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The Start of an Adventure

The Start of an Adventure
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).

About the Author
My name is Sierra Lopezalles. I am a rising sophomore at the California Institute of Technology double majoring in Biology and History. I am a 2017 summer undergraduate research intern at The Morton Arboretum working in the forest ecology lab with Dr. Christy Rollinson. My project is to study how different regimes of prescribed burning effects the mature trees of the Morton East Woods.