Blog Author : Mackenzie Coden

  • The Tweety Bird Method

    A Tweety Bird magnet stuck to the side of a cabinet
    This Tweety Bird magnet may not be a high-tech piece of equipment, but it sure came in handy!

    Most laboratories are full of really impressive technology. The lab I’m working in is no exception - it’s full of tools and machines that make the science that we do every day possible. However, some of the tools that I’ve wound up using aren’t exactly what most people would think of as “scientific”.

    A photo of a lab bench containing different pieces of traditional scientific equipment
    These are some high-tech scientific devices that you would normally see in a molecular biology lab

    Part of what I do in lab to get ready for DNA extractions (more on what this means at a later date!) requires breaking leaves into super tiny pieces. One way of doing this involves putting leaf bits in a plastic tube with metal beads and some soapy liquid called buffer. This tube is put into one of the cool machines - it shakes the tube really fast so that the beads beat up and break down the leaf. When I take the tube out of the machine, I’m left with a leaf smoothie.


    This works really well, but there’s one major problem: if the beads are left in the pretty green leaf smoothie, it all starts to turn an ugly shade of brown. Now I don’t know about you, but I think a green smoothie is FAR more appetizing than a brown one. Not to mention that the brown isn’t so good for my experiments… So I had to figure out how to get the smoothie and the beads apart in as little time as possible without losing my precious leaf smoothie in the process. Pouring the smoothie out took too long, and trying to pull the beads out with tweezers was too tricky and slow in the narrow tube. So what to do?


    On the left, an image of a green leaf smoothie and on a right, a smoothie that has browned
    I poured some leaf smoothies into these weigh boats so the color difference is easy to see. The one on the left is a green leaf smoothie; the one on the right still has the beads in it and has turned brown.

    Remember how I said the beads were metal? A lot of metal is magnetic, so I thought maybe that could help me. I started looking around the lab for a magnet frantically because time was ticking and my smoothies were about to turn brown. Right next to me, stuck to a metal cabinet was a Tweety Bird magnet. Perfect! I put the Tweety Bird on top of the tube like a lid, turned it upside down just long enough for the beads to fall to the magnet, and turned the tube right side up again. When I carefully pulled Tweety Bird off of the top of the tube, the beads stayed attached to the magnet! This Tweety Bird Method lets me get the beads out almost immediately, and practically no smoothie is lost along the way.

    A magnet in the shape of Tweety Bird stuck on the side of a cabinet
    This Tweety Bird magnet saved the day!

    I have since found a stronger magnet that works better and faster than the Tweety Bird magnet, but I’m still using the Tweety Bird Method to stop my leaf smoothies from turning brown. There’s no doubt that high-tech scientific equipment is very important, but scientific equipment comes in many shapes and sizes - sometimes that shape just happens to look like a friendly yellow bird.

  • Pressed Plants

    Pages of pressed plant specimens from the herbarium
    Some of the many pressed plant samples in the herbarium

    Remember being a kid and pressing flowers in between the pages of a book? Well it turns out that you can make a career out of that! In order to have a record of all of the different plant species, scientists take pressed plant samples of each species they collect and put them all together into something called an herbarium. There’s a really cool herbarium at The Morton Arboretum that has everything from flowers, to lichens, to trees in its collection.


    A photo of just a few of the many shelves of stored samples in the herbarium
    This is only a very small snapshot of the lichen collection at the herbarium. There are thousands of samples neatly stored in dozens of cabinets

    I was up in the herbarium looking through samples of shinnery oak, which is the species I’m focusing on this summer. It’s really helpful to have these collections to look through, because the shinnery oak doesn’t grow up here in the midwest - it’s native to the deserts of the American southwest. One thing I found to be really interesting is how different individual plants can look even if they are of the same species. It does make sense though, when you think about it: we're all the same species - human - but we all look very different from each other (like how we all have different heights, eye colors, and fingerprints). In the exact same way, plants of the same species differ from each other too. It was really neat to see how much variation exists between different oak individuals!


    Two different samples of the same species that look very different - one with large leaves and one with very small
    Two individuals of the same species can look very different. Here are two oaks of the same species - one with large, lobed leaves and the other with small, unlobed leaves

    Once plants are dried and pressed, they are well preserved and can last a long time. As I was flipping through the oak samples, I was making note of the collection dates. Most were from the 60’s, so the samples were basically my parents’ age, which I thought was pretty cool. Until I got to a sample from 1916. So this little dried and pressed branch that I was holding in my hand was 100 years old?! I think it’s incredible that just pressing a plant can preserve it so well for so long. There is a lot of history sitting up on the third floor of The Morton Arboretum!

    The label showing that this sample was collected in 1916
    This is the handwritten label showing the collection of the shinnery oak from 1916


  • Springboard Science

    A pile of journal article papers
    Just some of the MANY articles I've read in the last couple of weeks

    A long long long long time ago, someone discovered how to start a fire. This person taught others and many years later, someone used what they already knew to bring fire into our homes in fireplaces. This person taught others and many years later, someone used what they already knew about indoor fire to invent an oven. Instead of having each new generation re-discover how to build a fire, the old knowledge was passed down and acted as a springboard for new discoveries.


    That is exactly how science works. It builds little by little over time, thanks to work done by many different scientists. Scientists publish the results of their experiments in academic journals to share their findings with the world and to allow other scientists to use their results as a springboard for their own projects. We don’t want to make other researchers rediscover how to build a fire, we want to tell them how to do it so that they have the time and information they need to take another step in creating new knowledge.


    And that basically brings me to where I am now: reading scientific articles to learn what I can in order to help move science a little bit forward. My project this summer is focusing on the shinnery oak - an oak shrub that only grows in a few small regions in the American southwest. It can produce seeds to grow new plants, but most of its reproduction is through cloning. Some scientists say that the same single genetic individual (so not the same physical plant, but a clone of a clone of a clone) might live on for more than 40,000 years! The shinnery oak's population is shrinking, and sadly, we don’t know very much about the shrub. We need to do research on this oak now, before it’s too late, so that we can better understand how to protect it.


    Me, sitting at a computer reading articles
    Reading articles takes a lot of concentration...
    I’m starting off by trying to figure out how to get DNA out of the cells of the shinnery oak’s leaves because once we isolate the DNA, we can learn a lot about the oak's genetics. However, there are a lot of obstacles in the way. That’s why I’m reading so many scientific articles! I’m trying to gather as much information as possible about methods other scientists have tried to work around these obstacles. From reading, I’ve learned a lot about what does and doesn’t work on other oaks, so it gives me a good idea of places to start when working with this specific oak.


    I’m so glad that other scientists share their findings with the rest of the scientific community, so that I can learn from them and then use that knowledge as a springboard to create more knowledge - which I hope someday someone else will use as their own springboard. No re-discovering how to build a fire for me this summer!

    Me, sitting at a computer reading articles while laughing
    ... but it can still be a lot of fun sometimes!
  • AND not OR

    A crowded lab bench on one half, a forest landscape on the other
    The two sites of my research - a lab bench and the arboretum grounds

    Hi everyone! I just wanted to introduce myself a little bit today. My name’s Mackenzie and I’m one of the undergraduate research fellows working at the Morton Arboretum this summer. In the fall I will be a senior at Northwestern University majoring in Biological Sciences - which is basically just a fancy way of saying biology with a little extra physics and chemistry thrown in - with a concentration in plant biology. This is actually a pretty uncommon concentration at my school. I am one of only two plant bio concentrators in my class. So how did I wind up here? Well it’s sort of an interesting story...


    A few years ago Ford Motor Company ran an advertising campaign focusing on “AND not OR”, and used examples like “sweet AND sour chicken, not sweet OR sour chicken” and “rock AND roll music, not rock OR roll music”. For me, plant biology is also a lot of “and not or”. Like just about every college student, I have spent quite a bit of time trying to decide what to study. When I started, I thought I wanted to focus on genetics - until I took some classes and decided I wasn’t interested in making it a future career. Then, I thought I wanted to focus on ecology. So I spent four months studying abroad in the Costa Rican rainforests (which was a truly amazing experience!). I liked it enough, but again, I wasn’t interested in ecology as a future career.


    I found myself stuck in a “grass is always greener” sort of situation - when I was studying genetics, I wanted to be doing ecology. When I was studying ecology, I wanted to be doing genetics. I was searching desperately through the biology department’s website, trying to decide which concentration to declare, and stumbled upon an option I had never heard of - plant biology. This involves learning about plants at every level - from the big (looking at how they work in their environments) to the small (the stuff that goes on at a molecular level). In a nutshell, ecology AND genetics. I didn’t have to choose “or”, I got to pick “and”!


    That’s where the Morton Arboretum fits in. This summer, I’m also lucky enough to have both. Here at the Center for Tree Science, I am working with genetics AND ecology, not genetics OR ecology. Because conveniently, in science there is a lot of “and”. Everything is about collaboration and integration of different fields these days. I’ll be doing lab research on the genetics of a weird oak species (it’s called Quercus havardii, but I’ll talk more about it another time) and looking at its conservation by bringing that information together with the plant’s ecology - so looking at how the plant works and interacts with its environment. I’m so excited for a summer of not having to choose one “or” the other; unlike what people say, sometimes you can have it all!