Each summer the KBS LTER supports students to participate in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, funded by the National Science Foundation. This is part of a larger REU and intern program at KBS. Caitlyn Byron, a senior at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio, writes about her REU experience working with KBS LTER scientists Drs. Tim Dickson and Kay Gross.
It is a beautiful morning in southwest Michigan, so I pause to take it in as I step out of my apartment. The birds are chirping, I can hear boats zooming across Gull Lake, and the sun is peaking through the trees just enough to speckle the sidewalk and surrounding soil with a dazzling array of dancing light. I am sporting the classic field ecologist look, complete with boots, long pants, and a sun hat. Even dressed in my surely silly-looking garb, I strut around happily enjoying the perfect morning with a smile on my face. I load up my Mini Cooper (the perfect field companion, I tell you) with the very complex equipment I will need for the day: toothpicks, PVC pipe, and a notebook. I am off for a very exciting day in the field. That is, if hunching over to count seedlings in an old field plot with dense vegetation over my head is exciting. I just keep on smiling, remembering why I am here.
My research this summer is extremely interesting, considering the implications it will have. I am working on part of an experiment that has been going on for 25 years. It is no small endeavor. The Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) site at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) is the only LTER site that focuses on row-crop agriculture. All sorts of studies involving nitrogen fertilizer have been and are being done here, since nitrogen pollution is such a big problem nowadays. The larger project that I am a part of is focused on declines in plant species richness as caused by nitrogen fertilization. It has been found through the ongoing research at the KBS LTER that under fertilized conditions, plant species that are considered tall and that reproduce clonally tend to drive declines in overall species richness in grasslands. That means that as the amount of tall, clonal species increases, overall species richness decreases. Researchers at KBS are now spending a lot of time trying to figure out why that is, and what causes it. My Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) mentor, Dr. Tim Dickson, and the head of my lab, Dr. Kay Gross, are two of the researchers who are putting their all into these studies.
My specific project involves – you guessed it – seedlings. I am looking at how seedlings that naturally occur in LTER old field plots survive and establish themselves under fertilized conditions. I am also observing what happens to the seedlings when those tall, clonal species that tend to take over are removed. So far my data are looking really interesting. My mentor is even telling me that I could publish my results. That is extremely exciting for me, coming from a small, liberal arts school in Ohio. My university does not have an abundance of research opportunities, so the thought of being published as an undergrad is pretty hard to imagine. So though my data collection may be tedious, and I start to wish that I was in an air conditioned lab on 90 degree days, I could not have wished for a better way to spend my summer. I am so glad that KBS has allowed me to have this amazing chance to better myself as a scientist.
And besides, when my field work starts to wear me down and drive me nuts, I know I can always count on having something fun to do when I get done. There is always something to do here. The group of undergraduates at KBS this summer is full of interesting, intelligent people. Being part of such a wonderful group of researchers keeps me motivated and helps me remember why I go out and count seedlings every day. That community of scientists is truly the best part about being at a place like this. It is that community that helps me to remember to enjoy these beautiful mornings and strut around happily instead of skulking and cursing my poor, little seedlings.