Undergraduate Research Fellows Blog

  • Friends in the forest

    Bright blue butterfly with brown tipped wings sitting on a sunny leaf.

    Students take summer internships for all kinds of reasons, but more often than not we are trying to figure out if this is the type of work we want to do after graduation. This summer I have loved both the  fieldwork and lab work components of my project. I feel like my time has been well balanced between improving my field skills and learning new lab skills that I won’t be exposed to at school! Now that the summer is coming to an end and I have been working inside for a few weeks now, an unexpected homesickness for the forest has started to set in. To help, I have decided to share some of the fun organisms I have run across this summer while doing field work! In addition to these and many birds, I also saw two small snakes throughout the summer but was unable to catch a picture of them! Enjoy!

    small red mushroom hides under decaying leaves


    small purple flower


    bright yellow wildflower


    Black raspberry bush with red and black berries.

  • A Photo Finish

    Me, standing behind a podium, in front of a presentation.
    Presenting at the Morton Arboretum Undergraduate Research Fellows Symposium.

    Hello everyone! Welcome to my fifth and final blog post!


    My summer at the Arboretum has been a long and rewarding journey. I have learned so much about tree science and the process of research, both topics that I was not familiar with when I started this fellowship.


    I am incredibly grateful to The Morton Arboretum Center for Tree Science and Morton Salt, Inc. for their support and funding.


    Special thanks to my mentors: Dr. Chuck Cannon, Lane Scher, Stephanie Adams, and Chai-Shian Kua; as well as to Christine Carrier and Dr. Silvia Alvarez-Clare; Dr. Meghan Midgley, Michelle Catania, and the Soil Science lab; Marlene Hahn, Emma Spence, and the Herbarium lab; and my fellow URFs for their advice and assistance with my project.


    Thank you to everyone who has followed this blog! It’s been a privilege to share my experience with you.


    Enjoy these pictures that were taken throughout my time here.


    A sculpture of an origami butterfly, silhouetted against green trees and a blue sky.
    One of my favorite Origami in the Garden sculptures, which I discovered only two weeks ago when the other interns visited the Arboretum.
    Alyssa Gao


    A white drone silhouetted against green grass.
    My project was originally focused on using drone photogrammetry to determine the accuracy of allometric equations.
    Alyssa Gao


    A tree with pink tape wrapped around one of its branches.
    The tree I was examining for my original project, which was to be the center of a tree dissection.
    Alyssa Gao
    A hand holding a DBH tape, measuring a tree trunk.
    Here I am measuring the diameter at breast height for one of my trees.
    Alyssa Gao
    A path cutting through a dense patch of trees, with a sign reading East Woods.
    My favorite part of collecting samples is the drive through the East Woods.
    Alyssa Gao
    Four different trees in one picture.
    My 11 trees were in four different locations - top left was on the West Side and the other three were on the East Side.
    Alyssa Gao
    Three piles of mini bags, held together by orange ties, contained in a single ziploc bag labelled Alyssa Gao - Mongolian Oak DNA.
    The bag containing the four twig cookies I sampled from each tree.
    Alyssa Gao
    Multi-colored tubes arranged in rows.
    ou use several different tubes when extracting DNA.
    Alyssa Gao
    A tube sitting on a black platform, vibrating.
    During extraction, you vortex the tubes by pressing down on this black platform, which causes the tube to vibrate.
    Alyssa Gao
    The tip of a micropipette, filled with a small volume of liquid.
    You often have to pipette a wide range of small volumes, ranging from 4 microliters to 500 microliters.
    Alyssa Gao
    A tray lined with neat rows of capped vials, with numbers written on the caps.
    The 48 leaf samples that were ground and tinned to analyze foliar Nitrogen levels.
    Alyssa Gao
    A microbalance with a 96 well plate in front of it.
    The microbalance used to weigh out 5 mg of leaf sample to tin, with the well plate containing the tinned samples in front of it.
    Alyssa Gao
    People eating lunch at the Gingko cafe in the Arboretum.
    URFs eating lunch with the Argonne National Laboratory Interns at the Gingko Cafe.
    Alyssa Gao
    A nametag with my name, the date, and Argonne National Laboratory emblazoned on it.
    We got to visit the interns at the Argonne National Laboratory and hear about the research that goes on there.
    Alyssa Gao
    A silver and white sign reading Advanced Photon Source.
    When we visited Argonne, we got to take a tour of the Advanced Photon Source facility, which was an amazing experience.
    Alyssa Gao
    A poster with a circle diagram in front of a window.
    A diagram of the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne, right in front of the APS itself.
    Alyssa Gao
    Cases with insects on display.
    Several of the Field Museum REUs conduct research on insects, and we were able to see a few of the collections that are not on display for the public.
    Alyssa Gao
    Trays with multi-colored birds on display.
    We were also able to visit the bird collection, where we saw trays of birds that had been tagged and identified.
    Alyssa Gao
    A mini bag containing a twig and a vial containing ground leaf material.
    When the Field Museum and Chicago Botanic Garden REUs visited the Arboretum, we each gave 5 minute presentations on our research. I used a twig sample and a ground leaf sample as my props.
    Alyssa Gao
    A man in a crane, suspended beside a tree.
    The tree crew beginning the process of cutting down a tree.
    Alyssa Gao
    A tree devoid of branches, with branches strewn around its base.
    The tree, halfway through being cut down, with cut branches strewn around it.
    Alyssa Gao
    A man holding a chainsaw beside a tree stump.
    The tree crew standing around the stump of the tree.
    Alyssa Gao
    Halves of tree branches laid out to reveal the inside of the tree.
    Several of the branches had been cut open to reveal the inside of the tree.
    Alyssa Gao
  • Fellows host Chicago Interns

    Interns from 3 Chicago botanical institutions gather near the Hedge Collection
    Interns and Fellows from 3 Chicago botanical institutions sharing research experiences

    On Friday, July 28th, the Center for Tree Science -Undergraduate Research Fellows welcomed research interns from the Field Museum and Chicago Botanic Garden. Fellows and interns from the Arboretum practiced their science communication skills as they gave informal presentations about the research projects being conducted in our Living Collections, the East Woods, and the Prairie Restoration experiment.

    A fellow stands in the Oak Collection talking about her research
    Discussing bacterial leaf scorch in Mongolian Oaks
    Silvia Alvarez Clare


    A morning tram tour was a great way to highlight some of the Arboretum’s 1,700 acres...

    A group of interns standing next to the Acorn Express Tram
    A great way to see the Arboretum!
    Silvia Alvarez Clare


    ...and after lunch, students toured the research labs and fellows demonstrated equipment and techniques. 

    A student demonstrates lab techniques surrounded by research equipment
    Explaining the relationship between root systems, soil characteristics, and fungal communities
    Silvia Alvarez Clare

    Throughout the day, everyone had the opportunity to see some of the amazing Oragami in the Garden exhibit, large-scale metal sculptures based on the traditional Japanese art of paper folding.

    A copper-colered, metal squirrel and acorn on display in the gardens
    Oragami squirrel welcomes guests near the Visitor Center
    Christine E. Carrier


    Our thanks to the interns and staff from the Chicago Botanic Garden and Field Museum for joining us!  

  • Argonne National Laboratory Tour

    An aerial photograph of the Advanced Photon Source facility
    The Advanced Photon Source facility at Argonne National Laboratory

    On Monday, July 17th, several of the Undergraduate Research Fellows had the chance to visit the Argonne National Laboratory, a multidisciplinary science and engineering research center.  They received a tour of the Advanced Photon Source, which “provides ultra-bright, high-energy storage ring-generated x-ray beams for research in almost all scientific disciplines”. 

    Students gathered in the viewing area above the Advanced Photon Source facility floor
    Learning how research is conducted using x-ray beams
    Christine E. Carrier

    Students were also able to meet some of the students working in the Physics Division and learn about their research projects.  The Physics Division’s programs include “operation of ATLAS as a national user facility, nuclear structure and reaction research, nuclear theory, medium energy nuclear research and accelerator research and development. The mission of Nuclear Physics is to understand the origin, evolution and structure of baryonic matter in the universe – the matter that makes up stars, planets and human life itself”.   

    Students gather around a research poster to learn about physics
    Dr. Silvia Alvarez Clare talks about the research she has done at Argonne National Laboratory
    Christine E. Carrier

    We thank the staff at Argonne National Laboratory for allowing us to visit this fascinating research center!

  • A Day at the Field Museum

    The Morton Arboretum Interns gather outside of Union Station
    Getting a group photo before the rain!

    On Wednesday, July 12th, the Center for Tree Science -Undergraduate Research Fellows were invited to learn about the research being conducted by the interns at the Field Museum.

    Along with their colleagues from the Chicago Botanic garden, the fellows toured the Pritzker Molecular Lab, the Paleontology Lab, and the Collections Resource Center, which now houses more than 11 million specimens and objects.  This includes nearly 200,000 cryogenically frozen DNA and tissue samples.

    A scientist works with DNA samples in the Cryogenics Facility as interns watch through a window
    A scientist works with DNA samples in the Cryogenics Facility
    Christine E. Carrier


    Other stops included the Birds Collection, the Beetle Colony, the Herbarium and the Collaborative Invertebrate Center. 

    A scientist displays a bird specimen to a group of interns
    Learning about the extinct passenger pigeon in the Bird and Mammal Study Center


    Over lunch, Dr. Corrie Moreau provided a seminar on how to apply for graduate school in the Sciences and students were given free time at the end of the day to explore some of the exhibits.  A few energetic participants even stopped by the Shedd Aquarium at the end of the day to listen to some jazz and take in the Chicago skyline.

    Our thanks to the Field Museum for an educational and fun day!


  • A summer as a SciComm intern

    A large brick building behind a beautiful tall tree.
    Starbucks and trees - both essential for human existence!

    Hello, everyone! My name is Melissa, and over the course of the summer I have been working with the Chicago Region Trees Initiative (otherwise known as CRTI) as a Science and Conservation Communication Intern.

    CRTI is a collaboration of partners throughout the Chicago region who work towards creating a healthier and more diverse urban forest by 2050. My role as a communication intern has been to read, summarize, and categorize over 300 (yes, 300!) different resources ranging from reports to conservation programs to interactive tools. All of this information was entered into a spreadsheet (by yours truly) to be uploaded to the new resource web page on CRTI’s website! As you can imagine, I learned an incredible amount about trees along the way. What’s great about this web page is that everyone can use this tool! Including you! Arborists can use it for training, educators can find educational resources for kids, landscape architects can learn more about park design, volunteers can search for opportunities to get involved - this is a one-stop shop for all your tree needs!

    Four examples of different online resources.
    These four resources are just a taste of what you could find on the resource web page!

    Now, the first thing you’ll see on the resource web page are three categories: audience, keywords, and type. Underneath those categories are individual boxes that can be checked off to create different search combinations that are most relevant to you. To demonstrate this, let’s pretend you are a homeowner who wants to plant a tree in your yard. We always need to plant the right tree in the right place...and give it the right care! But what steps do you need to follow in order to do this?

    1. You will first need to know what tree is best suited for your yard. A quick selection of “residents”, “tree planting and care”, and “technical guides” produces 14 results! After looking over the resources, the Tree Selector resource would probably jump out at you. By entering in your site conditions, location, and preferences, it generates a list of trees that would be great options to plant (but good luck picking a favorite!).

    2. Now that you’ve chosen a tree, you’ll need to know where to buy one. I highly suggest visiting a local nursery over a big box store because the plants are better cared for, grown locally so they are adapted to your climate, and nurseries typically have more variety to choose from. Another easy selection of “residents”, “tree planting and care”, and “websites” yields 12 results. One of the resources displayed is the Nursery Tree Inventory - perfect! A quick search for your selected tree shows you all the nurseries that sell it.
      A line of trees at a tree nursery displaying bright red foliage.
      Not only are tree nurseries a great place to purchase a tree, but they are visually stunning as well!
    3. Yay! You’ve purchased your tree and now it’s time to plant it. Selecting “residents” and “tree planting and care” will give you different resources to choose from related to planting trees.

    4. Once in the ground, you might ask “how do I take care of my tree?” or “how should I mulch and water it?” Following the same search as previously, you’ll find numerous resources about caring for your new tree.

    5. As your tree grows bigger, some branches may need to be pruned. For larger trees or more difficult jobs, it is recommended to hire an arborist. We have resources for this! If you use the same search terms, you will have access to all of our resources containing tips for pruning and hiring arborists.

    6. Wow! In the blink of an eye, your tree has grown into a massive tree! Ever consider registering it as one of America’s largest trees? (Yes, we really do have a resource about this!)

    That’s just to give you an idea of how these resources might be utilized by a homeowner who wants to plant a tree in their yard. But what gets me most excited about working on this extensive project is knowing the impact it’ll have on communities. Can you imagine what our neighborhoods would look like if everyone planted a tree in their yard? By sharing these resources with others, all of that knowledge and wisdom becomes available to everyone! When people put that acquired knowledge into action, the trees ultimately benefit as well!

    The view from on top of a parking garage of a downtown city full of buildings and trees.
    If I had mad photoshop skills, I’d remove all of the trees just so you could see how much of a difference they make in the landscape!

    From one tree lover to another,

    Melissa Nelson



  • 2 Weeks Left?!

    2 Weeks Left?!
    Bur oak leaves


    We are nearing the end of the internship and it definitely seems like a sprint to the finish. The sample collecting trips have slowed down quite a bit (just one trip to Indiana in the past few weeks), however I have kept busy here at the arboretum! I am currently in the process of data analysis and getting my presentation together. We have been using the program R to analyze my data. Although I am definitely not a pro at R at the moment, I am glad that I have been exposed to this software that so many scientist use! R makes wonderful graphs and maps that you can use in your paper or presentation, and it is a skill I am looking forward to improving (if you want to do research and have a chance to take an R class in high school/college, DO IT!).  

    It is weird, but also rewarding, to be almost done with this project. In science classes at school, I usually only get to do bits and pieces of the scientific process. Sometimes I would just do data collecting and analysis, other times I would just be doing data analysis. However, I got to experience the entire scientific process this summer - from coming up with a question, to presenting my work.  

    Overall, it has been a great experience so far, and I am looking forward to getting the rest of my data in and presenting at the symposium next week.

    P.S. Unfortunately I did not get to eat any doughnuts on my last collecting trip to Indiana, however here is a picture of the freshest doughnut ever from Arkansas that didn’t make it into previous blogs:


    A twist doughnut
    The freshest doughnut I have ever eaten
  • Down the Rabbit Hole

    A yellow bee poised in front of a dark hole in the bark of tree
    Not quite a rabbit hole, but close enough

    While measuring and dating (or matching a year to each tree ring) the oak cores I collected earlier in the summer, I noticed an abundance of ring anomalies that aren’t supposed to be common in oaks.

    In my last blog post, I described the process by which a tree forms tree rings; however, it’s not quite as simple as that. Sometimes trees create extra rings, commonly known as “false rings.” This happens when the tree stops growing in the middle of the growing season and then starts again, leaving two rings for one year.

    Besides being annoying when trying to date (or assign a year to each ring), these false rings also pose an interesting question. Most of the rings were found in trees with fire in their history, however it would take more research to verify the exact locations and timings of the prescribed burns in comparison to the trees. Is it possible that fire caused these false rings? As much as I would love to know, this is one of the questions that I just don’t have time to answer.

    I was warned near the start of this internship to avoid chasing data down rabbit holes. While it’s important to be curious and follow where the data leads, there isn’t time to explore every unanswered question in forest ecology in the space of one 10 week internship - as much as I wish there was. Maybe the mystery of the false rings will be the project of some future research fellow, until then I’ll just have to wonder.

  • Field Trip!

    The gray skeleton of a dinosaur displayed in the main hall of the Field Museum
    Sue the dinosaur

    The Morton fellowship has not only given me the chance to create my own research project, but also to visit some exciting places. One of the places we visited was the Chicago Field Museum. The trip was extra exciting because we received a behind the scene view of the ongoing research. Here are some of the highlights of the trips.


    We had a chance to visit the lab where fish are studied. The size of the skeletons and how well preserved the scales were really surprised me.

    A table full of blue and green trays holding fish skeletons and scales of various sizes
    The fish lab


    We also spent some time looking at the pinned butterflies. I learned that the butterflies’ beautiful bright colors are created by the structure of their scales, and stay vibrant as long as they are not in the sun.

    A glass box filled with pinned black and white butterflies with blue and yellow details on their wings
    Pinned butterflies
    six bright blue iridescent butterflies with black tipped wings in a a glass case
    Iridescent butterflies

    The collections in the basement was another stop on our tour. I had no idea so many specimens were stored in the Field Museum!

    A shelled specimen preserved in a glass jar
    A specimen from the collections
    The blue and pink stained skeleton of a small bat in a glass jar
    Bat skeleton from the collections


    We wrapped up our trip by visiting the exhibits and of course Sue the dinosaur!

    The skeleton of a dinosaur displayed in the museum
    Sue the dinosaur
    The Field Museum
  • From Trees to Tins

    Forest with a completely open understory.


    I like to think of the forest as my office, but in order to analyze all of the samples I collected, I needed to move into the soils lab.

    Author wearing gloves standing with coffee grinder covered in green powder over air suction table

    After collecting canopy samples with the arborists, my leaves were dried and I was banished to the dirty lab in the basement to grind my leaves. One of the things I love most about science is that nothing is ever as complicated as it seems. My tool for grinding leaves? A coffee grinder! Each enormous tree in now represented by a vial of leaf dust! I love how the colors change between tree species and individuals!


    Birds eye view of 36 small glass vials filled with powdered leaves. The powder in each vial varies in shades of green from almost brown, to yellow, to army-green depending on the species.


    In order to analyze the nitrogen in the canopy of my trees, the leaves need to be ground to a very fine powder so they can be combusted in a machine called an elemental analyzer. The machine can detect the amount of nitrogen and carbon that was in the sample based off the gas that is released when it is burned.

    tiny rectangular container made of aluminum foil sitting on a glass petri dish.

    I weighed a very small bit (3-5 mg) of each of my samples into aluminum boats and folded them into little disks for the machine to read. Each disk is smaller than the circumference of a pencil’s eraser. Each sample is tedious and expensive to prepare for the machine.

    The aluminum boat has been folded into a small circular disk with the leaf sample inside.

    With all of my samples ready to go I thought I was in the clear. The elementar had other plans. While the machine was running overnight, an error occurred and half of my samples and 4/5th of Allyssa Gao’s samples were burned, but no data was recorded. With the help of the soils lab researchers, I was able to get all of my samples ready and analyzed successfully! Unfortunately, Allyssa ran into more trouble with her samples. You can read about her lessons in perseverance in her recent blog! Research is rarely easy; but in the end I truly believe asking a question about our world, and being one of the first to find the answer, is worth the time and effort.

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