Blog Author : Quinn Taylor

  • Wrapping up the Summer at the Morton Arboretum

    Four undergraduate research fellows standing next to posters.
    Having oodles of fun at the symposium!

    It’s hard to believe that the summer is almost over and the Undergraduate Research Fellowship is coming to a close. I'll use this final blog post to tell you about the results of the science I did here this summer and how this fellowship impacted me as a scientist and a person. Let’s start with the science! One of the main things I worked on in my time at the Arboretum this summer was science communication. I have been learning and studying science for years, but it’s harder than you think to communicate that science to others, especially to people in different fields. One of the ways we practiced this was communicating our research using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the english language. So here’s my attempt of telling you what I did this summer using only the 1,000 most commonly used words.

    Controlled burning is a way to control the woods and help trees grow. However, little is known about how burning changes the ground. Studying the ground under our feet will help to better understand how burning changes the entire woods. We looked at the ways the ground changes when the woods are burned in areas with different types of trees. We asked two questions: (1) Does the ground change with controlled burning? (2) Does tree type change the what burning does to the ground? We found that the ground in burned areas is different than not burned areas, but different types of trees do not change the the ground or change the burning. Humans need some stuff in our bodies to grow and live, trees also need stuff from the ground to grow and live. We think that there is more of some stuff in the ground in burned areas, which may help the trees that need that stuff. Burning also lets in more light which can help some trees grow. What we found in this study should be considered when deciding if we should use controlled burns.

    Forested area with thick green vegetation and lots of light.
    One of the burned areas at the Arboretum


    Besides learning a whole lot about soil, field work, lab testing, and communicating, this fellowship gave me a better idea of what it’s like to be a scientist and think like a scientist. I got a lot of great practice asking questions about the world around me and trying to figure out how it’s working. I learned that scientific research always produces more questions than answers. In this project, we found some changes in the soil with burning. This raises many new questions. How are those changes are affecting trees and other plants and animals in the forest? Does burning always make these changes to the soil or only in some areas of the world? Is buning changing things other than the soil too? When these questions are answered, they will raise new ones. We will never fully understand the entire world, so there will always be more questions and more scientists to try to answer them.

    This research experience taught me to think about the world in a different way, and see beauty in the details of an ecosystem. I find it truly amazing how every little piece is necessary for the world to be the way it is.

    Undergraduate research fellow with a scientific poster.
    Giving a presentation at the Undergraduate Research Symposium was a great way to practice science communication

    I will wrap up this post by thanking everyone who made this summer so amazing. Dr. Meghan Midgley was an amazing mentor and taught me so much about soil and about being a scientist. Many people helped immensely with lab and field work including, Michelle Catania the Soil Science Research Assistant, all the phenomenal volunteers in the Soil Science Lab, and Ali McGarigal. Christine Carrier ran this program very smoothly I thank her tremendously for everything she has done. Jessica Turner-Skoff was a wonderful resource to have and taught us all so much about science communication. All the other fellows were a great support system and marvelous people I am so happy to have gotten to know them this summer. My time at The Morton Arboretum has been oodles of fun!

  • Science is BIG! (and small)

    soil samples with a pH probe
    Testing the pH of some soil samples

    Hello there blog readers! I have been doing a lot of lab work in the past few weeks. I decided to use this blog post to tell you about the BIG and the small of my project. Let’s start with the small. Lab work is small. Some of the things I am looking for in my soil samples are the carbon and nitrogen concentrations. There is a really fancy machine in the lab that I can use to figure this out but, in order to get the soil ready to go in the machine I have to weigh out 25 milligrams of soil and wrap it up in tin foil. Just for reference, 25 milligrams is less than the weight of two grains of rice, tiny.

    small foil ball about 1/10 the size of a penny
    One of the tins with 25 milligrams of soil in it, and a penny for size reference.

    Another one of my lab analyses is determining the ammonium and nitrate concentrations in the soil. I go through a long procedure that results in lots of plates with tiny little wells that have pink or blue liquid in them. I put these plates in a machine that uses light to measure the color in each well to determine the ammonium and nitrogen concentrations. In the end, there are many plates with 96 wells on each plate and about 2 drops of liquid in each well, tiny.

    Varying shades of pink and blue liquid droplets on plastic plates.
    The colorful ammonium and nitrate test.


    Lab work is small, but science is big! It is easy to get caught up in my tiny soil samples and little droplets of colored liquids and forget about the big picture, but all the small comes together to mean something big. Each tin of soil or drop of liquid represents a different area of the woods. When the results of these samples are combined, they represent an entire part of the woods that has been burned or not burned. That can give a good idea of how the soil reacts to burning practices in the arboretum and any other forest in a similar climate and environment. My results are limited to areas that are similar to the woods I sampled, but they can be combined with results that other researchers find in other areas. When put together, this can tell us something big about the world around us. That’s my favorite part about science, it is small, but when the tiny results are all put together it can mean something big!

    Researcher using test tubes with soil and liquid in them and funnels over them.
    Filtering samples for phosphate analysis under the watchful eye of the lab dinosaur.
  • In Search of Soil in the Woods

    Green forest with lots of trees and other plants.
    The beautiful East Woods at the Morton Arboretum and the site of my research plots.

    One of my best friends, who is a science enthusiast like myself, sent me a book called Lab Girl written by Hope Jahren. A quote from the book stood out to me in particular.  “The most important thing I know about science is that experiments are not about getting the world to do what you want it to do.” I have come to understand this recently in my research project at the arboretum. I spent the last couple of weeks collecting soil samples from the on-site woods and processing them in the lab to get ready for analysis this week. The collection of soil involves locating a specific spot in the woods marked with yellow flags, and using a big metal device, called a soil corer, to hammer a tube into the ground and pull it up filled with soil. Lugging heavy metal equipment and bags full of soil through the woods can be tiring, not to mention the arm workout from hammering the soil corer into the ground! Thankfully, I had several arboretum volunteers helping me in this collection process. Once we collected enough samples for the day, we would go back to the lab and sieve the soil by pushing it through 2mm mesh to ensure it is all the same consistency and remove any leaves or roots from the mix. This is all simple enough and went fairly smoothly during the first week of collection. The second week caused a little more trouble. I had planned on getting eight plots (32 soil cores) completed in four hours in the morning on each of the sampling days. Some of the plots were very deep in the woods and the little yellow flags blend in with all the green making them nearly impossible to find. One day when looking for these flags, we spent over two hours of the allotted four hours searching for the little yellow flags in the green forest. I was not very successful in trying to lead a team of volunteers to navigate the forest and find these plots. We ended up walking in circles around the area where we thought the plots were supposed to be before accepting defeat and moving on to the next plots. A big thank you goes out to the volunteers for wandering the forest with me and not getting mad at me when we couldn’t find some of the plots! The next day of sampling, it was much easier to find all of the plots, but we had some technical difficulties with the soil corer, specifically that I broke it. I guess my newly gained arm muscles were just too strong for the steel machine I was using! The soil corer was fixed, and we did eventually find all of the plots and collected all the samples we needed, despite a thunderstorm a few bee stings and countless mosquito bites as other bumps in the road along the way.

    Cups of soil arranged from darkest to lightest in color.
    All my soil samples are ready to go

    Even though the world did not do exactly what I wanted it to do, I learned a lot last week. I learned how to better navigate the woods with just a map and a compass, I learned how to more efficiently take soil cores, and I learned how to adapt to changing situations. I also learned how much I love field work and getting to be outside. Every minute of wandering in the hot humid forest, every tired muscle from lugging around heavy equipment and trying to force a metal object into the solid ground, and every bee sting, mosquito bite, and blister are worth it. I'm glad that I have all the soil I need to continue my project and start to get some results, but I'm also little sad that in the coming weeks I won’t get to be outside as much.

    Research fellow holding a soil corer full of soil.
    A successful soil core!


    Glass container of clear liquid being stirred.
    Keep an eye out for my next post where Quinn, the mad scientist, starts mixing chemicals.
  • A week of scientific research summarized into three short poems

    Research fellow pouring chemicals into beakers, wearing safety goggles.
    Lab prep for next week

    Wow! It’s hard to believe it’s already been 3 weeks at the Morton Arboretum. During week 3 I got to help out with a couple other research projects that are going on right now. I could go into great detail about the exciting methods used and the hypotheses being tested, but instead I decided to save you some reading time and summarize each of the three tasks I worked on last week into a short poem. Remember, I am a scientist-  not a poet, so don’t judge these too harshly!


    I worked with Kirsten, another research fellow,

    She is studying leachates using Chemistry and Biology.

    We collected some leaves that were brown, green, and yellow,

    And measured them all using scanning technology.

    Research fellow collecting leaves from a small tree
    Kirsten collecting leaves to measure


    I helped my mentor Meghan with a project on nitrogen deposition.

    Installing 7 collection devices per plot was our mission.

    To do this, we hammered stakes in the ground,

    And onto the stakes funnels were bound.

    So, later she can see nitrogen in each different condition.

    Funnel attached to a PVC pipe in the ground in the wooods
    Nitrogen collection funnels we set up this week

    Researcher posing next to a funnel on a PVC pipe in the ground in the woods
    Meghan with a nitrogen collection device


    My final project of the week,

    Was lab prep for testing the soils that I seek.

    I labeled test tubes, hope they don’t leak,

    I mixed some chemicals that did not reek.

    And wore safety goggles looking like a chemistry geek.

    about 400 test tubes with numbers written on them
    Labeled test tubes all set for lab work


    Watch out for my next post about taking soil cores and starting lab analysis!

  • Mutualisms at the Arboretum

    Research fellow in the woods doing field work
    Enjoying field work in the east woods

    The idea of different species interacting with each other and living together is a major part of ecology and very commonly studied by ecologists. It is also one of my favorite parts about nature. These interactions are called symbiotic relationships, and one particular type of symbiotic relationship is a mutualism. Mutualisms occur when different species interact and they both benefit from the interaction.


    There are four different ways that I have seen mutualisms this week. The first, and most obvious, is in my research project. I am studying the effects of tree-fungi interactions on the soil. In these mutualisms, fungi grow in conjunction with tree roots and help the trees gain some nutrients from the soil. The trees provide other nutrients for the fungi. The trees and fungi gain so much more living together than they would living alone.


    Fungi growing on a tree stump
    Not exactly the tree-fungi interaction I'm studying, but it looks pretty cool!

    The second mutualism I have seen this week is between all the scientists at the arboretum. Everyone working here is human, so we are technically all the same species, but everyone comes from very different backgrounds and specializes in very different areas. In the research department, there are volunteers, interns, research assistants, primary researchers, and everyone in between all with very specific knowledge and skill sets in different areas! Each scientist here has a specific focus and projects that they are working on, and independently these projects wouldn’t really mean much. However, when all the knowledge and research is combined it creates a beautiful understanding of the world that could never be achieved by only one mind.

    Researcher wearing tree champion super hero cape standing next to a tree in the morton arboretum
    One of the goals all the scientists are working towards is being champions of trees!

    The third, and most personal, mutualism I have seen this week is between all the URFs (undergraduate research fellows). The four of us are all from very different backgrounds, but we now work and live together. We have all gotten to be very close within just two weeks and draw on our different backgrounds to have some really cool adventures. We each have different philosophies of life and different skills and traits, so we learn a lot just by talking to each other and hanging out. For instance, a couple nights ago we were walking through a park and, as true biologists, trying to identify all the trees we passed. We approached one tree that Mackenzie was convinced was an Acer negundo, but Kirsten was sure was a Boxelder maple. We figured out that Acer negundo is the scientific name for Boxelder maple. Through our mutualism, we all now know the common name AND scientific name for this tree!

    After our scientific walk through the park, we got ice cream with cookie dough on it. This is the fourth and most delicious mutualism I learned about this week. Cookie dough and ice cream really help each other increase their chances of being enjoyed by hungry scientists!

    Research fellows eating cookie dough and ice cream
    We have concluded that ice cream and cookie dough work together to make each other even more delicious!
  • Fun Week of Field Work

    Picture of woods with tall brown trees and green leaves on the trees and small green plants on the ground
    The East Woods at the Morton Arboretum

    Hello! My name is Quinn Taylor and I am one of the undergraduate research fellows working in the Morton Arboretum Center for Tree Science this summer. I will be working on soil ecology research with my mentor Meghan Midgley. My research will focus on the composition of the soil and how different trees can affect the soil. Soil is different in different areas and can be affected by the trees and other plants growing in it. The reverse is also true. Nutrients found in the soil affect what can grow there and how well different plants can grow.

    My first week at the arboretum has been an exciting one! The first step in my research is to set up plots in the woods and record the trees present in each plot. This requires a lot of field work, which is great because I love getting to spend time outside. One of the other fellows and I are using similar plots for our projects, so we get to work together for a few weeks. It’s always fun to have a friend out in the woods with you! We use a GPS and maps to locate a specific point in the woods and measure out a 15 meter square around it. Within the square, we identify and measure each tree. I never used to know the difference between an oak and an elm, or a maple and a basswood, but have learned how to identify many different trees. Some of the names are kind of funny, like the slippery elm which has leaves that feel a lot like sandpaper and not at all slippery! Knowing the types of trees gives a good idea about some of the soil properties there. The afternoons out in the field can get pretty hot so it’s nice to beat the heat under the shade of the trees. We even spotted a deer snacking on some of the leaves in one of the plots.