The coronavirus pandemic has not stopped The Morton Arboretum from advancing tree science by encouraging young researchers, even at a distance. This summer, using digital technology, the Arboretum is continuing the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, a nationally competitive fellowship for students interested in plant science. Eight undergraduate students are spending 10 weeks exploring research topics such as climate variability, soil biodiversity, and rare plant conservation under the leadership of Arboretum scientists. And, this summer, they’ll all do it safely from home, from their remote workspaces in Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Texas, and Washington.
In its sixth year, the REU program features students conducting independent research projects with the guidance of a PhD-level mentor. The intensive program culminates with the students presenting their research in a final symposium. In previous years, the students and scientists worked in the Arboretum’s laboratories and participated in fieldwork in the tree and plant collections and natural areas. This year, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the REU program was quickly adapted to a new, digital format. The students are developing their knowledge, skills, and professional careers with weekly online science seminars and regular “lunch with a scientist” sessions through the Zoom video conference application, while they pursue their data collection, scientific analysis, and research work.
For example, Chuck Cannon, PhD, director of the center for tree science, and Samantha Panock, research assistant, will be helping one REU student explore tree biology by integrating phenotypic or observable traits and physiological data gathered simultaneously from sensors, observations, and sample collecting. Thanks to new technology, the majority of this project can be completed remotely and online.
Like all Arboretum STEM education programs, the REU program is made possible by philanthropy. With the generous support of donors, the Arboretum is developing the next generation of tree scientists and ecologists by giving these remarkable students a unique experience to build the skills and confidence they will need in their future science careers.
“All of the students have the opportunity to think like scientists and do research that will advance their careers and the future of tree and plant science,” says Christine Carrier, fellowship coordinator in the Arboretum’s Center for Tree Science.