Undergraduate Research Fellows Blog

  • 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!
  • Welcome 2016 Fellows

    Four fellows standing outside of the Botany Laboratory
    2016 Fellows: Quinn, Ali, Mackenzie & Kirsten

    The Center for Tree Science - Undergraduate Research Fellowship Orientation was Monday, June 13th and included a staff lunch on the Botany Patio. We welcomed our 2016 Fellows, as well as new and returning seasonal staff and interns from the Science and Conservation Department. It was great meeting everyone and we're all looking forward to an amazing summer!



  • Three Lessons Over Three Weeks

    A long row of medium-sized trees planted in pots, raised on cinder blocks with a milk jug connected at the bottom
    My beloved plot of 72 elm trees

    Dear readers,


    My name is Kirsten Marion Triller, and this is my fourth week as an Undergraduate Research Fellow with Bryant Scharenbroch as my mentor. (I started two weeks earlier than the other three fellows since I have to be back up at school on August 8th!) The past three weeks have been a whirlwind, but I’ll get to that shortly...


    To start, let me give you a brief overview of the world-viewpoint from which I stand. :) I am a biology major at a small liberal arts school in the Twin Cities, MN, the University of Northwestern--St. Paul. Next year I will finish off my bachelor’s degree, along with an Environmental Science minor, a Science & Theology minor, and a Bible minor. Afterwards, I would love to continue on to graduate school, and I am considering the possibility of environmental consulting as a long-term career. I guess we shall see! Science, to me, is an exciting way to get to know my Creator more deeply and understand how He’s ordered this world, and I’m happy to pursue any career with an ecological focus.


    My family lives just over the border in Wisconsin, and we also have many ties to Chicagoland, so this summer at the Arboretum was like coming home for me! I’m a midwest girl through and through, and I don’t think I would last too long in a place without trees. I love to enjoy life and its many blessings: people, music (my family has a deep love of musicals), and yes, nature. I am so happy to spend my summer in an expansive tree garden with 16 miles of “hiking”, 9 miles of biking, and beautiful scenes like this:


    Landscape picture overlooking a hill with many trees
    Frost Hill is a great lookout spot! And an excellent place for thinking...


    Young lady smiling in a prairie
    I want to be able to identify more plants in this prairie by the end of summer!

    Landscape picture with hill, lake, and purple crabapple trees
    I pulled off to the side of the road to snap this one :)



    I view creation as a giant puzzle, and I get a thrill discovering how the pieces fit together! I believe that we’ve, as humans, been given minds inclined to question, explore, and understand, and it gives me great joy to exercise that gift here.


    I haven’t been in a full-time research position before; the most experience I’ve had was a semester of studying nestboxes and their winter inhabitants (doing DNA extraction to identify the species leaving behind their feathers, hairs, etc.)---a job requiring only 4-5 hours a week. But I’ve taken my general biology, plant science, and natural resource management courses, and I’ve had a summer of practice in fieldwork (working in natural restoration sites as an Ecological Restoration Intern in Glenview, IL), and I’ve been long looking forward to an opportunity where I get to devote a good amount of attention towards research.


    These past three weeks have already taught me much.


    Firstly, the amount of effort it takes to scientifically learn anything astounds me. My research goal for the summer seemed simple enough (at least the premise): study how different soil amendments influence nutrient leaching (i.e. the drainaway from soils that can seep into other water systems, leading to possible water quality issues and health concerns). My hypothesis was pretty short, so I was curious if each day would actually fill up with tasks to do for my research, or if I’d end up with an abundance of time to lend my hand to another’s project.


    However, the days fill up astonishingly quickly, and it didn’t take me long to realize that.


    To simply determine if and how biosolids (an organic mulch, “soil amendement #1”) have contributed to greater nutrient leaching than biochar (another organic mulch, “soil amendment #2”), an approximate 400 hours (8 hours x 5 days x 10 weeks) will be devoted to my plot of 72 potted elm trees (see below), first familiarizing myself with the wealth of knowledge that already exists in scientific literature on the matter, then jumping into data collection and data analysis for: collecting leachate (the leached-out water sample containing various concentrations of nutrients; a 2-3 hour job with two people); filtering the leachate (I expect about 4 hours for a complete set of samples); other preparations for nutrient analysis (2-3 hours); and actually doing the analysis (a 2 day job at least). All this, each time after it rains. When it’s not raining, I’ll be measuring a whole slew of other factors, from tree growth, to leaf area, to soil respiration, to chlorophyll abundance, to spending hours problem solving---trying to minimize leaking from the tree pots, except into their water collecting jugs. (I’ve been told that most of research is time spent trying to figure out what went wrong, and how to fix it!)


    A soil respiration machine is positioned at one tree in a line of 45
    Testing soil respiration rates at one of our 72 trees


    Needless to say, my summer days are definitely spoken for. But, though it seems that research is a slow, meticulous process, I love it! And I have such a greater appreciation for the scientific community, where we can all share the few results from our singularly small projects, and together, collectively, learn something big. I feel already a part of this worldwide, time-transcendent team, and I’ve still yet to finish my bachelor’s degree. :)


    And, goodness, have I been learning the value of teamwork in this research endeavor. Even in the early steps of my project, the reality of the complications with research has struck. Tree pots leak where they shouldn’t, and it takes an abundance of work and wisdom to make them functional again--much more work and wisdom than I can muster by myself. I am so grateful for a team of coworkers, smarter than I, who are so willing to offer help and advice for a project not their own! I am so grateful for a team of volunteers who will come out into the blistering sun with me to find the leaks and fix up the pots! Take a look at the “MacGyver-esque” do-hingy we made from a 10 mL pipette tip to flush out any clogs from the pots’ tubing:


    Young lady holding a hose with an attachment
    Our state of the art tube-blaster!

    ...Additionally, I would like to give a quick shout-out to unofficial teams, particularly the one formed among us research fellows last Tuesday night when I locked my key in my car! This was the second time I’ve been a part of a “MacGyver-esque” team last week, and yes, I do know who MacGyver is. My parents taught me well. We nearly opened up my car door with a shoelace and hanger, until after an hour of patient, hopeful endurance, we succumbed to defeat, called the police, and a lovely policewoman opened up my trunk for us to climb through. Yay team!


    Four young ladies standing outside of a locked car
    We're locked out of my car, but still having fun :)

    I’ve also been learning that teamwork isn’t the only value that people can provide, but simple company refreshes the soul. In my being here two weeks prior to the official start of the program, I lived by myself in an onsite house. In short, I believe I would have gone crazy if I had to spend another week in this solitude. Yes, you may attribute this attitude to my being a college student and accustomed to tight living quarters and being surrounded constantly, on all sides, by a variety of people... but I truly think it better to have a roommate than to live alone. At least for me. While I was fine on my own---I ate well and slept well, going to bed and arising earlier than I ever had before (5:30 am doesn’t easily happen during the school year...)---once the other fellows arrived, my excitement and motivation for my project immediately augmented, like an old battery jump-started. Although I wasn’t able to continue with my short-lived “early to bed, early to rise” habit, in just this past week, these other three research fellows have reenergized me, giving me a new eagerness to learn, discuss, and grow. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” I’ll take the “sharpening” over an early sleep schedule.


    So there you have it, three life lessons learned in three weeks! I expect many more lessons to come, and much more growth in these areas as well---learning eager endurance for extensive research projects, a gratitude and participation in teamwork of all shapes and sizes, and a simple enjoyment and appreciation of company. No, this summer at the Arboretum will not be an easy walk in the woods, but that’s good! A bit of pressure produces precious stones, and I am here to learn.




  • 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
  • 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!

  • 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. 

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