McKerricher State Park and Coastal Dunes

Every spring, I teach a class on plant communities of California, that travels on four field trips to different parts of the state to see some of the incredible range of terrestrial ecosystems in our neighborhood. Last weekend we took three days to go towards the coast, in the Mendocino area. The trip takes students from coastal dunes to coastal prairie to riparian system to pygmy forests to mixed evergreen forests and ends with old-growth redwood. Along the way they learn to identify the different plant species, understand the different drivers that cause the plant communities to be what they are, and hear stories of the history and social factors that shape how we think about these communities today.

These are a few of my students from McKerricher state park, where the students conducted a sampling exercise to look at how the assembly of plants changed as they moved from the high tide line towards the inland dunes. The plants we saw include beach evening primrose, purple owl’s clover, Indian paintbrush, beach bur, coastal sagewort, knotweed, American dune grass, and sand verbena. These plants all have amazing adaptations to the shifting sands, harsh winds, bright light, salty air, and low water supply they have to deal with in this environment. One of these adaptations is a spreading below-ground root structures that anchor the plants in the dunes, store water and nutrients for drought, and allow the plant to resprout if it is buried. Check out the photo of the sand verba roots–you’d never know from their cute little leaves that such a monster lay underneath! We also enjoyed a stunning display from Menzies’ wallflower, an endangered species with a limited range along the California coast.

Wild River

I spent two summers working in Olympic National Park, monitoring how plant communities returned along the Elwha river after the removal of two large dams and draining of the reservoirs. Summers in Washington are bright green, full of big leaves and new growth. This spring I had the opportunity to re-visit those areas, many of which have been drastically changed by winter storms.

As the river settles into new channels, it regularly shifts and floods, and the buildup of silt from the dams continues to move downstream, often in intense and even destructive ways. My visit to the Elwha revealed the destruction a wild river can create, with torn up logs and wrecked campgrounds. One of the reservoirs is not currently accessible, as the river has taken out portions of the road to it, and the other has been carved up significantly, with large chunks of fertile, silty soil washed downstream and the rocky bed underneath exposed.

At the same time, the river continues to be full of life, with new plants growing every day. Older willows and cottonwoods that germinated when the dams were first broken down have matured enough to start reproducing, contributing to the next generation of trees. Animals are making use of the space, with flocks of swallows moving through the open evening, eagles nesting in the tops of trees, and all sorts of amphibians moving in and out of the water.

The last two summers, the story of the reservoirs has been one of abundant growth and forward progress. This spring revealed a more complex path taken by nature, as destruction becomes part of the very process of restoration. We can only imagine what the river will do in the decades to come.

NSF GRFP

That string of consonants in the title stands for National Science Foundation, Graduate Research Fellowship Program. It’s an award given to starting graduate students in the sciences, to fund their studies and research for a total of three years. This year was my third and final chance to apply for it, and I am thrilled and honored to have been selected.

Receiving the award itself is a huge honor, and a compliment to the work I’ve done so far. The financial support that comes with it enables me to spend more time focused on research and be more adventurous in the research I undertake. My main project is understanding the effects of climate on post-fire regeneration in the Sierras, through manipulative experiments and large-scale modeling. I will also be working on a post-fire regeneration project in chaparral, looking at the interactions between shrubs and wildflowers after a three-year drought. Finally, I am planning a trip to Kenya to run a short research project (yes, also potentially involving fire).

Applying for this award each year has been an incredibly emotional process, with a lot of insecurities and frustrations. I am very grateful that my reviewers appreciated not only my proposed project, but also my emphasis on teaching, photography, and mentoring as core aspects of my approach to science. I am also overwhelmingly thankful for my family, friends, and labmates who edited my drafts and supported me. This is a very helpful stepping stone, and I’m so excited for the years of work to come.

Still Alive!

This fall, I built an experiment in the mountains to see how drought after a fire would affect conifer seedlings growing back in that burn area. I am particularly interested in how competitive interactions between conifers and shrubs are changed by the amount of water available. The project involved more construction work than I’d ever anticipated, and I spent a great deal of time brainstorming potential weak points, and then doing my best to address those issues.

As a consequence of all the time thinking about everything that could possibly go horrifically wrong, I became convinced that the experiment was in fact quite likely to fail. I didn’t think I’d be able to access the site again until spring, but recent warm spells here melted enough of the snow that I was actually able to get to my site to check on things.

After a more exciting than anticipated drive over still-slightly-frozen roads, I made it out to my site, and was overjoyed to find my structures still standing! Not only standing, but holding up really well.

Still standing, with everything major intact
Evidence of successfully shedding snow
Visible soil moisture difference inside and outside the shelters
Plastic-lined trenches are doing a great job diverting all that snowmelt
Minor issues: some of the plastic had been blown askew
Two broken connectors, but the rest of the frame was still holding strong

Building an experiment, controlling the weather

This summer and fall I established an experiment that will hopefully become one of the major components of my dissertation. My current interest focus on how forests regrow after wildfires, and in particular how the weather patterns the years after a fire (for example, the current California drought) can have long-term effects on that regrowth.

Previously this question has been addressed using observation, by sampling fires which burned in different years and correlating their regeneration with those years’ weather.  While this is a great approach, the data is often noisy and messy, with lots of complications from other factors (location, fire severity, weather in the years before the fire). So instead, I decided to control the weather.

The goal was to build some kind of shelter that would keep out rain and snow, thereby generating drought conditions. I would then plant conifer (pine and fir) seeds, some under the shelters and others outside of them, to test the effects of drought on germination, survival, and growth. Just to make things a little more complicated, I was also going to manipulate the presence of shrubs, which resprout in burned areas and can suppress conifer seedlings, either leaving them in place or clipping and herbiciding them.

After hours of meeting with professors, fellow students, family, and friends developing a (hopefully) structurally sound and cost-efficient design, I got to start building.

My site before building, with plots laid out with flags.
Transporting PVC pipe. This is less than half the total used for the project.
Transporting PVC pipe. This is less than half the total used for the project.
Shelter base. Note the small stakes marking each planted seed, and the 6″ trench around the perimeter.
I had to hack through larger shrubs in the way of the shelters.
I had to hack through larger shrubs in the way of the shelters.
Completed shelter skeleton, with corners lashed together with paracord.
Completed shelter skeleton, with corners lashed together with paracord.

 

Creative ways to hold chicken wire in place. Fortunately I got help for the rest of the shelters on this step!
Creative ways to hold chicken wire in place. Fortunately I got help for the rest of the shelters on this step!
One of the shelters and trenches with the herbicide treatment (no shrubs). Time for the final step--adding the plastic roofing!
One of the shelters and trenches with the herbicide treatment (no shrubs). Time for the final step–adding the plastic roofing!
15 yards of plastic sheeting. In total I used 300 yards for the project.
15 yards of plastic sheeting (enough for one shelter)
For the first shelter, I spent an hour carefully tying down the plastic sheeting, an endeavor that involved temporary holds with duct tape and make-shift needles from spare wire.
For the first shelter, I spent an hour carefully tying down the plastic sheeting, an endeavor that involved temporary holds with duct tape and make-shift needles from spare wire.

 

Thank goodness one of my labmates suggested a much easier solution--zip ties!
Thank goodness one of my labmates suggested a much easier solution–zip ties!
The completed shelters looked stunning. After so many weekends of work, I was incredibly happy to be done. Now I just have to hope that they're sturdy enough to hold through the winter!
The completed shelters looked stunning. After so many weekends of work, I was incredibly happy to be done. Now I just have to hope that they’re sturdy enough to hold through the winter!

 

From the inside
The view from the inside. There’s just enough space for me to walk between the seeds if I crouch low.

In total, I planted 1152 seeds. I spent four ten-hour days on my hands and knees clipping and herbiciding hundreds of 1cm shrub stems. I dug and filled 80 meters of plastic-lined trenches. I built 8 shelters, which took 48 feet of rebar, 300 feet of plastic sheeting, 450 feet of chicken wire, 800 feet of paracord, and a third of a mile of 1″ PVC, cut into 312 pieces.

Most amazing to me was all the help I got, from family who lent tools to labmates who helped with the final building push, and the countless people who invested time and advice in the designing and planning. I found out on this project that it really does take a village. Thank you all so, so much.

The forest is my office

To an ecologist, summer means fieldwork. It’s a time to get off our computers and get on the road, migrating to wherever our research calls us. Between early morning starts and hours of outside work, long summer days get used to their fullest. This year, my summer is split between setting up a new experiment in a section of the Sierras that burned in a wildfire last year, and re-sampling my plots in Olympic National Park, Washington.

It’s wonderful being back in the Olympics. The project I’m working on here, a restoration of the Elwha river after the removal of two dams, continues to amaze me every day. The determination required by legislators, engineers, and ecologists to turn a legal decision into a reality is astonishing and motivating. In both reservoirs, plants are seeding in, growing tall in hospitable soils of the valley walls and fighting for survival in the harsher sediment on the valley floor. Take a look at how much things have changed!

The northern section of former Lake Aldwell, 2013
Aldwell reservoir, July 2013
Aldwell reservoir, July 2015
Aldwell reservoir, July 2015
Mills reservoir, July 2013
Mills reservoir, July 2013
Mills reservoir, July 2015
Mills reservoir, July 2015

Everything is bigger and greener, and yet some things don’t change: I’m still climbing around on old conifer logs, finding amazing wildlife from insects to eagles, and generally reveling in the opportunity to spend every day outdoors and call it work.

King Fire

One of my current research projects is examining how plants are regrowing in the King fire, which burned last summer. Later this summer I’ll be setting up a manipulative experiment, to see how climate affects this regrowth, but first I wanted to familiarize myself with the area.

Before the fire, these hills were mostly pine forests, with some sections of oak and a couple hillsides that were dominated by shrubs. The fire scorched through at fairly high severity, burning out all of the shrubs and flowering plants, and killing many of even the tallest pine trees. In some areas, the pines are just black poles, all their branches burned off all the way to the top. Old stumps were completely incinerated, leaving enormous holes in the dirt.

This summer, wildflowers are popping up across the region, taking advantage of the open space to grow quickly. Other areas have shrubs resprouting from the roots of dead plants, and in a couple places where cones have fallen baby pines and firs are starting to grow. The colorful flowers against the sharp black trunks is completely different from anything I’ve seen before. I’m looking forward to taking higher quality pictures later, but I wanted to share with you some shots taken last week with my field camera (which proved itself to be ash-proof as well as water-proof).

Science puzzles

Our professor tells us that he has brought in a puzzle for us today, and as he speaks his fingers tap against a shell sitting in an unlabeled box. Does anyone know what this is? he asks. It looks like a clam or a mussel shell–a bivalve, with two sides of shells that clamp closely together. Specifically, it’s one half of a scallop shell, which we can tell from shell ridges shaped like corrugated cardboard and a small triangular base where the other half would attach. And, he mentions offhand, it’s about ten million years old.

His fingers wander over the edge of the shell with a tapping that varies between uncontrolled tremor and directed sensory input. On the shell are some lighter-colored growths, clusters of barnacles, themselves now shells. Our puzzle, he tells us, is to determine whether the barnacles grew on the scallop while it was alive or after it was dead: that is, were the two species part of an interacting community, or were they separated by that all powerful fourth dimension, time?

We pass the shell around, wondering at its familiarity. You could find shells washed up on the beach today that to our untutored eyes would be indistinguishable from this ancient specimen. We looked at colors, textures, and shape before handing it on to the next classmate, shaking our heads in failure to answer the proposed question.

The shell is handed back to him and when he asks for our decisions–and the reasoning to support them–silence descends. As he encourages us to share some response, any thought, he turns the shell over and over in his tapping fingers. Inside. Outside. Inside. Outside.

And there it is, the subtle obvious difference. My answer comes out as a question: The barnacles are only growing on one side of the shell? So they must have been growing at some point when the shell was still closed? I don’t know how long it takes for scallop shells to split apart after the organism inside dies. Maybe this tells us they lived at the same time, ten million years ago?

The fingers stop spinning the scallop. Yes, he says, and puts the ancient, fossilized community back into its box.

 

Selling the Researcher

When applying to graduate schools, or for competitive grants, you’re usually required to write a personal statement. This one short essay should span your deepest dreams and your highest accomplishments, and bundle it all up in the perfectly cohesive story of you. It should start with an engaging anecdote that encapsulates your motivation to study your research of choice. From there it should proceed to a series of research experiences which teach you life lessons as well as specific methods, and all connect in an intuitive progression. After dwelling on your intellectual victories, you should discuss all of the amazing things you’ve done to make everyone in the world love science as much as you do, preferably in a way that connects to your previously stated motivations for research. And finally, you should end with a set of future goals that demonstrate your ability to become the most successful researcher ever, and cure cancer in your free time.

The problem is, we’re real people. We don’t have cohesive stories; we lead messy lives full of twists and turns, and many of our decisions are based less on explicable motivations closely tied to our life goals, and more on a general feeling of “why not.” So writing these things becomes an exercise in spinning true facts into a believable story. Somewhere in the twisting, the story you’re creating gets bigger than your self. You pull out the brightest of your thoughts and passions and actions, and in the end all that’s left is that self huddled at the bottom of a life that’s been scraped empty.

It’s easy at that point, when you’re reaching for more shiny-ness and not finding anything, to blame that pitiful self for failing to do things or feel things that could have made your story so much better. But the truth is we do this backwards–we put the most glamorous, colorful moments into the paper, and sneer at the dull, scarred pieces left over. But it is those dark, gritty, scarring moments that make us who we are. It is the truths that sound awful or cliche written down that cannot be denied. The color and the shine are only our decoration; our core substance is made of much humbler stuff.

This is the personal statement I wrote for that self.

Personal Motivation: I’ve always loved to play outside. “Always” is a terrible word to put in a paper, because clearly newborn babies aren’t motivated to do anything other than survive, but there are pictures of two-year-old me covered head to toe in dirt from playing the best game ever: playing with rocks and sticks and dirt. Basically, I never really needed to grow up. I still spend time outside with plants and rocks and dirt, only now someone is willing to pay me to play the best game ever.

People ask me why I want to study forest communities. Why would I want to do anything else?

Academic Work: I was lucky enough to go to an amazing school where I got to take some really incredible classes with (for the most part) pretty decent professors. What I learned in those classes is thanks to them, not to me. I did well in those classes because I studied things I loved learning. I did well in those classes because I was willing to stay up until sunrise fixing bugs in my code. I did well in those classes because I had a great group of friends and we all helped each other out. And some days I still felt like I was failing at everything.

I’ve helped other people with their research and done some of my own research. Helping other people I learned a lot of what not to do, but then when I worked on my own projects a lot of it ended up happening anyway. That’s life. Things go wrong, you try to be flexible, and you make up for mistakes with hard work. Doing my own research, I get to ask complicated questions about the world and then engage on multi-year problem solving missions to answer them. Some people do crosswords, some people do sudoku. I do science.

Teaching and Outreach: 

In as much as I have ever felt called to do something, by an internal drive or an external duty, I am called to teach. That sounds stupid and corny and I would never put it in an academic document, but it’s also bare truth and any other way I would say it would be less sincere.

What it says on my resume is that I spent seven months teaching at a rural Indian school, where I developed my own curriculum, prepared lessons, and wrote exams. It says I learned to make detailed plans and to apply rapid problem solving to adjust to the demands of a combined-age classroom.

What it really should say is that I learned to make things up off the top of my head to adjust to the demands of the absolute chaos that happens when you take students from age 4 to age 10, and throw them together in the same classroom with a teacher who doesn’t speak their primarily language. That my only way to deal with the chaos was to keep making things up until maybe something worked. It should say that I spent seven months in Varanasi learning to be okay with being uncomfortable all the time, whether from being hot or cold or crowded or embarrassed. And it should say that I broke my heart on those dusty classroom floors so many times that some part of me still sits there, caught between the joy and the tears and the wishes that could never come true. So I continue to teach, partially for the sake of my students, and partially for myself, because teaching belongs somewhere in the core of who I am.

Future Goals: I want to continue to do work that I love, including research and teaching. The truth is I will do these things whether this particular organization gives me money or not, because though I’m promising you my work for your sponsorship, I refuse to sell you my soul. I will question, and I will teach, and the teaching will bring questions and the questions will bring teaching. And because there is more to me than my career, I will do so much more. I will create beautiful things and cook wholesome food and talk with inspiring people; and occasionally, I will drop all my work to run outside and dance in the rain.