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Finding the hay in a needle stack

Monday, July 1, 2013, by Rebecca Walker
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Picture yourself strolling through a pristine, forest wilderness. You might imagine yourself surrounded by towering oaks or ash trees with powerful trunks that could be centuries old, under a dense umbrella of endless, green canopy. In the emerald shade created by the curtain of leaves above you, the air is cool and filled with the chirping of birds that make themselves at home in the woods. You might imagine that, as a forest ecologist, my summer at the Harvard Forest is spent working somewhere like this. You would, however, be very incorrect.

Monday through Friday, the majority of my time is spent in the middle of a short, shrubby field that makes up for what it lacks in tree canopy with a densely packed, thorny tangle of blackberry and raspberry. Only five years ago, this field probably looked very much like the typical image of towering trees that is summoned to your mind when you think forest. The forest that once grew here was harvested for timber five years ago and has been growing back ever since. My field partner, Lowell, and I are fortunate enough to be in charge of tromping through the dense thickets of barbed branches in order to survey what is growing in this new "forest." To do this, we have to locate two-dozen markers, each about a foot high, scattered throughout the twenty-acre field. Searching through twenty acres filled with blackberry makes our job a little like finding a needle in a haystack. Though, considering the density of blackberry thorns, finding the hay in a "needlestack" might be a better description.

[Where you would think a forest ecologist works (left) and where I actually spend my time (right).]

Cutting down a forest full of trees for timber harvesting might, at first, seem like an environmental tragedy, but the harvest has allowed researchers at the Harvard Forest to gather unique information about how a forest recovers after a catastrophic disturbance. Specifically, researchers can develop a better idea of how the carbon budget of a forest changes when trees are removed and then are allowed to regrow. As trees grow, they remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their roots, trunks, branches, and leaves. Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is necessary because carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that causes the planet to heat up. Because human activities pump of a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, finding ways to remove the gas is really important. And that's where my research at the Harvard Forest research is attempting to do – determine how quickly a regrowing forest can remove carbon dioxide from our atmosphere.

[My field partner, Lowell, tromping through the blackberries (left) and an upclose look at some more blackberry, our favorite shrub species (right)]

My summer at the Harvard Forest has been a dynamic mix of hot, sunny workdays (and plenty of cold, rainy ones too), meetings with mentors, encounters with wildlife (so far we've seen a bear, a bobcat, two moose, and a porcupine!), and adventures with new friends. The Harvard Forest REU experience is about so much more than simply the research skills learned from your project. By spending eleven weeks with a diverse group of some of the brightest undergraduate ecologists, computer scientists, and engineers in the country, each with a unique background and skill set, I have learned more than I ever could in any class. Recently, my friends and I climbed Mt. Greylock (the tallest mountain in Massachusetts), and like that climb, this summer has certainly been a challenge. However, there is no sweeter feeling than that of truly accomplishing something by producing research that will help to answer questions and solve problems -- the satisfaction of making it to the top.

[Hiking Mount Greylock (left) and the group at the top (right). Yours truly is the goofy blond in mom jeans.]

Rebecca Walker

Quirky Q&A with Rebecca

What is your favorite board game?

This summer I've developed a new love for Taboo. I love all of the creative ways people come up with to describe words.

Would you rather travel by train, plane, car, or ship?

If there were no time constraints, then I would definitely choose to travel by ship. I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay in a small town called Deltaville, Virginia, so there isn't much I love more than spending day after day on the water.

If you could only have three electrical appliances, what would they be and why?

If I could only have three electrical appliances, one would definitely be a washing machine, because I wouldn't even know where to start if I had to wash my clothes by hand. I also would definitely need a toaster oven because they're so versatile and a coffee maker because I would die without coffee.