Undergraduate Research Fellows Blog

  • You Can’t Handle the Truth: the Tribulations of Data Analysis

    Assessing plug survivorship by assigning each plant in the plot, on the paper grid, with a number that correlates to their condition.
    A paper grid of a prairie plot I am assessing. I am observing the condition of the plants and assigning a corresponding number based on their condition.

    The start of my personal project, analyzing the survivorship of plant plugs in a prairie site, was heading in the right direction, at the right pace. After a couple of weeks, I finally felt like I had a good grasp on what I wanted to ask and analyze. I had an idea of what my abstract/introduction were going to look like, the majority of my methods was written up, and I constructed a method on how to observe/collect the plug survivorship data. However, the second I finished up my data collection, the question of, ‘so how do you want to analyze your data?’, was brought up. I felt like my project came to a sudden halt. My knowledge of analyzing data at a statistical level goes as high as the information taught in stats 100. I could only think of performing a simple T-test.  Although that is not a wrong way to analyze my data, it apparently wasn’t the only way. Terms like ANOVA and R, were brought to my attention. These terms were confusing enough to figure out what they even meant, so thinking about how to enter my data into these tests, was terrifying. In all 3 years as an undegrad, I have always been given a set of data, so there was only one correct way to analyze it. If I did take my own measurements, it was either plugged into a linear regression or a simple T-test. Now that I have observed and collected all of my data, there are multiple factors I must consider inputting into a statistical analysis. Words like “coding” or “script” have been put into my everyday vocabulary. It is very intimidating at first, and with the very little experience I have so far, I have learned so much. As someone who went into this whole process of doing their own independent study blindly, I now know the importance of being super organized and recording every little thing you do or state. My advisor told me early in the process to take notes every single day about what I do or hear from other advisors. I thought he was overestimating the whole, ‘everyday’, thing. However, now that I have reached the point where I need to analyze my data and figure out why the plants ended up the way they did, why some survived or some died, it is up to me to answer this question. Therefore, having notes upon notes of little things I noticed out in the field, or important details I learned about the site itself, is super important to have in order to analyze my data properly. There is a reason for why certain plants did better than others, and it is my main question to figure out why this happened. Currently, the whole data analysis process is a love/hate relationship. I am hoping the amount of notes I have taken is sufficient enough for me to figure out what is going on and end up with valid results. I am scared, but ready to take on the challenge of R and ANOVA. The process of putting in the data I collected and expecting a valid relationship or reason why the plants survived/died is what concerns me. I am nervous to see the outcome, or the truth of the matter. However, the steps I take for the analysis and the tools I learn in R will put me a step in the right direction towards future goals.



  • Good To Be Back

    Good To Be Back
    The view from my hammock

    Hello again!  

    I can’t believe we are finishing up week FIVE here at the arboretum - time has really flown by. The past few weeks I have been on more sample collecting trips. We went to Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Canada (see highlights below!). By now, we have had a lot of practice collecting oaks, so we have gotten much faster. We are also lucky to have had several people from various institutions help us collect on these trips and make the process go faster!



    Pressing an herbarium specimen in Canada
    Me pressing an herbarium specimen in Canada



    While traveling to different places is fun, I am happy to say that I will have a couple of weeks off from sample collecting to really focus on my project. This past week I have begun analyzing leaf characteristics in a program called ImageJ, and have also learned a little bit about a software called R, which I will use to analyze my data. It has been great to be back at the arboretum for more than one day in a row, and I can finally see my project really coming together.


    Analyzing a leaf on imageJ using my computer
    Analyzing a leaf on imageJ


    In addition to working on my project, I was able to attend the annual field trip to the Field Museum in Chicago. Us Morton Arboretum interns, as well as the Chicago Botanic Garden interns, got to learn about the projects that the Field Museum interns are working on, as well as get a behind the scenes tour of the museum. We were also fortunate enough to get

    free admission to some of the special exhibits (I highly recommend going to see the tattoo exhibit!).

    Overall, it feels good to be back for a while, and I am excited to see what the next half of this internship holds.


    Highlights from my recent collecting trips:


    -I got to meet up with my aunts, uncles, and cousins while driving through Minneapolis, MN on the fourth of July!


    -camping at Lake Jacomo campground, which I highly recommend!

    The lake at our campground
    Lake Jacomo



    -passing through the center of Canada

    Mira and I standing in front of the center of Canada sign
    Mira and I in front of the center of Canada sign



    -getting more doughnuts and other pastries!


    A maple glaze doughnut from Tim Horton's
    A maple glaze doughnut from Tim Horton's


    A Canadian butter tart
    A Canadian butter tart


    -going for a boat ride at Whiteshell Provincial Park

    A lake
    We got to take a boat ride on this beautiful lake!


    -fun fact: we slept through another really bad rainstorm while in Kansas 



  • The Art of Roots

    Undergraduate researcher Sam Panock using a needle to inject nutrient solution into a syringe holding roots to measure root exudation.
    Undergraduate researcher Sam Panock using a needle to inject nutrient solution into a syringe holding roots to measure root exudation.

    For the first few weeks on my research, I have been out in the field collecting soil and root samples from my selected tree species. The soil samples are taken using  soil cores. The soil core tool is pounded into the ground to retrieve the top 10cm of rhizosphere and bulk soil- talk about using those arm muscles! I have also been taking root samples and collecting root exudation data. To measure root exudation, roots must remain attached to the tree root system but separated from the others and cleaned. The clean root is placed into a syringe filled with plastic crafting beads and nutrient solution. The beads and solution create a "fake" environment so the root continues to act naturally. The syringe is left in the field for 24 hours and then collected and brought back to the lab. In the lab, the roots are measured for size and biomass, and the nutrient solution is analyzed for carbon concentration. 

    Check out the photos- A picture is worth a thousand words! 

    Cheers to roots!

    Root placed in syringe filled with craft beads and nutrient solution to sit in the field for 24 hours
    Root placed in syringe filled with craft beads and nutrient solution to sit in the field for 24 hours
    Preparing roots for exudation measurements by rinsing them off with DI water
    Preparing roots for exudation measurements by rinsing them off with DI water


  • Going through the Alphabet

    Five Mongolian Oak leaves laid out side-by-side on top of a white paper, with two rulers lined up next to the leaves on the bottom and to the right.
    Measuring Mongolian Oak leaves with rulers to determine leaf area.

    Hello again!


    I’ve been working on this blog post since the beginning of last week. I’ve found that, just like research, things never go as planned.


    If you ask any of my friends, they’ll tell you that I’m a planner. I like to have a clear idea of what I’m doing and how I’m going to do it, ahead of time. I’ve found that planning is a necessary component of research, particularly if your project has a lot of moving parts or if you need to use another person’s instruments.


    But research is also fluid, and constantly evolving. These past two weeks have taught me that researchers must be, above all, adaptable and persistent. My project has undergone drastic changes since the beginning of my time here at the Arboretum. I’ve gone from studying the accuracy of allometric estimates to examining the effects of bacterial leaf scorch, from building a 3D model using drone photogrammetry to testing trees using DNA extraction and PCR.



    A white drone, the silver box it came in, and the device used to control the drone sitting on the grass.
    The drone, its case, and the Samsung device we used to control the drone.
    Alyssa Gao

    This past week, I was finally able to nail down my project and collect samples to analyze. My project will investigate the effects of bacterial leaf scorch on leaves of Mongolian Oak specimens in the Morton Arboretum collection. Next week, I will extract DNA from twig samples to test trees for the bacterial leaf scorch, and prepare the leaf samples for foliar nutrient and moisture content analysis.

    Another fellow taking a picture of five leaves laid out on a piece of paper, with a balance and samples folded in newspaper on the lab bench beside her.
    Taskeen, another fellow working under Dr. Chuck Cannon, helping me weigh and measure my leaf samples.
    Alyssa Gao

    The process of fleshing out a research project can be incredibly arduous and frustrating. But that’s life, I suppose. Roadblocks are inevitable, and if you want to overcome them, you must persist and adapt.


    Plus, even If plan A doesn’t work, there are always 25 more letters in the alphabet.

  • Summer of Science

    View of the canopy from a seedlings perspective, sugar maple seedlings.
    Unburned plots are covered in thousands of sugar maple seedlings!

    Hello everybody! My name is Katie McGee and I am an undergraduate research fellow (affectionately shortened to “URF”) here at the Center for Tree Science at the Morton Arboretum for the summer of 2017! Academically, I am a senior honors biology student at James Madison University with a concentration in ecology and environmental biology. Personally, I am a Girl Scout that never grew up! I love hiking, camping and singing slightly off key while doing fieldwork. Luckily, my audience is only trees.  

    dense, green forest understory
    My research plots are located throughout the East Woods Natural Area.

    This summer I am working with my mentor, Dr. Silvia Alvarez-Clare, expanding on 2016 fellowship research that found annual fires increased soil nitrogen (N). My project is studying how the soil N in different fire management areas affect leaf N levels in the canopy of four common tree species. I am also studying the seedling populations in my plots so I can see how the fire and nitrogen are changing the next generation of trees. While I am confident in my project now, the first two weeks were a loop of brainstorming and trial/error to nail down my project.

    Crawling under bushes with my backpack, completely lost
    Week 2 summary: lost in the underbrush trying to find the marker for a potential plot.

    Week three and now week four are keeping me busy in the field. I counted over 4,000 seedlings between the two plots I set up last Thursday and Saturday alone! Only one plot left to set up before we collect leaf samples this Friday! Keep an eye out for my next blog on how we collect leaves from giant canopy trees!

    compass pointing North lined up over a meter tape
    Setting up accurate, square plots requires a compass to make sure the corner flags are in the right location!

    While it is tedious work setting up accurate plots, I love every second of working outside: rain or shine! It is fulfilling to know that the data I am collecting brings us one-step closer to managing our forests to the best of our abilities!

    Smiling while hiding under a tarp, soaking wet in the field
    All smiles, rain or shine!


  • Another Day at the Office

    Looking up the trunks of white pine trees and into the canopy.
    The pine plot is located on the east side of the arboretum. Visitors can take a hiking trail to see the pines and spruces perfectly lined up and growing to the sky.

    The best part of being an ecologist is spending most of the work day outdoors. Instead of sitting in a grey cupicle staring out of a window, I get to adventure off into the sunny green forests. Several philosphers such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreua believed that nature is good for the human soul. I believe nature is a a great place to think, clear your head, and relieve some stress. The fresh air helps clear the mind and the sounds of birds singing and the wind whistling through the trees is calming. Whether it be for a picnic, bike ride, jog, or simple walk, I suggest to everyone to  spend as much time outside in nature as possible! It will change your life for the better. 

    Cheers to beautiful sunny days at work. 

  • An Exciting Beginning!

    An Exciting Beginning!
    Learning how to take off

    Hi everyone!

    My name is Taskeen Khan and I am one of the Undergraduate Research Fellows this summer at the Morton Arboretum. I am a rising sophomore from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, majoring in integrative biology. I live a short drive from the arboretum, so getting a new perspective on the place I come with my family to enjoy the fall leaves, spring flowers, and many exhibits, is definitely exciting, especially since the Arboretum’s heavy involvement in research was something new to me.


    In just these first few weeks, I have learned so much, including how to fly a drone!


    This summer, I will be using the drone to collect data on how trees’ photosynthesis changes. Lane, my mentor's research assistant, is teaching me how to fly the drone. She said it would be similar to a video game controller, which seemed pretty hard to me, but it ended up being much easier than I expected!



    The drone silhouetted against a blue sky above Mongolian oak tree with sparse leaves
    Here I am practicing flying the drone around a Mongolian oak.


    The drone has a multispectral sensor attached to it, which takes photos of the visible and infrared light reflected by the tree. The amount of light reflected tells us how efficiently the tree is photosynthesizing, with healthy trees reflecting more than unhealthy trees.


    Usually, this is used in agriculture to determine which areas are not doing as much photosynthesis, and therefore experiencing some kind of stress, such as drought or nutrition. However, we will be using this to made a 3D model of the tree and see how how the photosynthesis in different part of the tree changes in different conditions. I am excited to continue using the drone and learn more about trees!

  • Introduction: Into the Forest

    Selfie of Samantha Panock in the field on a rainy day
    For the second week of collections, I was out in the Red Oak forestry plot taking soil samples when it began to downpour.

    Welcome to my blog! My name is Samantha, and I am an undergraduate research fellow for this summer at The Morton Arboretum here in Lisle, IL. I am working under Dr. Meghan Midgley in the soil ecology lab. This summer we are investigating the relationships between root processes and soil characteristics in evergreen and deciduous trees. I spend my mornings out in the field setting up or collecting samples and the afternoon in the lab running various analyses on the root and soil collections. I get to drive the super cool research golf cart around the property to get from tree to tree. Everyone waves and smiles as I go by, and it really makes me feel like The Morton Arboretum is the best place to be! 

    Cheers to an exiciting summer. 

  • The Start of an Adventure

    A bright yellow tape measure against the green of the forest floor
    Measuring out the grid for my plots

    Hello everyone!

    I’m Sierra Lopezalles, one of the research fellows working at The Morton Arboretum’s Center for Tree Science this summer. My project is to study the effects of fire and prescribed burning on trees in the Arboretum’s East Woods under the mentorship of Dr. Christy Rollinson.

    For me, these first two weeks have been full of surprises and new experiences.

    Back at Caltech, where I’m a rising sophomore studying biology, I worked in a microbiology lab studying bacteria. Even though forest ecology is just another branch of biology, working with trees could not be more different. Where a new plate of bacteria can be grown in the span of a few hours, most of the trees I’m working with are many years older than I am.

    Perhaps the most foreign part though, was how much physical effort forest ecology requires. Working with bacteria could be exhausting at times but it didn’t get much more strenuous than frantically searching the lab for a bottle of chemicals that someone had put on the wrong shelf. On the other hand, in the past two weeks I’ve spent about twenty hours in the forest, hiking through dense undergrowth to collect data.

    A close up of a metal tree tag contrasted against the dark bark of a black cherry tree
    A tree identification tag nailed to a Black Cherry

    I started off the summer setting up plots in the forest with the help of one of the other fellows. After locating the center of the plot with help of a GPS, we used a compass and tape measure to lay out a 20 meter grid. Each tree inside this grid was measured and tagged with a unique identification number.

    An empty data sheet for recording tree heights against the background of the east woods
    The data sheet we used to record tree heights

    We did this for a total of four plots, each one in a section of the forest under a different prescribed fire regime. One of plots is burned annually, while one of them has never been burned before. This will allow me to compare how the trees respond when exposed to different frequencies of prescribed burning.

    I am very excited to see what the data will reveal about how trees interact with their environment. This internship has reminded me, once again, of how fascinating biology can be (as well as how much I loathe mosquitoes).

  • Adventures in the Field

    All of our field gear in the back of our car
    All of our field equipment crammed into the back of the car (at Red Rock Canyon State Park)

    Hello, my name is Sara. I am from Evanston, IL and in the fall I will be a senior at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. I am studying Biology with a minor in natural resource conservation. This summer I will be working with Dr. Andrew Hipp and his research assistant Mira Garner on a morphometric study of Quercus macrocarpa (bur oak), where I will be looking at what factors affect leaf shape in bur oak trees and whether or not we can predict that variation by looking at latitude and climate. Currently, we don't know how much data is needed to predict variation in leaf morphology. How many leaves do we need to predict within-tree variation? How many leaves to predict among-tree variation or variation across sites? My study aims to help us refine sampling methods and be more confident in our predictions regarding what factors affect leaf morphology. A large part of my project this summer includes collecting samples out in the field (for the first few weeks of the fellowship, I will only be at the Arboretum once or twice a week!). Since one of the questions I am addressing is “which leaf traits are most responsive to variation in latitude?”, I will be traveling with Mira to several different sites in the north, south, and central regions of the bur oak range to collect samples of bur oak trees.


    In addition to collecting samples for my project, we are also collecting samples and herbarium vouchers that my mentor will use for another project of his. Needless to say, we are pretty busy. We have already been to several sites in Iowa, and we just finished a trip down south where we collected samples from trees in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. Later we will be going to Kansas, Canada, Indiana, and Michigan. Our goal is to collect 10 samples, per species of tree, per site that we go to. Our main goal is to collect  from 10 bur oak trees, but if we spot another species of oak we will grab samples from it as well. Before this internship, I had very little experience with tree identification, however I have been learning quickly! I always feel so proud when I can spot an oak tree from a moving vehicle.


    Me trying to cut down a branch using pole pruners
    Me trying to cut down a branch using pole pruners




    My mentor and I pressing an herbarium specimen
    Pressing an herbarium specimen with my mentor Dr. Andrew Hipp


    If I have learned anything thus far, it is that fieldwork is challenging. We wake up early and work well into the evening. However, I feel very fortunate that I get to travel to places that I have never been before and learn new things. I am very grateful for this opportunity and I am excited to continue working on my project!



    Highlights from my collecting trips thus far:

    -the beautiful views at the state parks we collect/camp in (honorable mentions go to Lake of the Ozarks State Park in Missouri and Red Rock Canyon State Park in Oklahoma)


    Sunset over a lake
    The beautiful sunset at our campground

    -going for early morning doughnut runs at local doughnut shops


    A doughnut
    Doughnuts make waking up at 6 AM every morning worth it

    -seeing lots of wildlife up close (cows, bison, turtles, deer, goats…)


    -staying with an Oklahoma University faculty member, Abby, who hosted us at her house (and helped us in the field) so that we didn’t have to camp in 85 degree weather


    -meeting an adorable dog and some chickens at Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Oklahoma


    A dog
    We met this friendly (and dusty) dog at Tallgrass Prairie in Oklahoma

    -campfire cooking at Ledges State Park in Iowa (we made pizza pitas and they were delicious!)


    Cooking food over a campfire
    We decided to get gourmet for our last night in Iowa

    -going out for pizza in Little Rock, AR in order to avoid a rain storm


    -having my first rainstorm camping experience (wouldn’t necessarily call this a highlight, more like a fun fact)


    The view of the rain from our car
    Sometimes fieldwork doesn't always go to plan

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