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Fields of View

Wednesday, July 18, 2018, by Ruth van Kampen
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     The words of my lab instructor rattled around in my head on the first day of introductory biology lab—“If what you see doesn’t interest you, you’re not looking close enough.” Annoyed, I fiddled around with the stage location and the coarse focus knob of the microscope, convinced I wasn’t going to see anything in the gross pond water with which we had made slides. The depth of field was all wrong and my eyes hurt from staring intently at the slide, backlit by the bright light of the microscope. Suddenly, something moved in the far edges of the field of view. I used two stage knobs to quickly see what was going on- finally! I was seeing something. Quickly consulting the laboratory guide to single-celled organisms commonly found in pond water, I deduced that what I was seeing was a stentor! Excited at what I had seen, I made other slides and looked around, finding many different kinds of single-celled organisms.

     I left lab that day convinced that what I had been so annoyed by was actually a guiding force behind the field of biology and scientific research in general. Now, it is my mantra of sorts as I have navigated my way through my biology courses and schoolwork, and now as I am designing and carrying out my research here at Harvard Forest. This summer, I have been looking at the effects of extreme herbivory and how trees experiencing different levels of water stress may alter their leaf morphology and physiology in different ways in response to that herbivory.

     In some ways, I am looking closer at what interests me; that is, leaves, xylem, and water stress. The more I can find out about the structure and physiology of these amazing organisms, the more I can use this knowledge to understand their interactions with their environments. So, I look closer at the subject itself (xylem is beautiful!) or at its physiology (enter: the LI-COR 6400xt, AKA the coolest machine on earth). I feel like the introductory biology lab student I was three years ago, zooming in and in with the coarse focus knob, trying to catch something new out of the corner of my eye.

     As I’ve matured and found things that interest me, I am finding it necessary to zoom way out and see the forest for the trees, as some might say. This summer, I am taking several steps back, trying to piece together how water stress and defoliation fit together. How do water stress and morphology of leaves impact the insect communities on these plants? How might this be reflected in the leaf damage found on the tree? Do these factors impact physical parameters such as leaf thickness, or physiological parameters such as the rate of stomatal response? I am also observing firsthand the trees I defoliated striving to produce additional leaves to photosynthesize, coupled with the sense that if they spend too much energy producing these leaves now, they might not have enough carbon stores to be successful next year. Where do these opposing tensions come into play, and which one is the overarching rule? When is enough enough? What is the trade-off between surviving and thriving?

     I look to Bernd Heinrich now, one of my favorite authors and biologists. In Mind of the Raven, he writes, “But the poetry of biology resides hidden in opposing tensions, and the often-arduous fun comes from trying to reveal it.” Here, Heinrich captures where I am now in terms of my philosophy on scientific research. I still find it valuable to literally look closer, either at the physiology or anatomy of my woody research subjects; however, I have learned to place value in stepping back and appreciating this beautiful drama unfold before my eyes, and to observe with gleeful joy and wonder these opposing tensions that compose the world around us.

Have you ever looked at the perfect star-shaped pith of a red oak stem and felt for just one moment that the world is as it should be because you have never before seen something that well-organized?

[The LI-COR, terrifyingly expensive but amazing at its job.]

[Me, getting a closer look at some soil moisture probes.]


Ruth is a rising Senior at Bates College studying Biology.

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