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!

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Research update: January 2015

This is the cover of the children's activity book I just published about my green roof research.

This is the cover of the children’s activity book I just published about my green roof research.

This month’s research update is starting with something quite different! I am very proud to share that I am now the coauthor of a published book! It may not be a very long one (24 pages) but it’s on sale on Amazon.com, so I figure that’s pretty official. As part of an outreach project to share my plant research with people other than scientists, my friend and fellow botanist/educator Olyssa Starry and I wrote a children’s activity book about the benefits of green roofs in cities. The book was beautifully illustrated by Ryan Patterson, who did a fantastic job bringing our ideas to life. Now children everywhere (and grown-ups kids too) can learn about green roofs while completing activities like a word search, coloring, reading temperatures, stepping-stone game, roof design, and bug hunt, just to name a few. There is even a part at the end that guides the reader through designing and carrying out a green roof research project, so if you’re interested, you too can bring botany to action in your city. Olyssa and I have been talking about this idea for years now and it’s really exciting to have come this far. Our goal is to be able to provide books to environmental education programs wherever there are green roofs – which is pretty much all over the world! I added a new page to this blog site with more information on how to get a free digital copy if you’d like.

Winter weather means lots of lab work for botanists like me!

Winter weather means lots of lab work for botanists like me!

This plate with nearly 100 little wells is filled with liquid and then used to help me separate my parental plants according to their unique DNA.

This plate with nearly 100 little wells is filled with liquid and then used to help me separate my parental plants according to their unique DNA.

As far as my research progress goes, I’ve been spending a lot of my time in the laboratory, working on my genetic paternity experiment. I’m making sure that my plant seeds are all “hibernating” in their winter-temperature incubator, and I’ve been performing a lot of tests to try and figure out how to sort out all of my individuals according to their DNA. Unfortunately, most of the plants I used in the experiment have very similar DNA because they all came from the same plant nursery. I’ll only be able to find a unique DNA “fingerprint” or DNA sequence for each individual if I keep looking at more sections in each plant… so I’ll keep looking.

In addition to writing and lab work in January, I also started taking a class about “population genetics” – this is the study of how organisms spread their genes or DNA over time. It’s a really tough class, but it will be useful when it’s time for me to explain how pollinators move pollen (which has plants’ DNA) between the rooftop populations of my test plants. I’m also helping to teach a class about statistics, which is the fancy math that plant biologists use to describe the relationships that we see between plants and their environment. Together, the population genetics information and the statistics will help me find the trends in my data once I’ve collected them all. So as the winter continues to move on, I’m continuing to gather little pieces to help solve my plant research puzzles.

I've loaded tiny little wells in this gel with my DNA samples and a blue dye. I'll run electric current through the submerged gel to see if my experiments worked.

I’ve loaded tiny little wells in this gel with my DNA samples and a blue dye. I’ll run electric current through the submerged gel to see if my experiments worked.