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!

Advertisements

Research update: March 2015

Could it be? Has spring finally sprung in Chicago? In the beginning of March it seemed like winter might hang on forever, but as the month went on, the weather started to turn and there are now even a few little flowers in bloom around Chicago. This is an exciting time for any botanist because it means that very soon, there will be all kinds of leaves, stems, flowers and fruits for us to enjoy.

I'm continuing to work on my DNA paternity analyses. This is still going to take many more months before I have collected all the data I need.

I’m continuing to work on my DNA paternity analyses. This is still going to take many more months before I have collected all the data I need.

There were signs of life for my indoor work too. I’ve been continuing my lab work for the paternity tests that I’m doing, which is tedious but moving along. The seeds that I’ve had in the incubator all winter are starting to germinate, or wake up from their winter dormant period and grow. You can see from my picture that they’re not very big yet, but over the next couple of weeks they’ll gradually get bigger and bigger until they have enough tissue for me to extract their DNA and hopefully determine which plant was each seed’s father. This will involve a lot more time in the lab (months and months) but it’s nice to know that at least this part of my experiment is heading in the right direction.

My seeds have germinated and are starting to grow now that they're in the warmer incubator.

My seeds have germinated and are starting to grow now that they’re in the warmer incubator.

It was exciting to attend the Climate Change Conference at Loyola University

It was exciting to attend the Climate Change Conference at Loyola University

In March, my research also took me in a couple unique directions. The class I was helping to teach came to an end and I completed the course in population genetics that I was taking, so I had a little time to get away from my home campus. This allowed me to attend the Climate Change Conference that was held at the Institute for Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University. The speakers were very interesting and my favorite part was learning about how some universities are choosing not to invest their money in companies (for example oil companies) that harm the environment. As a botanist and someone who cares about plants and the environment, this “divestment” (taking money out of an investment and putting it somewhere else) seems like a good idea although it can be tricky.

In March I traveled to Guatemala to talk to tenth grade students about the environmental benefits of green roofs.

In March I traveled to Guatemala to talk to tenth grade students about the environmental benefits of green roofs.

In addition to this local conference, my research took me far away to Guatemala, where I gave a presentation to 10th grade students about the environmental benefits of plants on green roofs. As a culminating activity, all the students had to design their own green roof. I can tell you, there were some very unique designs that included potato plants, compost, sunbathing areas and even hen houses. It makes me excited that young students are so creative and are able to think outside the box when it comes to making cities greener, more environmentally-friendly places that incorporate more plants. I think there may have been some future botanists in the group!

And as the month closes, I’m now on my way to Pittsburgh for some more presentations, so be sure to come back and read my April update.

Research update: February 2015

Perhaps it’s fitting that in the month of groundhog day, I felt a little like I was a character in the movie Groundhog Day, where a single day keeps repeating over and over again. A lot of the lab work that I was working on in February involved repeating procedures that I carried out in January. Several steps of the technique I’m using to looks at the DNA of my experimental plants haven’t been perfected for my specific species yet, so I re-run treatments to try and determine the best techniques. In the botany labs we call it “troubleshooting” but it’s really just doing things over and over again, each time with a slight variation in the procedure to try and find the exact right formula for success. I have a feeling the lab work I’m conducting to find unique DNA sequences for some of my plants is going to involve a lot more rounds of this repeating and trouble shooting, so at least I’m getting more comfortable with some of the methods that were new to me at the beginning of the year.

Grasses and dried up wildflowers peek out through snow drifts on a green roof. Every season is beautiful up here on the roof.

Grasses and dried up wildflowers peek out through snow drifts on a green roof. Every season is beautiful up here on the roof.

 

The green roofs are closed for the winter - the plants get the roofs all to themselves.

The green roofs are closed for the winter – the plants get the roofs all to themselves.

As you might expect, my outdoor work is pretty much on hold for now. I’m hoping that the record cold days that Chicago experienced in February haven’t harmed the plants that I’ve been monitoring on the green roofs in various locations throughout the city. But I think they should be OK. These species are prairie plants, native to the Chicago region and they should be able to withstand the harsh cold and heat that this area sometimes experiences. I like to look at the snowdrifts that I see on some of the green roofs and know that my little plants are safely underneath the blanket of snow, just waiting for spring – like me!

 

 

My experimental seeds are still just "chilling out" in the cold incubators. In a few weeks, I'll turn up the temperature and it will feel like spring to the seeds.

My experimental seeds are still just “chilling out” in the cold incubators. In a few weeks, I’ll turn up the temperature and it will feel like spring to the seeds.

The seeds that I put in the incubator back in December are still dormant, just waiting for me to turn up the temperature and create an artificial spring time for them. They don’t have too much longer to wait – it will only be a couple more weeks before I move them on to the next part of the experiment and start growing them up into little seedlings.

 

As I look into March, I can feel that spring is right around the corner and the busy data collection time is about to get even busier. There is a sense of excitement as the days start to get longer and the temperatures start to get warmer. The three main research projects that make up my dissertation are starting to come into focus. I am also excited looking forward, as this past month I was awarded a Northwestern University Presidential Fellowship, which will allow me to interact with other researchers at my university and at the same time focus on my research without the additional time commitment of performing departmental duties. I am thrilled to represent the botanists of world in this amazing group of scholars and look forward to learning many things from them over the next 2 years.