Archive for May, 2012

From Kathiann M. Kowalski

The Environmental Fellows in the MBL’s Logan Science Journalism Program have returned to Woods Hole after two full and exhausting days of field work at the Harvard Forest. Besides being an incredible living laboratory for lots of ecological research, Harvard Forest is a place of great beauty. The view of the hemlock forest canopy was especially breathtaking.

Hemlocks in Harvard Forest. Photo by KM Kowalski

Sadly, Harvard Forest Director David Foster reports, most of the hemlocks there may be dead in as little as ten years. Hemlock wooly adelgid infestation will drastically change the face of the forest.

Closer to ground, our group took carbon dioxide readings from plots at the MBL’s heated soil experiment area. That experiment examines questions related to climate change.

We also took core samples from Black Gum Swamp. We want to see what organic material the sediments contain as we go deeper and further back in time.

Core sampling at Black Gum Swamp, Harvard Forest. Photo by KM Kowalski

Now we’re working with the core samples and data from our field work. We’ve heard the saying that even a bad day in the field beats a good day in the office, and I do miss the beauty and serenity of the majestic hemlocks and the rest of the trees.

On the other hand, it’s also fun trying to sift through the data so we can see what it tells us. And we’re looking forward to preparing our presentations for the end of the week. Now we just need Excel, PowerPoint, and the rest of our computer programs to cooperate.

The Environmental Fellows in the MBL’s Logan Science Journalism Program spent the weekend gathering data at Harvard Forest in Petersham, Mass. Here’s how one day went down:

By Kathiann M. Kowalski

Our first full day of field work was both exhausting and fascinating. During the morning, we sampled meter-square plots to determine how moose and deer grazing affect trees in Harvard Forest. Highstead ecologist Ed Faison explained his research in this area. Then we counted species, took measurements, and noted any signs of grazing. In other words, “Eaten, or not eaten?”

As with any good science experiment, we had a control area. Within the control area, deer and moose are free to wander at will. Although none came near us, we saw evidence of lots of grazing. At least one moose also left some scat for us to observe.

We then took measurements in two experimental areas. One was fenced in to keep moose and deer out entirely. The other had an opening two feet up from the ground. Deer could scoot under, but moose were out of luck. The complete exclosure showed almost no signs of grazing. The partial exclosure had some evidence of grazing, but still less than the control area. We’ll wait for data analysis back at the lab to see if more specific conclusions can be drawn.

After lunch back at Shaner Hall, we headed out into the field again—this time to observe and examine evidence of the hemlock wooly adelgid and its impacts on the forest. Forest ecologist David Orwig described his research and the spread of this Asian pest across the Eastern seaboard. Then we counted wooly adelgid egg sacks on the undersides of marked leaves. The highest count I got on one branch was 317; yet another branch on the same tree had only 3.

Again, we measured the types, height, and diameters of trees in one-meter plots for a control area. Afterward, we took similar measurements in an experimental area where researchers had run cuts along the trunks of Eastern hemlocks. The resulting “girdling” mimicked the effects of the wooly adelgid by causing the trees to starve. While there were far fewer Eastern hemlocks in the experimental area, there was a surprising amount of understory growth going on. One of our one-meter plots had a whopping ten trees in it!

In addition to the sampling and protocols, we learned some important things about doing science in the field. For one thing, there’s lots of preparation and staging. Once our transects were finally laid out, doing observations and taking measurements took way more time than any of us anticipated. You have to do the work carefully and methodically. Working with a buddy helps—not just to share work but also to remind each other to follow each step exactly. Like many other professions, doing a good job means taking the time to do it carefully and to do it right.

The hike in and out of the hemlock forest followed a beautiful trail, complete with babbling brook. It’s scary to think that a pest like the wooly adelgid could kill those majestic trees and transform the area.

Scampering around the hills without trails was more challenging, especially when carrying tape measures, meter sticks, meter frames, and other paraphernalia. I did fall on my butt twice—fortunately suffering just a bruise. And the bugs were indeed biting—despite multiple applications of spray, long clothing, and so forth. Chris Neill and Rich McHorney say we’re just not used to the exertion. In any case, none of us felt the least bit guilty about the delicious blueberry pie at dinner.

All in all, though, it was a good day. I know I’ll sleep well tonight!

Welcome back to @MBL! Here to help launch the 2012 edition of the MBL’s blog are the Logan Science Journalism Fellows, 11 sharp journalists who were selected to come to Woods Hole and undertake hands-on scientific research guided by MBL investigators.

The Biomedical Fellows have already met one of their model systems, the sea urchin, and mastered pipetting techniques; today they’ll collect the urchin’s sperm, fertilize its eggs, and watch the fascinating process of cell division unfold. They are in the lab with longtime MBL Whitman investigators David Burgess of Boston College and Charles “Brad” Schuster of New Mexico State University.

The Environmental Fellows left yesterday for Harvard Forest, a Harvard University-run environmental research station in Petersham, Massachusetts, that is one of the best-studied forests in the world. Under the leadership of MBL Ecosystems Center scientist Chris Neill, the fellows will “hook in” to four ongoing research studies at the forest, and will choose one to focus on for their final research presentation to their peers.

Below, Environmental Fellow Kathiann Kowalski gives her impressions of the first day of the program.

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Welcome from Woods Hole! After orientation on Thursday morning, MBL Communications Director Andrea Early led us jolly good science journalism fellows on a walking tour of the MBL campus and the village of Woods Hole. The view of MBL from across Eel Pond on School Street was gorgeous.

The MBL as seen across Eel Pond. Photo by K. Kowalski

For me, the MBL’s Stony Beach was a major highlight of the tour. The quiet beach on Buzzards Bay is just two blocks from campus and offers a place to read, relax, and enjoy the views. I should have time to walk to the beach on at least a few mornings. (This time of the year, the sun comes up well before 6 AM in Massachusetts, and lab work in Woods Hole generally won’t start until 9.)

The MBL's hangout, Stony Beach. Photo by K. Kowalski

On Thursday afternoon, the Environmental Fellows piled into the MBL van, and our fearless leader Chris Neill drove us to Harvard Forest in the wilds of central Massachusetts. Piling out, we grabbed our gear and got ourselves settled into the lovely old farmhouse that will serve as our “dormitory” for the next few days.

Harvard Forest farmhouse. Photo by K Kowalski

During dinner, Chris, MBL Ecosystems Center scientist Rich McHorney, and Clarisse Hart, Harvard Forest’s outreach manager, gave us an overview of the history and ongoing studies at the forest. The area was originally primary forest, but by 1830 it was almost all cleared for farmland. Starting in 1850, however, people began to abandon the farms—partly because the Erie Canal, steam power, and development of the Midwest made it easier to ship food in, and partly because the Civil War took many men away from their homes. Now the area is back to dense forest with hemlocks, white pine, red oak, and more.

After dinner, we did the first step in our scientific work—selecting sites to sample for two projects. One will look at the impacts of moose and deer, which are recolonizing the forest area. The other will examine effects of the hemlock wooly adelgid, an invasive pest.

Rich attached double-sided, random-number charts to a dartboard, and we started pitching. Wherever a dart struck determined the x and y axis values for where we’d start taking measurements in the field. Of course, our aims are all awful, so the results were indeed totally random. Random sampling is important in scientific studies to avoid researcher bias.

Random sampling by dart throwing. Photo by K. Kowalski

On Friday morning, we head out into the field. Let’s hope the DEET does its job and keeps the biting bugs at bay.