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.

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: 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!

Research update: August 2015

Once again, August was a busy month, filled with field work, lab work and even a conference! It’s fun to look back and see what I was able to accomplish.

One lonely pinnate prairie coneflower blooms in my green roof prairie plot. It's trying to attract some pollinators - go little coneflower, go!

One lonely pinnate prairie coneflower blooms in my green roof prairie plot. It’s trying to attract some pollinators – go little coneflower, go!

The month started with completion of the vegetation surveys that I was conducting on 3 of the green roofs in the Chicago area. These vegetation surveys allow me to measure the height, coverage and reproduction ability of the various plants that I planted on the green roof. With the rainy summer we’ve been having in Chicago, most of the plants are doing quite well and my little plots continue to look like mini-prairies. Originally, August was supposed to be the last time that I had to take these measurements. But my mini-prairies are looking so good (and I’m such a botanist!) that I want to come back next year and measure them again. We’ll see if that’s still the plan come 2016.

Funny hat? Socks hiked up over my pant legs? It must be time for data collection in the prairie!

Funny hat? Socks hiked up over my pant legs? It must be time for data collection in the prairie!

Speaking of prairies, I also visited an actual prairie for my research (on the ground this time, as opposed to a rooftop). Two interns from the Chicago Botanic Garden and I took a trip to a large prairie in central Illinois to collect leaf tissue from the same species of plant that I’m studying on the roofs. I am looking at how pollen movement in this species can help increase the genetic diversity of green roof populations. But I wanted to know what the genetic diversity of this species is like in natural populations, in real prairies. So we collected leaf tissue from a natural population, extracted the DNA from the leaf cells, and are now working in the lab to measure the diversity. This is a work in progress, so stay tuned for the results. If anything, it was neat to see the plant species I’m working with in its natural habitat.

Interns from the Chicago Botanic Garden help me collect leaf samples from the natural prairie population.

Interns from the Chicago Botanic Garden help me collect leaf samples from the natural prairie population.

In addition to collecting lots of data, I was also fortunate to be asked to present some of the overall findings of my research so far. I’m still working on collecting some more data from internet sources and analyzing my results but I am beginning to find some trends with the data that I collected back on the green roofs in Germany in 2013. It seems like there are very few patterns that predict which plant species colonize green roofs and survive on them over time. It looks like each green roof is a unique place with its own community of plants and animals that live there. I was able to share these results (and others) at a special green roof session of the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Baltimore, MD. And not only did I get to present my research, but I got to attend lectures and workshops where I learned about other people’s research too. It was a busy week in Baltimore and even though I came back tired, I was also inspired and excited to keep making discoveries with my own research.

The hotel at the Baltimore Convention Center had a green roof. A great inspiration view as I prepared to give a presentation about my green roof research at the ESA conference.

The hotel at the Baltimore Convention Center had a green roof. A great inspiration view as I prepared to give a presentation about my green roof research at the ESA conference.

And finally, in August I started to work in the lab again to continue work that I’ve been doing for about a year now. The lab was super busy with summer interns but toward the end of the month things quieted down a bit and I could claim some work space back. I’m ready to continue the work I was doing back in the spring. It’s time to find out if I can determine the father plants of all the seeds that I collected last fall and grew up into little seedlings over the winter. It’s going to be a lot of work but I’m looking forward to being a bit of a botanical detective!

Research update: June 2015

I was as busy as a bee in June. Just like this carpenter bee I saw on one of my green roofs. It's too big to get in this flower's opening so the bee is actually poking holes in the flower with it's mouth to drink the nectar. So smart!

I was as busy as a bee in June. Just like this carpenter bee I saw on one of my green roofs. It’s too big to get in this flower’s opening so the bee is actually poking holes in the flower with it’s mouth to drink the nectar. So smart!

Summer, summer. The busiest and probably the most fun time of the year in terms of research. There’s lots to do out on the green roofs now that all the plants are growing and the pollinators are flying, but this is what I look forward to all winter long when I’m in the lab or working on my computer.

 

My green roof plots are starting to look like shortgrass prairies! I'll keep measuring them with my big 100-square grid.

My green roof plots are starting to look like shortgrass prairies! I’ll keep measuring them with my big 100-square grid.

 

I was happy to talk about the benefits of green roofs with the many visitors that came to the World Environment Day celebration at the Chicago Botanic Garden

I was happy to talk about the benefits of green roofs with the many visitors that came to the World Environment Day celebration at the Chicago Botanic Garden

This past month, I visited all five of my green roof research sites. I measured all the plants to see which ones had survived the winter and how much taller they were since last year at this time. I’m happy to say that there were a lot of survivors. Many of the plants are starting to bloom and some are bigger than last year. My prairie plots are actually starting to look like short grass prairies! After working on them for years, it’s quite nice to see!

I add the same amount of water to all my green roof trays when I measure their transpiration rate.

I add the same amount of water to all my green roof trays when I measure their transpiration rate.

This month, I also continued to work on some experiments with my green roof trays. I measured the transpiration rate in the experimental trays again – that’s a measurement of how fast water evaporates from the growing media and leaves the plants through their leaves. So far it looks like the prairie mixes in the trays are able to hold on to water in the same way that trays planted with non-native succulent plants can. This is a good sign because it means that native plants would still be useful for green roofs that are designed to hold rainwater.

My summer volunteer, Mike, and I clean the soil from the roots of the weeds we found growing in the green roof trays. It's a good project to do in the lab on a rainy day.

My summer volunteer, Mike, and I clean the soil from the roots of the weeds we found growing in the green roof trays. It’s a good project to do in the lab on a rainy day.

Some people think that using the non-native succulent plants will help prevent unwanted weeds from growing on a green roof, so this summer I’m measuring that too. It’s not too difficult but a little time consuming to measure this. Basically, I just pull out all the weeds, wash the soil from their roots, dry them in an oven and weigh the dried plant tissue. So far it looks like the common idea holds true – the trays that have succulent plants have fewer weeds. I’ll keep measuring this over the summer so I can make sure this trend is supported all year long (or maybe not… we’ll see).

And in June I also added a new experiment to see if pollinators are moving between my plants of interest on the roof and gardens on the ground. To do this, I placed some potted plants called Penstemon hirsutus or “hairy beardtongue” (I know – what a funny name!) on a green roof and at the base of the building on the ground. Then I painted the flowers on these plants with a powdered fluorescent dye. I returned to the plants at the end of the day with a UV light that helps me see even small specks of dye to see if any dye has been moved from the ground to the roof or vice versa. So far, there’s no evidence that this has happened but I’ll keep looking. If I see that the dye has been moved then I’ll know that a pollinator has been to both of my hairy beardtongue populations. I’ve got my fingers crossed!

This little syrphid fly visited this plant right after I finished painting the flower with florescent dye. I didn't find any red dye on the other populations from this little guy but I'll keep looking.

This little syrphid fly visited this plant right after I finished painting the flower with florescent dye. I didn’t find any red dye on the other populations from this little guy but I’ll keep looking.

Research update: May 2015

It’s hard to believe that spring has already come and gone. Yep, May is over and summer is officially here. It’s been a good past month for research with a lot of chances for me to collect more data on the green roofs and spread the word about the importance of native plants in cities.

The experimental green roof trays at Loyola University are looking good!

The experimental green roof trays at Loyola University are looking good!

Early in the month, I wrote a blog post of a different kind for the main blog at the Chicago Botanic Garden, describing different ways in which botanists like me can share their research with a wide variety of people. About a week later I was also able to “walk the walk” as they say, and give a presentation to the Will County Audubon Society about how native pollinators can be supported by using native plants in urban gardens like the green roofs I study. The audience was very attentive and had some great questions – they even built their own “bee condos” which are homes for native mason bees. Later in the month, I was an audience member myself at an event hosted by the West Cook County chapter of WildOnes, an organization that promotes awareness of native plants and animals. At their annual Native Plant Conference, I was able to hear Dr. Doug Tallamy speak – he is a real champion of native plants and both his presentation and his book, Bringing Nature Home, were really inspiring!

 

The temperature probes have all been read and are now buried in the green roof soil again. A little lady bug was also interested in my data!

The temperature probes have all been read and are now buried in the green roof soil again. A little lady bug was also interested in my data!

The native plants on the green roofs are still small but looking pretty good!

The native plants on the green roofs are still small but looking pretty good!

Out on the roofs, my research plants are looking good. For the most part. Of the 5 locations where I planted prairie plants, 4 of them are going strong and the other one… well… about 90% of the plants are dead. It’s a bit disappointing but that’s science for you. Not to worry though, I still have plenty of projects to keep me busy. In May, I finished collecting all of the temperature probes from the green roofs so I now know just how cold it got on all the roofs this past winter (very cold, in case you’re wondering!). I started recording data on all the plants that survived the winter and how much they’re grown since last summer. I’ll continue to gather these data for the rest of the summer, so stay tuned.

 

To record all the temperature data, I bring a computer up to the roofs. And then I cross my fingers that it doesn't rain.

To record all the temperature data, I bring a computer up to the roofs. And then I cross my fingers that it doesn’t rain.

I collected some interesting data about the evaporation rates in the green roof trays.

I collected some interesting data about the evaporation rates in the green roof trays.

This past month, I also started a new experiment, where I’m measuring the rate of water capture and evaporation from my experimental trays. I think that the trays with native prairie plants and the ones with the non-native succulent plants will be able to capture rainwater at the same rate. It is important for all green roofs to keep rainwater on the roof so it doesn’t run into already-stressed stormwater/sewer systems in the city. It’s also important for the green roofs to be able to release this water slowly in warm weather because this evaporation helps keep buildings cool. I measure evaporation rate by weighing wet trays every few hours. This was a great way to collect data but I learned that it’s also very physically demanding! Each time, you bend down to pick up a heavy (about 25-30 pounds) tray,  bend down to put it on the scale, bend down to pick it up, and bend down again to put it back in its place. Multiply that by 40 trays and 6 rounds of measurements in 24 hours… well you do the math on that. Let’s just say that there’s no need to go to the gym on these evaporation measurement days!

I carefully took about 600 tiny seedlings out of their petri dishes and put them into small test tube. I'll extract the seedlings' DNA soon.

I carefully took about 600 tiny seedlings out of their petri dishes and put them into small test tube. I’ll extract the seedlings’ DNA soon.

To get a break from the outdoor work, I also finished the task of germinating the seeds for my paternity experiment. I was hoping that the seedlings would get a bit bigger but they were just growing in this jello-like substance and they didn’t have the nutrients they needed to grow anymore. So I took about 600 of the seedlings, put them in tiny test tubes, and put them in a very cold freezer. I’m hoping that on rainy days this summer I’ll be able to start extracting their DNA and determine if pollen is moving between green roof to produce seedlings with parents from more than one green roof. There will be a lot more work involved with this experiment in the future.

And finally, this month I was officially inducted as a Northwestern University Presidential Fellow! I am honored to be part of an incredibly amazing group of graduate students and am really looking forward to learning from them as well as sharing my research with this talented group of fellows.

Research update: April 2015

Welcome spring – I think it’s finally here to stay!

April was a good month and things are finally starting to look a little more exciting up on the green roofs. For a botanist, “exciting” means that the plants are back!

The experimental seeds in the incubator are getting bigger!

The experimental seeds in the incubator are getting bigger!

My little germinating seeds in the incubator are beginning to grow up a bit. But even more exciting is that after a long winter (well, a typical winter – but in Chicago this always tends to feel a bit long), I am happy to report that many of the prairie plants that I planted on the green roofs last year or the year before are coming back. A lot of the species seemed to have made it through the winter and are starting to pop up through the surface of the rocky green roof soil. Among the dried leaves from last year are little bits of green – exciting to see!

The prairie plants are starting to grow again on the green roofs!

The prairie plants are starting to grow again on the green roofs!

Blades of a grass called "little bluestem" are starting to emerge around last year's dried up leaves.

Blades of a grass called “little bluestem” are starting to emerge around last year’s dried up leaves.

 

The winter data from the temperature probes has been recorded and they're ready to record data all summer long.

The winter data from the temperature probes has been recorded and they’re ready to record data all summer long.

It’s still a bit too early in the year to start taking measurements of the plants (that task will start next month) but I was able to find all the temperature probes that I buried in the fall. I dug them up, downloaded their data onto my computer, and re-buried them so that they keep recording temperature data all year long. It was interesting to see that it got pretty cold up on the roofs over the winter. Sometimes my probes were even encased in blocks of ice and continued to record 0 degrees Celsius (that’s 32 degrees Fahrenheit, or the freezing point of water) for many days and nights in a row. These green roof plants are a lot tougher than I am – no way I would have survived all winter up on the roofs!

 

The honey bees are buzzing on the green roofs again.

The honey bees are buzzing on the green roofs again.

In addition to the plants coming back to the roofs, some of the animals are back too. Although they are not part of my research, it’s still fun for me to see honey bees buzzing around their hives, geese nesting and little killdeer laying eggs on the roofs. Sometimes the green roofs where I work are not accessible to other people and I’m collecting data by myself so it’s nice to know that I’ve got a couple green roof buddies… even if they’re all of the flying variety.

 

 

A killdeer nest on a green roof. I can't wait to see the cute little baby killdeer!

A killdeer nest on a green roof. I can’t wait to see the cute little baby killdeer!

A mother goose keeps her eggs warm on one of the green roofs where I have my experiments.

A mother goose keeps her eggs warm on one of the green roofs where I have my experiments.

Dr. Kevin Rice visits from California and talks about his plant science research.

Dr. Kevin Rice visits from California and talks about his plant science research.

As the outdoor data collection season starts to ramp up, I’ve also been doing some indoor work, especially giving and organizing presentations. I had the privilege of helping to organize a visit from Dr. Kevin Rice, a plant scientist from the University of California in Davis. Along with some smaller meetings and social events, Dr. Rice gave a presentation about his research. It was really interesting to learn from a more experienced scientist, especially hearing about how he and his research team have been saving blue oak trees from severe drought in California.

"Design your own green roof" worksheets from my new activity book, Growing UP in the City, are ready to bring to a group of 5-8 graders.

“Design your own green roof” worksheets from my new activity book, Growing UP in the City, are ready to bring to a group of 5-8 graders.

I also gave four presentations myself this month, three of them in Pittsburgh through the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens as a current Botany in Action Fellow. During my trip to Pittsburgh, I talked to about 120 students at an all-girls school, a group of interested community members, and various Phipps staff members.

 

 

I bring a variety of resources and some of my research tools to my presentations so people can get a better visual of what I discuss in my presentations.

I bring a variety of resources and some of my research tools to my presentations so people can get a better visual of what I discuss in my presentations.

Back in the Chicago area, I gave a presentation to a local group of beekeepers who were interested in learning more about native pollinators and native plants. It was a pleasure to be able to talk about my research to such a diverse group of people and I look forward to doing a lot more of this type of science communication in the future.

I had a great time talking with a group of 5th-8th graders in Pittsburgh about my life as a botanist.

I had a great time talking with a group of 5th-8th graders in Pittsburgh about my life as a botanist.