Research update: May 2017

May is over and summer is officially here! In the past, this has meant that it’s time for me to get up on the green roofs and start collecting data again. But not this year.

ksiazek mikenas penstemon hirsutus green roof summer blooming pollination diversity

Penstemon hirsutus or “hairy beardtongue,” is one of the species that I am studying for my dissertation. It started blooming on a green roof by the end of May. My research found that although the genetic diversity of this population is not very high, the flowers still get visited by a lot of pollinators. Pollinator visits can help keep genetic diversity from becoming too low – this is a good sign for the Penstemon.

This past May, my research schedule was a bit different because I have been busy trying to finish analyzing my data and writing up my results. I’m in the processes of finishing my Ph.D. and wanted to defend my dissertation by the end of the month. So instead of collecting new data, I looked at what I had already gathered and worked hard on uncovering the story that the data had to tell. I’m happy to say that by the end of the month I had written a story of how green roofs could be used for conservation of native plants. I then presented the nearly 200 pages of information to my defense committee in a 30-minute oral presentation and they asked me questions about my research for about 3 hours. All in all, it was a long process, but it was also very exciting to be able to look back at all the research that I’ve done over the past 6 years and finally be able to say that I have some conclusions and recommendations. The committee decided that I passed this test, which was excellent news! I still have some revisions that I need to incorporate into my overall dissertation and then I’ll continue working on getting my research published in peer-reviewed journals. This will take some time. But I’ll have all the revisions done so I get to be called “Dr.” this year, which was my goal.

Defense Cover ksiazek mikenas green roof habitat

The first slide of my dissertation defense. Can green roofs provide habitat for native plant species? In a word, YES! (But the other thousands of words in my dissertation also say that “It’s complicated” …)

As I transition from research for my dissertation to a new career path, there is no new research or data collection. In fact, I’ll be taking some time off this summer from both the research and the blog posts. I’m sure it will be strange not visiting some of the green roofs that I’ve been going to year after year. But I’m also sure that I’ll enjoy some of the cooler temperatures on the ground when the sun is really beating down on the hot, hot rooftops. After tending to some of my sites for 4 years now, it’s time to see what they do on their own.

Happy summer to all! Go visit a green roof this season. I’ll talk to you again in September!

green roof prairie summer ksiazek mikenas chicago botanic

My green roof plots at the Chicago Botanic Garden continue to grow and are looking good to start their fifth summer season. Without monitoring or data collection this year, it will be interesting to see how they do. Good luck my little plants!

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 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.

 

2017-03-03-14-14-32

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!

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: 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: 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: 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.