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.