“You’re doing a virtual research internship? How’s that going?” This is the number one question I get from family and friends this summer. Many, if not all, summer plans and expectations have been washed in the wake of the pandemic this year—including our in-person REU experience with the Morton Arboretum. Amidst the shifting, I am incredibly grateful for the staff at the Arboretum who’ve tackled the brave challenge of creating a virtual experience impromptu. They have managed to welcome us with emails and zoom calls wide open. I’ve felt supported and encouraged to ask questions and connect with the many world-class scientists that serve the vision of tree science—so my response to family and friends is “It’s going great!”
Exploring my research question of ground beetle diversity patterns across forest types and their corresponding nitrogen landscapes has given me something unexpected. Suffice it to say, I did not expect that joining a soil ecology lab for the summer would tutor me in R skills! I never imagined I’d be spending most of my time on the computer, but now that I am, I’m rather enjoying learning a new skill. The data I’m working with is part of the National Ecological Observatory Network (NEON) database. NEON is a National Science Foundation sponsored continental-scale ecological experiment. They plan on continually collecting data on many ecological parameters across the continent for the next 30 years. (Their data is all open access, so anyone can explore their research questions freely.) In ecology, having data across temporal and spatial scales is particularly important (and thrilling!)
NEON’s ground beetle data is especially interesting. Ground beetles are excellent indicators of diversity. Diversity is an indicator of environmental health and resource availability. Being ground beetles, they represent the ground layers and soils below them and are an indicator species for the belowground arthropod community. We already know that soils reflect the different aboveground trees. A large driver of this being their leaf litter that falls on the soil. For example, evergreen trees are often lower in inorganic nitrogen than deciduous trees because they have lower inorganic nitrogen content in their needles. Therefore, exploring differences in ground beetle community patterns across varying landscapes will give us insight into resource and environment change.
NEON has formatted data in such a way that their ground beetle collection has resulted in a few different datasets that need to be stitched and transformed together. Figuring out how to do this well, without comprising or missing any small detail has been… well… let’s just say I’m really grateful to my mentors for their patience and help.
Well, now that you know more than most of my family and friends about what I’m doing this summer, feel free to keep in touch through email, Instagram, or linkedin