year two already?!

Sorry that it has been so long since my last post! Juggling research, teaching, and classes is exhasuting to say the least. This year though I am going to do my best to share updates regularly, so hopefully I will follow through with that!

It is hard to believe that I am a second-year graduate student... hard because that first year went by so quickly and also hard because I still do not know exactly what I want to study. And that's scary. As much as I tell myself that is fine, that other people are in the same position, my brain does not want to agree. And so, here I am still reading papers and making color-coded flow charts, praying for divine inspiration (at least that's what it feels like).

I am happy to say that I have a great field site to start my research at (Richmond Field Station), which is serious progress! It has this amazing chunk of native coastal prairie (an incredibly endangered habitat type), and no one is using it. Yep, no one (except for me, of course). I spent a good part of the summer exploring the site and setting up a permanent grid so that I can conduct vegetation surveys in the spring when everything is beautiful and in bloom.

Although the site still has tremendous native plant diversity, it--like so many other native grasslands throughout California--is being invaded by aggressive non-native species. The worst of these at RFS is Harding grass (Phalaris aquatica). Like many native grasses, it is also a perennial, and not much is known about its effect on ecosystem services, which I hope to explore. There are also many questions stemming from how best to control it and what can be done to conserve the remaining prairie. The more time I spend at the site, the more interested I am in these restoration questions--which practices will be most effective... how will these affect the plant & invertebrate assemblages... how will this alter nutrient storage and movement in the soil...

Stay tuned for more updates as I continue to work at RFS!

Also, if you are interested in learning more about coastal prairie, I am sure I will write more in the future, but for now, I recommend checking out this website.

the descent into decomposition

768 litter boxes later, I did not expect to be planning another litter decomposition experiment. Sure, I loved working on my thesis (hooray for multiple interaction effects and p-values less than 0.05!), but it was a demanding process. I spent weeks of the summer heading into senior year of undergrad making these boxes. Alone at the field station (surprisingly, I could not convince any friends to join me). Listening to episodes of my favorite sitcom play. Interrupted from persistent cutting and sealing of mesh by Netflix notifications (yes Netflix, I am still watching). Throughout this process I kept asking myself: What have you gotten yourself into?

And then I’d remind myself that science is rarely (and honestly, should not be) easy and that I am doing something I care about—something that will help us parse nature’s complex patterns and hopefully improve the current (and future) state of our planet.

Litter decomposition experiments do have their practical advantages. First, you are working with dead plants, so you don’t have to worry about living things acting up and ruining an experiment (except for those pesky coyotes and woodrats in the field). You also have an initial stretch of several weeks where you do not have to do anything. That was a blessing during fall semester of my senior year. Then, once I started collecting boxes, the real work began. Processing litter is tedious (unsealing the bags, picking out anything that fell in, weighing, milling, muffle furnacing, running the elemental analyzer). Doing this 768 times was no walk in the park. But by the time I actually started to analyze my findings, everything was put in perspective yet again. I was doing real science and getting real (significant!) results. Even if I had not gotten significant results, my experiment still would have been valuable. That is part of the beauty of ecological experiments—not seeing anything happening can be as (or even more) interesting than fulfilling a prediction.


Still, by the end of my thesis, I was wary of doing anything rooted in decomposition again. My first major graduate school task has been working on my NSF-GRFP (Graduate Research Fellowship Program) application. (Note: If you are interested in attending graduate school for the sciences, check it out!) For these grant proposals, the goal should be high-reward, and erring on the side of high-risk may not be detrimental. So I needed something creative with the potential to benefit society and science itself. When I arrived at Berkeley, I started researching potential topics for the GRFP that did not include a decomposition component.

Figuring out an interesting topic and one that no one has looked at before is challenging work made all the more frustrating when the review article you’ve been reading does not have any recommended future directions. I thought back to my previous research and honed in on plant invasions, but invasion biology has become an incredibly broad, diverse field in the recent years, so that did not narrow the search much. Also, one of the tricky parts about ecological studies is that the study system is critical. Most of my experience has been in Southern California, and although there is some overlap with the Bay Area, there are several critical differences. Dozens of articles and a few books later, I realized I needed to start organizing my thoughts before I was too overwhelmed to make any progress. I color-coded lists of broad topics of interest, potential study systems, etc., and tried to connect everything in a moderately coherent way. As I did this, I realized I had written “decomposition” and “nutrient cycling” without even thinking about it.

 

I guess I can’t escape it. And I don’t I want to.