Research update: February 2017

 

Just a quick update here for February. Although we got no snow cover (no February snow in Chicago – can you believe it? I wonder how the green roof plants will do after this unusually warm winter!) it was still a good time to get some indoor work done. This past month, that meant more writing and lab work.

 

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Which offspring do I have enough genetic data for? Color-coded charts help me figure out which samples I need to run next in the lab. 

 

My February writing mostly focused on a manuscript I’m writing about the different types of plants that survive on green roofs over long periods of time. I used some long-term plant surveys of 6 green roofs in Germany and included a plant survey I conducted on 13 green roofs in the same region when I was there back in 2013. While I was writing, I was also analyzing the collected data to see if the types of plants that arrive on green roofs right after their planted are different than those that end up staying there for a long time. I did find some differences. It turns out that weedy plants able to spread seeds and easily use resources like water and soil nutrients are common on green roofs for a few years after they are built. But later, only the species that have traits that make them tough enough to withstand the heat and drought on green roofs will remain. It took a long time to figure this out and write up the manuscript. I now have a draft. I’ll keep working on this manuscript and will hopefully be able to submit it to a journal for publication review sometime this spring.

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More little test tubes of DNA and more genetic sequencing in the lab. I’m getting more data every month but still have more to collect.

In between writing, I also got in a little bit of work in the genetics lab. I’m still trying to figure out how much genetic diversity the plants on the green roofs have. When I have some more data, I’ll figure out if this is similar to plants that have been living on the ground for a long time. I’m hypothesizing that the plants on the green roofs don’t have as much genetic diversity because there are fewer pollinators there so the plants that can breed with themselves, do. I’ve been collecting the data for this experiment for a while now. I think I’m getting closer but will still be spending more time over the next month or two working with machines in the lab that help me make copies of my plants’ DNA and then determine their genetic sequences.

Other than the writing and lab work, I did get to present some of my work at a local conference in February. The Chicagoland conference was called WildThings and brought together over 1,000 people from the area who are interested in conserving the wild plants, animals, and other critters that we share our space with. The presentation went well and the presentations that I got to see were very interesting too. I especially liked learning more about conservation efforts that are happening in the corner of the world that I call home.

Next month: more writing and lab work!

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Research update: January 2017

Happy New Year and welcome to year #6 of my research blog. I think it’s going to be an interesting but different year as I transition from conducting research as a graduate student scientist to… well, a regular scientist! For one thing, I won’t have any of the typical field work during the summer that I’ve always had in the past. I’m sure I’ll still get out on the green roofs now and then but just without all the data collection. Instead, I’ll be doing a lot more data analysis to determine what all of my past data mean and I’ll be writing a lot about my conclusions. That, and applying for a new job where I can continue to do even more research in the future!

 

A new year means it's time to clean out old samples from the freezer and make way for the new ones. Say goodbye to thousands and thousands of little bits of now useless DNA.

A new year means it’s time to clean out old samples from the freezer and make way for the new ones. Say goodbye to thousands and thousands of little bits of now useless DNA.

 

In January, although the plants on the green roofs weren’t covered in snow for even a single day (in Chicago – can you believe it?), I still spent all my research time indoors. I spent most of my time writing. Specifically, I worked on manuscript revisions for an article I’m writing about the data I collected on the green roofs in Germany back in 2013. After writing this article last summer and submitting it to a journal for review, I received comments back from the scientist reviewers. I needed to make a lot of little changes and a few big ones before the journal would consider publishing it in a special issue about green roof ecology. It was a lot of work to complete all the changes and defend some of my methods to the reviewers, but I’m happy to say that all the effort was worth it and the manuscript has been accepted for publication! Now I wait for the editorial process to continue. I hope the special issue of the journal is complete and published by this spring. It seems like these things can sometimes take a very long time.

Aside from the manuscript revisions, I’ve also been writing little sections of four other manuscripts that I have yet to finish and submit. Each of these papers is a chapter of my dissertation. They are all in various stages of completeness. When I decided to become a botanist I didn’t realize just how much writing was involved. Now I have to set reminders on my watch just to remember to get up from my desk and take writing breaks every couple hours. It’s a different kind of work from the data collection but it really helps me solidify my thoughts and explain the results of my experiments. I’m looking forward to meeting my weekly writing goals and completing more manuscripts in the future.

I was one of the keynote speakers at the dinner for the Presidential Fellows at Northwestern University in January.

I was one of the keynote speakers at the dinner for the Presidential Fellows at Northwestern University in January.

In the middle of the month, I took a break from writing to prepare and give a presentation at a dinner held for the Presidential Fellows at Northwestern University. This group of scholars comes from all of the departments in the graduate school so the audience has a wide variety of backgrounds; both science and non-science. It’s a different kind of presentation to give because I needed to talk about the merits of my research but in a way that anyone could understand. It was a little nerve-wracking but it went very well and I’m glad it’s over!

It worked! I look at the height of some blue peaks on the computer screen that help me determine the genetic makeup of all my plant samples. It feels so good when all the machines work and I actually get some data.

It worked! I look at the height of some blue peaks on the computer screen that help me determine the genetic makeup of all my plant samples. It feels so good when all the machines work and I actually get some data.

And finally, January was also filled with some lab work. (No surprise there!) I’ve been having some troubles getting some of the equipment to work so in January, I re-ran a lot of my samples through the genetic sequencing machine. I never have 100% success but I was able to collect a little more data for some of my samples. Over the next couple months, I’ll keep trying to get a little bit more and a little bit more but by the end of March I think I’ll just have to make do with what I have. Hopefully next month I’ll have some good news to report on this part of my research. Fingers crossed!

Research update: November/December 2016

The fall sun sets over the dormant plants on a green roof. See you next spring, plants!

The fall sun sets over the dormant plants on a green roof. See you next spring, plants!

In my previous post, I started by saying that I was gearing up for a winter of lab work, data analysis, and writing. In between holiday gatherings and celebrations (GO CUBS!), my work predictions for November and December were pretty accurate.

I remove the sealed top from my tray of samples after the DNA has been copied. It may not look like a lot of liquid in there, but there are thousands of copies of DNA!

I remove the sealed top from my tray of samples after the DNA has been copied. It may not look like a lot of liquid in there, but there are thousands of copies of DNA!

I drop oil on top of my samples in the little wells before running the final step of my paternity experiment. Then I cross my fingers that everything works this time.

I drop oil on top of my samples in the little wells before running the final step of my paternity experiment. Then I cross my fingers that everything works this time.

A renewed focus on lab work was my biggest priority over the past two months. I’ve been having a difficult time collecting all the data I need for this portion of my research due to a variety of factors including bad reagents (chemicals), low DNA quantities, low genetic diversity in my samples, faulty equipment, running out of supplies, dwindling research funding, possibly some unknown errors on my part and maybe even just some bad luck. (The lab manager also suggested that gremlins might be coming into the lab at night to mess with my experiments… at this point, is anything possible? Who knows!) So I’ve been fighting the good fight and filling in the missing data a little bit at a time. Sometimes it feels like I’m putting together a 1000 piece puzzle one piece at a time. It’s very arduous and I don’t know what the finished product will look like but I’m getting there and can’t wait to see the final results! In the meantime, I’ll keep on extracting more DNA, amplifying or making copies of the DNA, conducting the paternity tests, and looking for patterns of genetic diversity in the plant populations on my green roofs. You’ll no doubt hear more about these tasks during the next update.

I use this helpful pipette to transfer multiple samples at a time as I load the next yellow plate for DNA copying. Lots of the lab procedures are repeated over and over again.

I use this helpful pipette to transfer multiple samples at a time as I load the next yellow plate for DNA copying. Lots of the lab procedures are repeated over and over again.

This is what it looks like when you wait too long to collect your soil samples from your green roof experiment and have to do it when it's really cold outside!

This is what it looks like when you wait too long to collect your soil samples from your green roof experiment and have to do it when it’s really cold outside!

When I needed a mental break from the lab work, I mostly kept busy indoors. There was one chilly day that I spent on a green roof collecting some soil samples for a later analysis in the lab. I could have collected the soil back in October when temperatures were still balmy but this task slipped my mind and I ended up getting the job done on a very windy cold November day when the wind chill was about 20 degrees F (that’s about -7 degrees C). At least it wasn’t snowing yet! Other than that, I spent a lot of time analyzing the data that I’ve been collecting from the green roofs over the past few years and starting to interpret the patterns that I’m seeing. After having some initial data interpretations, I spent two weeks in December in a dissertation boot camp. This boot camp is a quiet place for doctoral candidates like me to really focus on writing about their research. It’s a great way to get some encouragement from peers to accomplish some writing before taking a little holiday break.

Another set of 96 samples is loaded up and ready to be processed in the DNA sequencing machine. This is the step in the paternity test where I determine each sample's genetic fingerprint... if it works correctly.

Another set of 96 samples is loaded up and ready to be processed in the DNA sequencing machine. This is the step in the paternity test where I determine each sample’s genetic fingerprint… if it works correctly.

As the year came to an end, so did my mentoring with the PlantingScience project. This program matches up thousands of students with plant science mentors from all around the country. As a liaison and scientist mentor for the project, I helped high school students and their teachers learn about “The Power of Sunlight,” or how plants perform photosynthesis. As a previous high school teacher myself, it was great to get to interact with this group of students and see how the teachers were using technology to introduce students to a diverse group of scientists. Who knows, maybe some of these students are now budding plant scientists!

Dried leaves rest among the last sprigs of green on top of a green roof at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Snow is coming soon!

Dried leaves rest among the last sprigs of green on top of a green roof at the Chicago Botanic Garden. Snow is coming soon!

Research update: September/October 2016

The prairie grasses are in flower on the green roofs - it must be fall!

The prairie grasses are in flower on the green roofs – it must be fall!

Fall is here once again and the plants on the green roofs are getting ready to face another tough winter. I, on the other hand, am getting ready to face a winter of lab work, data analysis, and writing. I’m happy to say that over the past couple months I’ve finished collecting all my data from my outdoor green roof experiments. After carrying out some experiments for 4 years, it was kind of bitter-sweet to see this step come to an end.

The nodding onion plants that had pollinators on them last month are now bursting with seeds. I can't wait to see if there are lots of new seedlings next year!

The nodding onion plants that had pollinators on them last month are now bursting with seeds. I can’t wait to see if there are lots of new seedlings next year!

I finished collecting all of my temperature probes in September.

I finished collecting all of my temperature probes in September.

I've collected a lot of temperature data from the green roofs over the past 2 years. Now I'm trying to make sense of the trends that I've found.

I’ve collected a lot of temperature data from the green roofs over the past 2 years. Now I’m trying to make sense of the trends that I’ve found.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In September, I collected all of the remaining temperature probes from my plots. This was a little tricky in some plots where the vegetation is now almost 5 feet tall! I compiled all the data, which was actually a big task – I’ve been recording temperature every 3 hours for over 2 years on over 60 probes.I’ve started to look at trends in these data and so far it looks like there is little difference between my different treatments in the winter but larger differences between the native prairie plants and the non-native succulent sedum plants during the summer. As you might expect, the succulent plants provide more cover and shade, so they tend to keep the soil cooler than the soil that’s exposed to the full-sun conditions. I’ll spend more time analyzing these data over the winter and will be writing my conclusions in my dissertation this spring.

Finding the temperature probes - only about the size of a dime - was a little tough in some of my plots where the vegetation was so tall. Eventually, I found them all!

Finding the temperature probes – only about the size of a dime – was a little tough in some of my plots where the vegetation was so tall. Eventually, I found them all!

I'm growing quite a collection of name tags from guest lectures and speaker events. It's always fun to talk to people about my research.

I’m growing quite a collection of name tags from guest lectures and speaker events. It’s always fun to talk to people about my research.

I was also invited to give a couple guest-lectures in October, including at an Economic Botany class at the Morton Arboretum and during a tour of the Chicago Botanic Garden by the Northwestern University Women’s Board. It’s always fun to teach people about green roofs, urban ecology, and the unique opportunities I have as a graduate researcher in a joint program between two remarkable institutions.

The prickly pear cactus is one of the only native species that survived two harsh years in the green roof trays.

The prickly pear cactus is one of the only native species that survived two harsh years in the green roof trays.

Fall has arrived on the green roofs! I'm happy that my research plots are really starting to look like prairies.

Fall has arrived on the green roofs! I’m happy that my research plots are really starting to look like prairies.

Other than finishing field work and guest lectures, I’ve mostly been organizing and analyzing data, mentoring students in an online program called Planting Science, preparing job applications, and getting lab work done (when all the equipment has been working… which seems to be a rare event). I finished extracting the DNA from all of my samples and have very slowly been making progress with my paternity study. I’m hoping that next month will be a big one for lab work success. I’ve got my fingers crossed!

 

The green roof trays are ready for another winter as the colors of fall creep in.

The green roof trays are ready for another winter as the colors of fall creep in.

Big bluestem is flowering in my green roof plots. See you next spring, prairie plants!

Big bluestem grass is flowering in my green roof plots. See you next spring, prairie plants!

Finally, I’ve been working on writing a short article about a unique plant that found its way to a green roof in London. The story should be published next month – stay tuned!

 

Research update: May 2016

May is over already? Where does the time go? It seems to just fly by in the spring and there’s a lot of research to be done.

In May, I started measuring the plants from the green roof trays again. Despite a lot of rain, many of the plants were gone!

In May, I started measuring the plants from the green roof trays again. Despite a lot of rain, many of the plants were gone!

Now that my experimental plots look a little more like prairies, the temperature probes are more difficult to find.

Now that my experimental plots look a little more like prairies, the temperature probes are more difficult to find.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, yes, there was a lot to do in the lab in May. I’m still trying to complete a paternity test of about 600 baby plants and, wouldn’t you know, things that were working just fine a few months ago have stopped working and I can’t seem to figure out why. My advisor says, “welcome to the lab,” meaning, that sometimes this is just the ways things go. One day, things work and the next they don’t. So I’ve been spending a lot of time troubleshooting, collecting little bits of data and troubleshooting again. I am making tiny baby steps of progress in the lab but had hoped to be flying through the data collection process by now so it’s a little frustrating. In any case, it’s almost time for a break in the lab because summer means lots to do on the green roofs.

This little prickly-pear cactus has some new growth. Those "baby cacti" are so cute, right?

This little prickly-pear cactus has some new growth. Those “baby cacti” are so cute, right?

Some of my native primrose plants were pollinated and seeds germinated. These new babies weren't planted by me!

Some of my native primrose plants were pollinated and seeds germinated. These new babies weren’t planted by me!

In May, I also finished collecting the temperature data from the green roofs and at the end of the month, I started measuring some of the plants again. There is some good news and bad news here. The good news is that many of the plants are still alive – for some species, this means that they’ve made it for almost 4 years now. Other plants are reproducing and there are new little seedlings popping up, so that’s exciting. The bad news is that it looks like many of the plants from my green roof trays that were doing so well last summer haven’t returned. I’m not sure if they were still dormant when I checked in on them or if they’re dead. I’ll return each month over the summer so I should know for sure in a couple weeks.

 

 

My strip of experimental prairie is slowly starting to come back. The plants are still pretty short. Let's see how this looks by the end of summer.

My strip of experimental prairie is slowly starting to come back. The plants are still pretty short. Let’s see how this looks by the end of summer.

As things started heating up on the roofs, my science communication schedule seemed to be getting hot too. I gave a presentation at the beautiful Lurie Garden in Millennium Park in Chicago. I was also the curator of a Twitter account called BioTweeps – this is where a different biologist interacts with followers and discusses their science. It was a bit overwhelming since BioTweeps has thousands of followers, but it was fun too! This past month I also continued taking a science writing class about communicating complex topics to non-scientists through newspaper and magazine articles (online versions too). I got to meet the editors of Discover Magazine and Audubon Magazine, which was a really great experience. I’m hoping that one of the articles I started writing during the course will be published and the editor of Audubon said she’s interested, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed and trying to keep my editing fingers typing. If it gets published somewhere, I’ll definitely include an update here.

Next month looks like lots more work on the green roofs (June is the best month for measuring the plants!) and a couple interesting science communication workshops. See you then!

In between spring thunderstorms, I collect my temperature probes from the green roofs and see how cold things got over the winter.

In between spring thunderstorms, I collect my temperature probes from the green roofs and see how cold things got over the winter.

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!