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.

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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.

Research update: December 2014

Well, December really flew by. It was a busy month with traveling, holidays, family gatherings, and, of course, botany research!

At the beginning of the month, I finished teaching a university course about the relationship between plants and people. It’s been really interesting to incorporate what I’ve been learning through my research into a class. I hope my students enjoyed it and I hope I’ll have the chance to teach it or another class like it sometime soon. Next month, I’ll be a teaching assistant for a different course about how to interpret ecological and botanical data. I’m looking forward to sharing my research skills with a new group of students!

Writing bootcamp helped me think about the story that some of my data tell. Writing about your research is a big part of the whole process.

Writing bootcamp helped me think about the story that some of my data tell. Writing about your research is a big part of the whole process.

Earlier this past month, I also started to write a publication about my research. If you read my blog posts from 2013, you know I was collecting plant and insect data from green roofs in Germany. Now it’s time to take a close look at all the data and figure out what story they tell. To help me begin to write the story, I went to a writing “bootcamp” where other graduate students and I helped each other stay motivated to write about our research for 10 days. I was able to make a good start at writing but the bootcamp also helped me realize just how much MORE work I still need to do. Collecting the data is just one part of the whole research process!

Collecting the temperature data in December - it was pretty chilly on the rooftops!

Collecting the temperature data in December – it was pretty chilly on the rooftops!

Undergraduate student Sussana helps to remove the temperature probes on a green roof.

Undergraduate student Sussana helps to remove the temperature probes on a green roof.

It was a cold month and luckily I did most of my work in a heated office or lab. But there were a couple days when an undergraduate student and I had to finish collecting temperature probe data from the green roofs. The soil in the roof trays was a little frozen, but (with the help of some strong metal spoons and a trusty hair-dryer) we were eventually able to remove all the probes, record the data, and rebury the probes, where they are now safely collecting data until the spring.

Little agar plates are prepared and ready for me to put the cleaned seeds inside. The agar plates with seeds will stay in a cold incubator for the rest of winter.

Little agar plates are prepared and ready for me to put the cleaned seeds inside. The agar plates with seeds will stay in a cold incubator for the rest of winter.

And I am happy to report that I finally finished weighing fruits, extracting the seeds, and cleaning and counting them all. Would you believe there were more than 40,000 seeds!?! I’m sure glad that the seed counting portion of my research is over for now! After I finished this part, I was able to move on to the next part of the experiment, which involved cleaning the seeds in a weak bleach solution to remove any contaminating fungi, rinsing the seeds, and putting them into small petri dishes filled with a liquid jello-like substance called agar. The agar holds water so when the seeds begin to grow, they will have a water source. All the petri dishes are now in an incubator that is set at a very cold temperature to mimic winter in Chicago. In the spring, after the seeds have experienced a simulated winter in the incubator, I’ll remove them and help them grow into little seedlings so I can get DNA from their leaves for the next part of my experiment.

I'm using a computer program to help me determine the DNA fingerprint of each plant that I used in my experiment this summer.

I’m using a computer program to help me determine the DNA fingerprint of each plant that I used in my experiment this summer.

In the meantime, I’ll keep doing the lab work I’ve started, where I am trying to get a DNA fingerprint for all the parent plants in one of my experiments. The DNA fingerprints will help me differentiate between all 50 plants that I had out on 10 green roofs this past summer. Over the next few months, I’ll keep using some fancy expensive tools to help me learn about the small differences in the plants’ DNA that makes each one unique, just like you and me.