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Three Lessons Over Three Weeks

Three Lessons Over Three Weeks
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.