Trials and tribulations of a PhD student: Reflections from an LTER Fellow

PI Phoebe Zarnetske (left) and PhD candidate Moriah Young (right) posing outside of an Open Top Chamber and under a rainout shelter that simulate warming, drought, and warming + drought.
PI Phoebe Zarnetske (left) and PhD candidate Moriah Young (right) posing outside of an Open Top Chamber and under a rainout shelter that simulate warming, drought, and warming + drought. Moriah and her undergraduate mentee, Adrian Noecker, took soil samples from these field experiment plots for the greenhouse experiment. Photo taken by Nick Haddad.

Moriah Young is a graduate student at the Kellogg Biological Station and a member of Phoebe Zarnetske’s Lab. Her PhD research seeks to understand the effects of climate change on soil biota, plant, and herbivore interactions. Using a combination of field and greenhouse studies, Moriah works to understand the ways in which the composition and structure of soil microbial communities respond to warming and drought, as well as describing the role that the soil microbial community has on plant traits, stress responses, and insect preferences in the presence of warming and drought. 

I went into my third and final field season as a PhD student feeling like a well-oiled machine. I was planning to conduct a greenhouse experiment, one similar to what I had done a previous summer, but on a larger scale. I was also planning to collect my third year of soil samples, something I had done countless times the previous two summers. However, the ecology gods had other plans for me. My summer immediately got off to a bad start. The first week I was supposed to be at Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) I came down with a terrible cold. In May, of all times! The issue was that I had already sterilized the potting mix I was going to use prior to getting sick. This is not a trivial step in this experiment. After nearly a week of the potting mix sitting in buckets while I was sick in bed, I had to sterilize them a third time. 

Greenhouse experiment with plants growing in black pots.
Greenhouse experiment is all set up! Waiting for the plants to emerge.

When I finally made it to KBS, my undergraduate mentee Adrian and I quickly got to know each other as we tried to make up for lost time. The purpose of the greenhouse experiment was to see if warmed, drought, or warmed plus drought soils taken from a field experiment with these treatments in the KBS Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) affected the growth of two plant species, red clover and Timothy grass. This greenhouse experiment will help me understand the soil microbial community’s mediated effects on plant growth in the face of climate change. The soil that was collected from the different field treatments was inoculated into pots with the sterilized potting mix. 

Finally, we got the greenhouse experiment up and running without further difficulty and now all we had to do was patiently wait for the seedlings to emerge from beneath the soil. This didn’t take long, as seedlings quickly emerged within days. However, we soon realized that not all the seedlings were coming up. Puzzled, we soon noticed it seemed like we were seeing a greenhouse effect. On some tables, nearly all the seedlings grew, but on other tables, most had not. Thankfully we had randomized the pots, so this was not detrimental to my experiment. We resowed seeds into pots that did not successfully germinate, however, this greenhouse effect remained evident throughout the experiment, with some plants looking healthy and growing strong, while others were clearly struggling.

Greenhouse experiment with plants growing in black pots.
One of the greenhouse tables with plants emerging from pots.

It is not uncommon for work in ecology to not go as planned. As ecologists we must learn to adapt to the weather, or other unforeseen circumstances like colds and strange greenhouse effects. No matter how many years I have been doing ecological research, this can still be a hard component to grasp. But instead of looking at this in a negative light, I think of all the positive things that can come out of it, and I tried to pass this lesson on to Adrian as well. Challenges help me sharpen my problem solving skills, and teach me to always be prepared while trying to think of all the possible scenarios. Ultimately, it teaches me perseverance. There were so many times that I wanted to give up on this experiment, but I knew I could count on Adrian and my colleagues at the KBS LTER, so I carried through and completed my greenhouse experiment. And even though not all went to plan, and I haven’t looked at the final data yet, this experiment was a good reminder of the element of unpredictability when carrying out an ecological experiment.

Undergraduate student stands in front of her research poster at the KBS Symposium.
Adrian Noecker stands in front of her KBS REU poster, part of which included preliminary data from the greenhouse experiment.