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!

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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: September 2015

It’s fall once again in Chicago and you can really begin to tell on the green roofs. They’re still looking good, but most of the plants are starting to turn brown, shed their seeds and get ready for their long, cold winter up on the rooftops. It almost getting too chilly for this roof top botanist to enjoy collecting data outdoors so it’s a good thing that the work is starting to gradually move indoors.

It's fall on the green roofs. The plants aren't dead, they're just beginning to go dormant for the winter.

It’s fall on the green roofs. The plants aren’t dead, they’re just beginning to go dormant for the winter.

To start off the month, I spent a weekend in Michigan with the other Northwestern University Presidential Fellows. This group of outstanding grad students from a wide variety of departments in the graduate school is doing some amazing research! As one of the fellows, I got to share my research with the others in a relatively informal presentation. I really liked learning about what other graduate researchers are doing and I loved getting to answer some difficult questions about the motivations behind my own work. I’m looking forward to more presentations with this group in the future during my next 2 years as a fellow.

In a more formal setting, I also shared some aspect of my ecological research through a new course I’m teaching. Twice a week, 45 undergraduate students at Loyola University and I learn together about the environmental issues that impact us and the world we live in. As a former high school teacher and undergraduate instructor, this is something that I really enjoy doing! I get to teach the students a little bit about the ecological benefits of green roofs but also learn about some of the bigger picture concepts, like the importance of water conservation, right along with them. With a motivated and enthusiastic group of students, it’s looking to be a pretty good semester!

As I take a last look at my green roof plots this fall, I make a note of any new growth. This little native cactus started off with just one pad (the one on the left) and now it has two. Good luck over the winter little guy!

As I take a last look at my green roof plots this fall, I make a note of any new growth. This little native cactus started off with just one pad (the one on the left) and now it has two. Good luck over the winter little guy!

In terms of research, I started to conduct my last “checkups” on the green roofs. These checkups involve collecting data from the temperature probes that I have buried there and resetting the probes to collect data all throughout the winter. I also collect all remaining weeds from the green roof trays so I can clean, dry, and weigh them back at the lab over the winter. I fix anything that’s broken and make any final notes about the plants. After the final checkups at my 5 research sites, I won’t be back until April or May. So I cross my fingers that all the plants and probes are still there when I come back in the spring.

As the outdoor work winds down, the indoor lab work and writing start to take up more of my time. I’m now working on figuring out a new procedure for getting as much DNA as possible out of the tiny little seedlings that I was growing in the spring. In September I tried two new procedures and unfortunately neither of them really worked. So now it’s time to try procedure #3 – hopefully I’ll have some good successes to report in next month’s research update. Wish me (and the little seedlings) luck!

Small tubes full of plant tissue heat up as I try to develop new methods for getting DNA out of tiny little seedlings.

Small tubes full of plant tissue heat up as I try to develop new methods for getting DNA out of tiny little seedlings.

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.

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.