Blog Author : Ali McGarigal

  • Stubbornness and Flexibility

    A stock of bright purple flowers in focus, with a young woman looking through the lens of a camera on a tripod in a lush open forest out of focus
    Lane collecting data using the photography method on a sunny summer day

    I must apologize for not writing for two weeks! I keep trying to write this blog post, and I keep getting side tracked. Anyways, at the beginning of the week, when I originally started writing this post, I started off by stating that this week was going to be my last week in the woods collecting data. Of course, because I wrote that, the world (or the weather) decided that it was not going to let me finish my data collection this week.


    The week started off well, and I was completing all of the plots I planned to each day. Then Thursday came. That day, I was prepared to be super productive, complete my last three plots and finish my data collection. I must admit, I did notice that the weather forecast said that it could storm in the afternoon, but since they have been consistently wrong, I didn’t worry too much about it. However, right around noon, as predicted, the sky started to get dark, and the rain started to gently fall from the sky. Drew, Sean’s research assistant, was helping me collect data that day. When it started to rain, he and I were under a fairly dense canopy, so we barely noticed. We continued measuring trees, and the sun even started to come out.


    A picture of a large trunk with deep ravines in it's grayish brown bark with a yellow measuring tape rapped around it
    This was a very large dead ash tree that was measured this week. The Emerald Ash Borer is a real problem in this part of the US right now.
    Alison McGarigal


    After we finished measuring the plot the old fashioned way, we started the photography method. Since it looked like it was clearing up, I thought it would be wise to check what the storm looked like on the radar. There was lightning a little ways away, but not close enough to need to abandon our plot. However as I watched the radar, the thunder started getting noticeably louder and the rumbling started to sound more menacing. I unfortunately had to make the call that it was time to abandon the plot for now due to safety concerns. So we sat in the car eating our lunch waiting to see if it would pass. But instead of passing quickly like storms here normally do, the sky just kept getting darker, the thunder kept rolling closer, and the sky started to spit out big fat drops of water. It took me a while to finally admit to myself that the weather just wasn’t going to let me finish my data collection that day.


    However, my decision to head back in for the day was reaffirmed when the sky literally opened up and poured down on us as we drove back to the research center. I walked about five steps from the car to the building several times to unload gear, and got completely drenched from head to toe!


    Looking out of a car windshield that is splattered with rain drops with a dark cloudy sky in the background
    Drew and I safe and sound in the car, driving back through a rainstorm that we could have been stuck in. We were lucky we didn't take the open air cushman out that day!
    Alison McGarigal


    Anyways, since Friday’s weather wasn’t looking any better, I had to come to terms with the fact that this week was not going to be the last week of data collection. Which is really not a big issue because I still have plenty of time before the symposium to figure out what all the data means. It was more of a psychological thing. The main thing that got me through this past week was that I could see the finish line. After seven weeks of being out in the woods almost everyday, and having to repeat the same three tasks at my plots day after day for almost five weeks straight, I admit that I was a little worn out. But I also admit that I can be a little bit stubborn when it comes to completing the goal I set out to do. (Side note: Kirsten wrote a great post on the importance of repetition in science that you can read here!)


    In some cases, like in this project’s data collection process, it can be seen as a good trait. However, in other circumstances, I would be much better off letting go. For instance, last weekend, I was determined to walk to downtown Downers Grove from our hotel so I could get some exercise, a change of scenery, and find a coffee shop to get some work done. Unfortunately, it was a ridiculously hot, humid day in Chicagoland, and I made a poor decision on what shoes to wear. After an hour and a half, I finally made it to the downtown. In retrospect, when I realized the unideal weather conditions I was walking in and just how far of a walk it was going to be, I should have got an uber to take me the rest of the way. But because of my stubbornness, I walked the whole way, ended up with two huge blisters on my heels, and was drenched from head to toe in my own sweat.


    I guess the lesson from all of this is that it is good to have goals and to see projects through to the end. However, it is also good to be flexible and to know what is important and what can be let go. I have found that these lessons can be pretty much applied to all aspects of life. You have to find a balance between determination and compromise, between stubbornness and flexibility, between stability and change.


    Till next week (probably… maybe the week after…)



    A young woman wearing a bright orange shirt holding a large tube covered in QR codes stands in front of a field of wild sunflowers in bloom
    The wild sunflowers started to bloom in the burned section of the forest! They were so beautiful that I had to take a picture with them ;)
    Lane Scher
  • Unpredictability

    A metal statue of a frog sitting in a crosslegged position in the middle of a small circular pond surrounded by bright green grass
    This is one of the frog art installations up around the Arboretum. He reminds me of the feeling of peacefulness that is important in work and in life.

    Today, we started our 6th week here at the Arboretum, which means that we are pretty much exactly half way through our projects. With only five more weeks to complete our project, the deadlines start to loom larger and larger on the horizon. Considering we have to submit our abstracts and have our posters finalized midway through the second to last week, we technically only have three and a half more weeks for data collection and analysis.


    What is even more stressful is that there are so many factors in my project that are unpredictable, which makes it difficult to formulate a solid schedule for myself. I am still not sure how much data I will be able to collect and still have ample time to figuring out what it all means.


    Part of the unpredictability is the weather. The forecast is almost never accurate. One time Quinn and I checked the forecast for the area and it said that it was going to be thunderstorming all day, so we decided to stay inside. But it never rained a drop that day and was actually kind of sunny out.


    Scattered clouds stretching across a small lake with an vibrant green island across the water
    Rain? More like another gorgeous day in the Chicago area!
    Alison McGarigal


    Another time, Lane and I checked the forecast and it looked clear for a couple hours. So we packed the gear, went out to the car, and drove to the area where my plots were. As we approached the parking lot, we both looked at the dark clouds rushing towards us from the west. We stopped at the parking lot and looked at the radar again, and within the fifteen minutes it took us to pack up our gear and drive out to the plots, a storm to our west had formed and was coming straight over us. So we decided to abandon our mission of getting a couple of plots done and head straight back to the research center, only to find that it passed us in a matter of minutes. It looked much more menacing that it turned out to be, as it left behind dry grounds and clear skies.


    As you might be able to tell by now, we have learned not to trust the weather predictions. It’s actually so bad that the weather apps will say that it is currently raining outside and it is completely dry, or it will say it is clear and it will be raining. To cut the weathermen some slack, I am amazed that we can predict the weather at all. From my brief introduction to weather systems in school, it seems like there are a million factors that affect the weather, and all of these factors can change within a matter of minutes.


    Anyways, since we kept deciding to not go out in the field due to predicted storms, just to find it never actually reaching us, we decided to change our strategy and go out to the field unless it was currently storming or it looked like the sky was just about let loose.


    However, that strategy hasn’t really worked for us either. Lane and I were working in the field one afternoon, and the prediction said it might rain around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, but we decided to carry on with our plot anyways. We were using our lasers to measure the distances and the sizes of the trees in one of our plots when we noticed a pitter patter sound coming from the leaves above. We were only two thirds through the plot, so we decided to ignore it. Then I heard a crack of thunder in the distance, and we decided to pick up the pace incase the sky decided to open up on us. As we worked, we could hear the pitter patter of rain in the distance turn into a rush of sound that came closer and closer until it was downpouring on us. I was manning the lasers (which are “water resistant” but considering how expensive they are, we didn’t want to push it too much). Luckily I was under a fairly dense canopy and hardly felt the rain at all. But we both looked at each other in disbelief and frantically tried to take down the lasers and get everything into our bags to bolt to the safety of the car down the road.


    Needless to say, we realized that day that you can’t completely trust or distrust weather reports.


    A young woman looking through a yellow and black laser device attached to a tripod next to another young women surrounded by dense green vegetation
    Our laser set up. We had to scramble to disassemble it in the rain once!
    Kirsten McGarigal


    I have also come to the realization that good science takes time. It is borderline crazy to expect to be able to complete a full research project from conception to finish in a mere ten weeks. There are so many obstacles that you run into that you have to figure out how to deal with or navigate around. Little things always happen that cause delays in your schedule, from weather, to misplacing or forgetting equipment, to accidentally changing the units on the laser to feet and inches instead of meters and centimeters which meant having to remeasure half of a plot... But that is all just part of the process of science, part of the whims and woes of life! Sometimes you have to take a deep breath, calm your mind, and push through the unpredictable. I know that in the end, no matter what type of conclusions I am able to come up with for my project, I will have had such a powerful, eye-opening experience that will shape the type of scientist and the type of person I am developing into.


    Till next week,


  • A Blurry Picture Coming Into Focus

    A field notebook page, with a circular tube with a QR code stuck to it and an open space in the East Woods in the background
    Plot label for our first photography method plot, which marks the beginning of each plot's photograph data

    This past week and a half has been full on! I have been diving head first into the depths of my project, which is both exciting and exhausting. It seems as though the deeper you get, the more questions you have. That’s just science at its finest!


    The great news is that Chuck’s new research assistent, Lane, will be able to assist me for the bulk of the rest of my project. She just finished her bachelor's degree and has had a fair amount of experience with designing and conducting research projects. It has been really nice to go out into the field with the same person every day to have someone I can constantly bounce ideas off of as they come up (which is all of the time). So she has not only become a crucial player in the development of this research project, but another person here who I have been able to create a connection with.


    This summer is so much more than just a way to get experience conducting research. I feel that I have and will be able to create so many amazing, long lasting friendships and connections while I am here.  I am so thankful to be in a place where a glass half full outlook on life is the norm. When someone is faced with a problem they need to solve, they always approach it with a smiling face and a positive attitude. Whenever I have run into a problem, there are so many people willing give me some advice or lend a hand. It is almost a requirement to wave or say hi to everyone you pass. I guess trees just make people happy and stress free!


    The branch of a massive, old Bur Oak that sweeps down to the grassy meadow below on a beautiful sunny summer day
    This is the view of an old, massive Bur Oak on the Arboretum grounds from a beautiful wooden bench next to it. Definitely one of my favorite trees and one of my favorite spots.
    Alison McGarigal


    As for my project status, I am happy to say that it has come quite a ways since my last post. With the help of Lane and the guidance of Chuck, the blurry picture of my project becomes more and more in focus.  So far, Lane and I have been able to measure several plots using both the photography and the traditional method, and we are currently chipping away at the laser method (which I will try to explain in more detail in my next post because it is really cool!). This has allowed us to get familiar with these three techniques, as well as come up with many questions for the designer of this particular photography protocol. This method we are using was developed by an Australian scientist named Ben Sparrow, who we are lucky enough to be in contact with. We had a really fruitful talk with him and a partner of his yesterday on Skype which answered many of our burning questions. It was nice to here some Austrailian accents again (my high school biology teacher was Austrailian)! They will start to run our photos through their program to make sure they are working properly very soon. Hopefully his program that analyse the photographs will give us some interesting results so we can start comparing these three methods to each other.


    I hope everyone had a fun Fourth of July weekend! Kirsten, another research fellow, and her family invited me to their cabin up in Wisconsin for the weekend, which was a blast! The kindness of people never ceases to amaze me.


    Till next week,



  • Technology, Forest Surveys, and Climate Change

    A picture of several broadleaf trees surrounded by bright green grass on a sunny day
    A view of a part of the Arboretum grounds on a beautiful sunny day

    I can’t believe we are now entering into our third week of this fellowship! Part of me feels like it was just yesterday that I was meeting Quinn and Mackenzie (two of the other fellows) at the O’Hare airport for the first time. But another part of me feels like I’ve been doing this for months, as our days all seem to magically fill up very quickly.


    I feel like a good explanation of what I have actually been doing these past two weeks and what my general plan is for the rest of the fellowship is already long overdue. So this blog post will be primarily dedicated to giving you an overview of my project and a brief look at what I’ve been up to these past two weeks.


    My exact research question has yet to be finalized (or really drafted for that matter). However, the general premise of it is that I want to compare three different methods of surveying forests and determine which method provides the best balance between accuracy and efficiency.


    Now you might read that and ask me “So what Ali? What is so important about trying to figure that out?”  At first I struggled with those same questions. But after some really good discussion with my mentor Chuck, and some more thought on the matter, I have come to realize just how important it could be.


    It all comes down to the amount of data we can collect in a short amount of time. In order to studying changes in forests overtime, we need large quantities of information on them as we go through time. This is particularly important in developing our understanding of the potential ramifications of global climate change. If we can understand the structure of our forests now, we will have a better chance of noticing large scale patterns of change that we can use to better predict how climate change will impact certain areas of the world.


    The sun setting over a field of tall grass on the west side of The Morton Arboretum
    A beautiful moment captured as the sun was setting over a field on the west side of The Morton Arboretum


    However, the traditional method of gathering information on forests require an individual to go out and physically walk to every tree and take measurements like the diameter of the tree at breast height (a measurement of the size of a tree that requires you to wrap a tape measure around the trunk of the tree). And let me tell you, it takes a lot of time and effort to do this over large areas of land, particularly when there is really dense undergrowth that makes it hard to get from tree to tree (as shown in the picture below). This is why there are very few forest survey studies out there that span a large amount of area. Instead, we often find ourselves with a lot of information on only a few scattered areas of the forest. This is a problem when you are trying to understand a widespread global issue that is having large impacts on whole forest systems.


    A tape measure ribbon disappears into the understory vegetation
    I spy with my little eye Quinn Taylor struggling through the understory vegetation


    So, to address this issue, some scientists are trying to use technology to try and speed up this process. My project is trying to build off of a technique developed by a couple of Australian scientists that uses 360 degree photographs of a sample area to determine the basic information of that area of forest. I am particularly looking at how we can use this photographic technique and a technique using a laser finder to measure forests more efficiently. Hopefully, by using these techniques to gather information about forests, we will be able to speed up the process of collecting information, which will then allow us to more easily gather information on large areas of land really quickly.


    One of the great things about looking at photography as a way to gather information on forests is that it has the potential to allow ordinary citizens to get involved in the scientific process through citizen science. Theoretically, since many people these days have access to high tech camera equipment because of personal uses, they could use those cameras to help the scientific community gather information by simply taking twenty minutes of their time to take 360 degree pictures of places they encounter and then uploading it to a large database of some kind where experts can analyze and quantify these pictures. However, this type of application is still a long ways off. Still, it is cool to think that what I am doing this summer could eventually lead to something like that, where the gap between the general public and the scientific community is bridged on some level.


    All of this application stuff seems really cool and something to be super excited about for the future. However, my project itself is just a stepping stone, a place all amazing ideas must start at in order to develop into something further. This first step is to determine how much faster these techniques can be without sacrificing the accuracy of the traditional method.


    A majestic Bald Cypress in a grove of other trees
    As a side note, I ran into a beautiful grove of Bald Cypress trees one day. I think they might be my new favorite tree!


    To do this, I first have to measure all of my plots using the traditional method of measuring everything by hand. Then take 360 degree photographs of the plots and analyze them. Then measure all of the trees in the plot using a hand held laser finder. I can then finally look at the time it takes to perform each of these methods and compare them to one another to determine which one is the quickest while maintaining the accuracy of the traditional method.


    For these past two weeks, I have been helping a colleague of mine, Quinn, set up her 15 by 15 meter plots and measuring all of the trees in those plots. This task has allowed me to get use to identifying the common trees in the area (which can sometimes be quite a challenge when the leaves are 50 ft off the ground), and get very familiar with measuring each tree’s DBH (Diameter at Breast Height, or basically an estimation of the size of a tree).


    However, now since my mentor is back from doing some work overseas, we are really able to start focusing our combined efforts on getting this project off the ground. Currently, I am trying to get familiar with how to use Chuck’s DSLR camera and tripod efficiently and how to work the Criterion RD 1000 and the TruPoint Laser Finder (which includes how to turn the thing on… as well as calibrating it).


    One of the problems I am grappling with right now is the size of the plots that I can/should measure with each of these techniques. So far, I have been measuring circular plots that are approximately 250 meters squared, or 0.025 hectares, using the traditional method. According to the handbook, the TruPoint Laser Finder can measure non-reflective surfaces up to 1,000 meters away, which would equate (if I did my math correctly) to a circle plot that would cover 314 hectares of land, which is a fifth of the entire Arboretum! I am positive that the device will not be able to read a tree’s diameter at that distance considering the amount of things that will be directly in lasers way that are much closer than that. However, I have no idea how far it will be able to reach in the forests where I am doing this project. I do know that the photography technique is supposed to be able to measure one hectare of land at a time, however, I am also not sure if it will be able to measure that far in the dense forests that I am working in. So I am trying to figure out a reasonable size for these plots. Hopefully in the next couple of days I will be able to experiment with each one enough that I will have a much better idea about how far each technique can measure.


    A bright orange meter tape being pulled into the understory by a researcher
    The bright orange meter tape that I became quite acquainted with over these past two weeks


    Wow this post turned into a mini essay… I will leave you with all of that information to process for now. If you are curious about any aspect of this project or have any burning question about anything, leave it in the comments below and I will try and answer them as best I can!


    Till next week,


  • Blending In?

    A grey moth laying flat against the mortar on a red brick wall with the moth in full focus with the surroundings blurred.
    A grey moth trying to blend in with the mortar between bricks on a dull red brick wall.

    Hello lovely readers! My name is Alison McGarigal, but I usually just go by Ali. I am one of four Undergraduate Research Fellows working for the Center for Tree Science this summer here at the Morton Arboretum.


    I want to start this post off by telling you a little story.


    On Saturday another URF Fellow, Quinn, and I were going to run errands around town. We had sometime before the Uber was going to arrive, and my gaze started to wander. Usually, not much comes from these episodes of observing while I am waiting for something, but this time my eyes caught something of interest. When I investigated further I found that my attention was grabbed by a small moth laying flat against the brick wall. It was trying to blend into the mortar between the bricks. I see moths hanging out on walls or trees all of the time and think no more of it. However, this moth struck a particular chord in me, as it reminded me about the fear I had of not “blending in”.


    I just finished my first year at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado, which is in my opinion a fantastic college with amazing professors and a very warm welcoming community (if anyone is looking for colleges!). However, right before the fellowship started, I found out that the other three fellows I would be working alongside were all going into their senior year in college. I started to think that I would be too young for this sort of summer job, that I would not qualified or experience enough for this fellowship, and that I would awkwardly stick out as the immature one of the group. I thought that I was going to be that grey moth that decided to try and blend in with a red brick wall.


    I of course was worrying about something that I didn’t need to. We are just starting our second week here, and I have realized the simple fact that your age doesn’t define your abilities. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. One of my weaknesses is simply the lack of a good foundation of knowledge on the biology of trees. That just means that I have the opportunity to learn so much about trees during the time that I am here! This is a place where all of the people around you want to help you grow and develop as a scientist. So, as long as I am open and willing to seek out help and advice from all the experts and colleagues around me, then I will no doubt be well on my way to not only being an avid tree researcher, but also being a better scientist.


    Checkout my next blog post for more on the research I am working on and other fun activities I am doing while I am here! 

    A photograph of a green field with scattered trees through out it with the sun shining through.
    The view from porch behind the research building on a beautiful sunny day.
    Alison McGarigal