and a blue dye. I’ll run electric current through the submerged gel to see if my experiments worked.