Research update: August 2016

August is over and the summer field work is slowly coming to an end. Back-to-school for teachers and students means back-to-lab-and-writing for me.

Some of the plants in my green roof experiments are providing nectar and pollen for local bees. The bumble bees are especially loving the Allium cernuum (nodding onion).

Some of the plants in my green roof experiments are providing nectar and pollen for local bees. The bumble bees are especially loving the Allium cernuum (nodding onion).

I spent a lot of time this past month at my computer, looking at data I collected back in 2013 and writing about my results. I’ve been working on a written report or “manuscript” for a scientific journal. I finally improved things to the point where I felt pretty good about the way that everything looked and sounded so I submitted the manuscript to an urban ecology journal. Next, other scientists who have similar research interests will carefully review my work and let me know if they think I’ve missed something or performed any analyses incorrectly. When I receive their comments in about a month, I hope I will be able to make all the necessary changes and then re-submit my manuscript to be published. As soon as I submitted this first manuscript for review, I immediately started working on another manuscript looking at a different part of the data (the first manuscript is about how plant and insect diversity change on green roofs over time and the second manuscript is about how certain types of plants are better at surviving on green roofs than others). After I’ve spent more time on this second manuscript, I will submit it to a different journal and the whole review and re-writing process will be repeated. If you’re a scientist, there’s always more writing to be done.

As far as the outdoor work, I’ve finally finished the water-holding and evaporation experiment that I was running with my experimental green roof trays. I say “finally” because I had to add an extra trial due to some July rains and because this experiment is not one of my favorites to perform. It involves weighing the trays when they’re filled with soil, plants, and water, which can add up to about 40 pounds per tray. And there are 40 trays that each get measured 6 times in a 24-hour period. If you’re doing the math, that’s lifting trays 240 times. So yes, that experiment is FINALLY over and I’m pretty happy about it (so is my sore back). The next step will be to analyze the data and see what all those measurements mean. I’m excited to be able to use the results of that experiment to tell a story about which types of plants can absorb rainwater on green roofs.

It was strange to be fake-running my experiments on the green roofs as a film crew captured every move.

It was strange to be fake-running my experiments on the green roofs as a film crew captured every move.

One day this past month, I even got to “fake-run” this water-holding experiment as I was followed by a film crew. A local TV station is putting together a series on urban wildlife and asked me to participate by talking about biodiversity on green roofs and demonstrating some of my experimental techniques. It was fun to be hooked up to a microphone and followed around by a camera crew but they picked a VERY hot day for filming and it ended up being over 100 degrees (F) on the roofs! I think I’m going to look very sweaty in my first TV appearance but at least they captured the real-life work conditions that are present on green roofs. The episode will be in production for a while and I hope to put a link to the show on my blog this spring when it airs.

Every move was caught on camera as the film crew followed me on the green roofs. This is one of the few pictures where I'm not wiping away sweat in the 100+ degree heat.

Every move was caught on camera as the film crew followed me on the green roofs. This is one of the few pictures where I’m not wiping away sweat in the 100+ degree heat.

I think that really hot day with the TV crew will be the last one for a while. As the fall begins, I’ll get back to lab work, finish gathering the temperature data from all my research sites, start analyzing the data that I finished collecting this summer, and start writing more manuscripts for my dissertation. I’ll also be mentoring high school students through the PlantingScience program I participated in this summer and will begin the all-important search for a job. It should be an exciting time!

This fall, I'll be mentoring high school students through an online program. I got to learn all about the experiments they'll be doing at a hands-on summer workshop this past June.

This fall, I’ll be mentoring high school students through an online program. I got to learn all about the experiments they’ll be doing at a hands-on summer workshop this past June.

In the meantime, check out this article about how green roofs can help prevent urban flooding. Click here. Toward the end, there are even a few quotes from a familiar green roof ecologist! 😉 It’s fun to be able to be an expert on green roofs and biodiversity!

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Research update: June/July 2016

Well, as you can see, my “monthly” research updates are a little bit behind and this post is extra long. It seems like with all the work to be done outdoors and out of town, it’s been hard to sit down to write about it all. But as I look back at June and July it’s exciting to remember all that has happened.

Ratibida pinnata (gray-headed coneflower) blooms beautifully in one of my green roof plots.

Ratibida pinnata (gray-headed coneflower) blooms beautifully in one of my green roof plots.

First, I am happy to say that an article I wrote about biodiversity on green roofs was published in Wild Seed Magazine, a publication from the Maine-based non-profit Wild Seed Project. I won’t say too much about the article, other than you should click HERE to read it and if you should click on the link above if you want to get a copy of the whole magazine (which includes an article from the amazing naturalist Doug Tallamy and is really good).

The Dalea purpurea (purple prairie clover) was blooming on the green roofs in June and attracting pollinators!

The Dalea purpurea (purple prairie clover) was blooming on the green roofs in June and attracting pollinators!

As far as research goes, June started out with data collection on the green roofs. I’m continuing to measure the plants in the prairie mixes that I planted back in 2012 and at the beginning of the summer, things looked a little sparse but promising. After a pretty rainy summer, some of the same plots are actually pretty lush and there are many species of plants that are flowering in beautiful displays of yellow, white, and purple flowers. It’s impossible to capture them all with my cell phone’s camera, but believe me when I tell you that they are lots of pollinators coming to visit my plants too! When I’m back to more indoor work in the fall I’ll analyze the data to look for significant patterns. So far, it looks like the species from the prairies that are most similar to green roofs are the ones that are growing the best. It’s really exciting for me to know that when I stop collecting the data for this experiment, there will be some little prairies on the green roofs for years to come.

I'm continuing to measure the amount of water that the different plant combinations capture and hold throughout the day.

I’m continuing to measure the amount of water that the different plant combinations capture and hold throughout the day.

I continue to measure the growth of the plants in my green roof prairie plots that I originally planted back in 2012.

I continue to measure the growth of the plants in my green roof prairie plots that I originally planted back in 2012.

My experiment measuring water capture continues as does my collection of weeds from the green roof trays to determine how good the prairie plants are at resisting weeds compared to succulent plants. Everything is going well with those experiments except for the fact that a surprise thunderstorm messed up some of my data and I have to do one part of the experiment over again. I’m not happy about that, but that’s just how botanical research goes sometimes. I’ve got my fingers crossed for some rain-free days in early August.

Weighing the weeds continues. So far it looks like the succulent Sedum plants are the best at preventing weeds.

Weighing the weeds continues. So far it looks like the succulent Sedum plants are the best at preventing weeds.

 

Back to the ground - I finally found the Penstemon plants I was looking for in the shortgrass prairies. It's fun to go back to the sites that I'm trying to replicate on the roof and appreciate how special these habitats are.

Back to the ground – I finally found the Penstemon plants I was looking for in the shortgrass prairies. It’s fun to go back to the sites that I’m trying to replicate on the roof and appreciate how special these habitats are.

Pollinators are visiting my plants on the green roofs! It's exciting to see evidence of the ecological relationships that I was hoping to support.

Pollinators are visiting my plants on the green roofs! It’s exciting to see evidence of the ecological relationships that I was hoping to support.

In addition to the green roofs, I also went to a couple prairie remnants southwest of Chicago to collect some plant tissue. I’ve been putting my lab work on pause for the summer, but if you remember, one of my experiments is to measure pollen movement between green roofs using a paternity study. Well, I’m finding that it’s really hard to distinguish one “dad” plant from another because the dads have very similar DNA. I think this is because the nursery where I got the experimental plants wasn’t using a diverse mix of parental plants but I want to make sure that the plants you’d find in nature would actually have more diversity in their DNA. To do this, I need DNA from plants in their natural habitat – and this is what led me to collect leaves from the shortgrass prairies on a steamy Friday in June. I was hoping to find three whole fields full of my target species of Penstemon plants but, after hours of searching, I only found two small patches. For now, I’ve collected the leaf tissue and it’s drying in the lab. I’ll get back to that when it’s time to get back to the lab in the fall.

Lespedeza capitata (roundhead bushclover) blooms beautifully in one of my plots on a green roof.

Lespedeza capitata (roundhead bushclover) blooms beautifully in one of my plots on a green roof.

It’s actually hard to believe that I was able to collect so many data when I look at all the times I was out of town, talking about research rather than actually conducting it. But through these experiences, I met a lot of wonderful people that are also interested in plant and animal conservation, urban ecology, and science education & communication – my favorite things! At the beginning of June, I was thrilled to be selected as a participant in ComSciCon in Cambridge, MA. This is a graduate student-run conference for other graduate students in science who are interested in engaging with non-scientific audiences. The fellow attendees I met are involved in some amazing endeavors, including documentary filmmaking, graphic design, afterschool programs, and policy advocacy. I could go on for many paragraphs about how awesome these folks were, but I’ll just summarize by saying that I was truly inspired. I started writing a piece about green roofs to be submitted to a children’s magazine while I was there and I’m hoping to get it published this year – stay tuned.

After my trip to the East coast, I headed out west to Colorado Spring to participate as a botanist mentor in a workshop called Digging Deeper. As a mentor, I got to meet high school teachers that teach their students about plants together with plant scientists in a program called Planting Science. As a previous high school science teacher and current scientist, it was really fun to try and figure out the best ways to teach teenagers about plants in an exciting and engaging way. In the fall, I’ll be a mentor to a couple student groups and through video conferences and email messages, we’ll help them design their own experiments to learn about botany – how cool is that?

A spontaneous Penstemon plant (the one I'm studying in a different experiment) has germinated and flowered in my experimental green roof trays. I'm glad to see that this native species does so well on green roofs.

A spontaneous Penstemon plant (the one I’m studying in a different experiment) has germinated and flowered in my experimental green roof trays. I’m glad to see that this native species does so well on green roofs.

I had a couple more trips a little closer to home too. The first one was to Michigan to share my research and meet the new cohort of Northwestern University Presidential Fellows. Wow. More amazing people doing some fascinating research from applications of nanofluids and deciphering the genetic code to impacts of affirmative action on hiring practices in the NFL. The second trip was to Wisconsin to give a presentation at the North American Congress of the Society for Conservation Biology. I’m pleased that my presentation about my green roof research was well received and I even got to meet some other professional from the Chicago area that work with trees, wildlife, and the human-nature connection. As I finish the last year of data collection for my dissertation, it’s really helpful to start thinking more about the broad applications of my research and how the things I’ve learned so far might be applied to other fields when graduate school is complete.

As a final note, in addition to the research and trips, I also got married in July! Did you notice the new name of the site? I may have a new name but the research is still pretty much the same – I don’t think the plants noticed at all!

Up next month: Field work, lab work, data analysis, writing, and even maybe a TV appearance!

 

 

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.