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Hollins University students transform into young environmental researchers at Virginia Tech

July 24, 2017

Students hold clipboards while examining trees.
As part of their research, Rachel Brooks and Elaine Metz check on tree canopies. Fewer leaves indicates a less healthy tree.

When Elaine Metz and Shannen Kelly started research at Virginia Tech in May, they already had an interest in improving the environment. But what they didn’t know was that they would soon be in the throes of fieldwork, complete with early mornings, heat, sweat, dirt, bug spray, and an ongoing threat of poison ivy.

Metz, of Salem, Virginia, and Kelly, of Tolland, Connecticut, both undergraduates at Hollins University, are spending the summer with Virginia Tech graduate students Rachel Brooks and Becky Fletcher as part of a new partnership with the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. The goal of the partnership, which began this summer, is to provide Hollins undergraduates with research and mentoring experience in Virginia Tech labs that plan to recruit graduate students in coming years. This summer, the students are part of the Fralin Life Science Institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

On a recent 90-degree day, Metz was carrying a machete and a backpack full of notebooks, markers, paper towels, water, and lunch through a grassy clearing in the forest at the Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Research and Extension Center located northeast of Blacksburg.

Following behind her was Brooks, of Mont Vernon, New Hampsire, a Ph.D. student in plant pathology, physiology, and weed science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who studies the tree-of-heaven, scientifically known as Ailanthus altissima. The duo was headed to inspect the health of the second of four plots of Ailanthus, identifiable by their red and orange seeds and bark that looks like cantaloupe skin. This species is invasive to the U.S., originally hailing from China in the mid to late 1700s, and poses a threat to biodiversity and plant health throughout North America.

Two months before, Brooks had injected a sample of trees across these four different stands with a naturally occurring native fungus in an effort to understand how the fungus kills the trees and spreads and how climate variability affects the relationship between the two.

Once at the stand, Brooks and Metz were in synchrony. Metz took out the notebook with the map that Brooks had made, identifying each of the 200-300 trees that needed to be checked. Brooks then proceeded to each tree after Metz had called its number, yelling back observations: “healthy, full canopy” or “leaf drop, epicormic growth at 3 feet” or, simply, “dead!”

“Since I began this internship, we have been going out to field sites with inoculated (infected) trees, hoping to see death and disease. On the first day that I went out with Rachel, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Metz, a rising junior majoring in biology. “Rachel had told me that the trees would probably not be showing symptoms, as it was only two weeks after the original inoculation. When we arrived at the very first site, we saw wilt and chlorosis, both indications that it was working. It was great to experience how excited Rachel was. Her enthusiasm made me even more excited to participate in the research.”

After the health checks, the two carve out a chunk of the dead trunks to take back to the lab for testing, and count the inner rings for an age estimate. This is where the machete comes in.

 “This is the best part of fieldwork,” said Metz, excitedly maneuvering under branches to grab plastic bags from the backpack and, of course, the machete.

Tree shaved back to show rings.
Revealing the inner rings of this Ailanthus altissima, an invasive tree species in North America, offers an age estimate of roughly nine years.

Back on campus, Metz has been working to replicate these same health trends in the university’s greenhouse, where she has injected Ailanthus saplings with each of the same four conditions: fungus; another, less destructive form of the same fungus; both fungi together; and water as the control. Several days per week she joins Brooks at five additional fields sites, including White Oak Mountain Wildlife Management Area, Sailor’s Creek Battlefield State Park, Powhatan State Park, Radford Army Ammunition Plant, and Little North Mountain Wildlife Management Area, as well as at other locations to scout out trees and new testing measures.

“Besides being an enthusiastic person that stays positive even when faced with 14-hour poison ivy- and tick-infested Saturdays (which is the most you can hope from anyone), she is very efficient, organized, and asks good questions that help me think about our research from different angles,” said Brooks, who is also a fellow in the Interfaces of Global Change (IGC) graduate education program. “This collaboration has led to starting a few small pilot studies that may lead to larger projects in future years.”

On another humid day two weeks before, the other Virginia Tech-Hollins team, Kelly and Fletcher, were squatting down in a dirt plot at Kentland Farm observing Johnson grass, an invasive weed that wreaks havoc on natural areas and roadsides and invades the terrain of certain crops by growing in thick matts. Fletcher, of Kansas City, Missouri, a Ph.D. student in weed science and also an IGC Fellow, studies the physiology of Johnson grass to better understand genetic differences in plants from different climates around the country.

Shannen Kelly and Becky Fletcher measure Johnson grass
Shannen Kelly (right), of Hollins University, and Becky Fletcher measure Johnson grass, an invasive weed, at Kentland Farm in Blacksburg.

After deciding who was going to record and measure, they made their way around a 100 x 200-foot plot of two-month-old wiry stalks about two feet high, grown from New Mexico, Texas, Georgia, Virginia, and New York. The plant grows so well in moist climates like Southwest Virginia, Texas, and Georgia that by the end of August they could be up to seven feet tall, said Fletcher.

Fletcher knelt down around the plot to measure the new growth. Following right along recording the measurements was Kelly.

“Working with Becky has been wonderful,” said Kelly, a rising junior majoring in environmental science and Spanish. “She has taught me to remain persistent and patient not just through experiments, but afterwards when analyzing data. Sometimes results are messy, and it’s difficult to wade through them to create meaningful conclusions, but she has taught me that you can’t give up.”

Like Metz, Kelly works to replicate what she and Fletcher are finding in the field by studying the original plants from the different states in the greenhouse. In particular, she uses a unique tool, the LI-COR LI6400XT, a boxy silver-and-black machine that clamps down on a leaf like a stapler on paper – minus the staple. It’s designed to measure how successfully a plant responds to light and stores carbon through photosynthesis, the process plants undergo to make and store food. Genetic differences in how different populations of Johnson grass make and store food can shed insight into how the plant is affected by climate variability.

“Shannen is getting to see many different, realistic aspects of research, and I think it is important when you are just starting out in science to get well-rounded experiences,” Fletcher said. “She has grabbed this experience by the horns and has embraced amazingly well the good, the bad, the boring, the ugly, the dirty, and the heat and humidity when we are out in the field.”

In addition to their 10-week long research summer research projects, the Hollins University students also have participated in professional development opportunities, including personal statement writing, ethics of data usage, and presenting research, as well as lab and research facility tours, organized by the Office of Undergraduate Research, as part of the Fralin SURF program.

Metz and Kelly will present the results of their work with other students from various organized summer programs around campus at the 2017 Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium on July 27 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Goodwin Hall, located at 635 Prices Fork Road. Presentations will be in poster format. Metz has been selected as the exemplary student to give an oral presentation representing the Fralin SURF program. The community is welcome to attend.

The Office of Undergraduate Research organizes the summer symposium with support from the Fralin Life Science Institute, the Office of the Vice President for Research, and the Office for Undergraduate Academic Affairs.

Story and photos by Cassandra Hockman

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