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From Forest to Lab: Ashley Wojciechowski's REEF Experience

From Forest to Lab: Ashley Wojciechowski's REEF Experience

Ashley Wojciechowski spent the summer of 2018 working as an Undergraduate Research Fellow (URF) in the Center for Tree Science, working on "Foliar Nutrient Concentrations of Understory Plants in a Chronically Fertilized Lowland Tropical Wet Forest in Costa Rica".  You can read more about her time as a URF HERE and view her poster HERE.  She applied for funding to continue her research as a REEF (Research Experience Extension Fellowship) and has shared her experiences with us below:


Hi everyone! After my 2018 summer URF experience, I continued my research at the Morton Arboretum as a REEF (Research Experience Extension Fellowship). This unique fellowship allowed me to expand the scope of the research I conducted measuring nutrient concentrations of seedling and understory plant leaves, to include roots and stems. I was fortunate to work again with Mary Ashley and Nani from Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA). While I was a REEF, they were starting their year long Student- Inquiry Research program (https://digitalcommons.imsa.edu/sir/) where we would both work together to investigate the nutrient concentrations of tree seedling roots and stems. Before we could run extractions and other analyzes, we had to spend several weeks hand grinding the roots and stems… which was a lot of hard work!

Additionally, I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with my advisor, Dr. Silvia Alvarez-Clare, to visit the EARTH Forest Fertilization Experiment (EFFEX) where the samples were initially collected during a January 2018 trip. This experiment has been going for 13 years and seeks to understand how changes in nutrient availability influence ecosystem processes in the tropical rainforest. I was able to experience field work in the tropics while gaining knowledge of native plants and animals that we saw in the forest. 

During my time as a REEF, I continued to evolve into a better scientist. I spent almost a year working on this project that allowed me to work independently while at the same time receiving feedback and mentoring from Dr. Alvarez-Clare. I continuously had to think critically during data analysis, communicate amongst our research group and improve my writing while working on our manuscript. I am thankful for the Morton Arboretum for supporting me during my URF and REEF because it has provided me valuable research opportunities while giving me the confidence to pursue graduate studies. It also reinforced my passion for plant ecology and my love of trees!


Woman grinding leaf samples in a coffee grinder

Mary Ashley starts our grinding process by grinding samples in a coffee bean grinder! It helps get the sample into small pieces, but roots and stems were harder to grind than the leaves of the summer.

Woman grinds leaf samples with a mortar and pestle in a laboratory

Nani is working hard hand grinding the pre-ground sample. This process takes a while to get the sample into fine pieces but definitely worth the effort!

Grinding leaf samples in a mortar and pestle

While you can’t see it- we added dry ice to the sample to better grind the sample! The dry ice will freeze the material making it more brittle and easier to grind with the mortar and pestle.

While still in the process of finalizing nutrient analyses for the stem and roots, I took a field trip to Costa Rica in January 2019!

Following a dirt road in a banana plantation

The road to the forest reserve at EARTH University is along several banana plantations. You can also see that the area is near a volcano. I personally have a small banana tree growing in the greenhouse of North Central College (my undergraduate college), but I had never seen a banana tree in real life! 

A lush, green secondary growth forest

While first entering the forest, you can see a variety of plant species that are characteristic of secondary forest. Notice the banana tree that’s growing? It “escaped” from the nearby plantation.

Female researcher in front of a Costa Rican plant with stilt roots

Once in the plots, I was finally able to meet the plant subjects that are part of my research! Here I took a “selfie” with an important palm species, Socratea exorrhiza. You may not be able to see its leaves, but its unique stilt roots are displayed.

Researcher using a compass in the forest

My task during field work was to establish 90 degree angles along a fixed “Y” axis of the plot to a specific tree. I used a compass to verify my angle. Once I had my angle, I would guide Dr. Alvarez-Clare towards the tree to get an accurate “X” axis distance from the “Y” axis. We were able to measure the “X,Y” coordinates for individual trees within experimental plots. 

A small green frog on a yellow measuring tape in the forest

Sometimes, I had “field assistants” helping me with my “Y” axis measurements!

Looking down at a green Costa Rican fern in the forest

Here is an understory plant that is a part of my URF/REEF research project. This fern species is Polybotrya caudata.

A fuzzy plant with 2 long, fuzzy leaves in the forest

Here is another understory plant called Calathea lasiostachya. We have nicknamed this plant as the “Fuz” because its leaves feel like something fuzzy.

A forest tree with a metal tag reading "283"

All trees in the plots have been marked with a metal tag and nail. A tree sometimes will grow around the tag. We would joke that the tree got hungry!

A forest tree with a partially visible metal tag, reading 504

This tree was very hungry!

Researcher standing in front of a tall tree in the forest

The forest was an amazing place to conduct field work and explore. Here is me with an amazingly giant tree. This is the largest tree I have ever seen in my life!

Woman standing next to banana bunches wrapped in blue bags

One of the favorite things I experienced in Costa Rica was seeing the “banana train” around the campus and plantation. Banana bunches would be harvested daily and would transported to the EARTH University handling center via this “banana train” network.

Lush green coffee farm

Additionally, we were able to tour some agricultural plots in the university. Coffee is an important crop for Costa Rica but it can only been grown in particular regions. EARTH University is considered to be in a less desirable region for coffee, but research is currently being conducted to see if different varieties of coffee and other native shade plants can be ground to improve coffee quality. Here are some coffee plots at EARTH.

Plants wrapped in white plastic under an open structure

We also saw some student plant plots at EARTH. The vertical white pipes are growing pineapple in the background! Pineapple is another important crop in Costa Rica that is grown in mass quantities just like bananas. Here at EARTH, they will serve grown pineapple in their dining hall to students.

Looking over the wing of an airplane at takeoff

I was sad to leave Costa Rica to return to cold Chicago, but I will forever remember my trip and experiences for the rest of my life!