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Externship Final Day and Reflection – Caitlin

Unfortunately, today marked the end of my externship and therefore my flog posts. I spent today giving my presentation at the lab meeting and reflecting with the team about my experience in the externship.

This presentation, aided by the slides attached below, represented the culmination of this externship experience and all I have learned from it. In order to answer the research question I posed, I needed the relevant data that I had spent the last three weeks collecting. From day one, I learned how to sequentially transform cut plant heads into data points that can be used to determine relationships like the burn effect on achene count and seed set. Yesterday, I learned how to visually represent and perform statistical operations on that data using R. Today, I practiced conveying not only my results to an audience of scientists but getting them to engage in my narrative and conclusions. Part of the presentation also included a discussion afterward about questions others had and contemplation about the reasons and implications surrounding certain results.

In particular, my presentation aimed to expand on the echinacea burn effects research done by The Echinacea Project at Staffanson Praire Preserve. I was curious whether the burn effect on production and pollination found in this study and various other published ones would hold up to recent years and to a study area beyond just Staffanson. As shown below, I found the burns performed at multiple sites resulted in a greater (statistically significant) increase in the seed set of echinacea heads at these sites than for those that were not burned. Feel free to take a look for more information and specific results:

Overall, this externship has increased my practical lab knowledge and experience in data processing. In general, it helped bolster my ability to form and carry out a research question all the way to the project’s completion. In addition to my own project, I got to participate in lab meetings and share suggestions and questions with people presenting their papers in progress. This exposed me to not only the workflow of data processing but the commonplace revision and discussion of ideas. Another thing this externship strengthened was my networking skills, as I sought out and spoke with multiple employees who gave me insight into their projects and how I can best pursue my interest in similar work. These people included land managers, like Matt and Joan, and Ph.D. program students, like Lea and Drake. The employees I directly worked with, like Alex, Mia, Wyatt, Jared, and Stuart, especially ensured that I was able to take all that I could from this externship and meaningfully contribute to their project’s progression. I am immensely grateful to have been a part of this experience and I can’t wait to someday join such a kind community and fascinating field of study.

Externship Presentation and Reflection

Today is the last day of the externship and we presented our findings.

After a really intense afternoon of learning to use R and working with data on Thursday, we made some graphs and did some statistical tests on the data we have been collecting (as well as spatial data that Jared and Alex got ready for us). It was really hard because I didn’t have that much experience in R, but it was really rewarding as I learned how to make the graphs I want and do statistical tests.

I was interested in looking at tradeoffs plants make in reproduction in the first place, but then I realized that I couldn’t directly quantify resources plants put into different aspects of reproduction with the data I had. I decided to change things a bit and focus on limitations to reproduction. I set up scenarios of plant’s reproductive effort under different conditions in terms of resources and tried to clearly explain it by having hypotheses and visual aids. Another potential limitation I considered was limitation in pollination, which I quantified by looking at level of isolation based on distance to neighbors. I made a lot of assumptions which I hope are true – for example that plants really would put all the resources into reproduction, and that distances from other conspecific plants are a predictor of pollination.

I didn’t find strong evidence for any of my hypotheses except that there is a negative relationship between the distance to 3rd nearest neighbor and seed set in liatris. It was interesting but also expected – isolation seems to be negatively impacting pollination and thus seed set.

The presentation went well and these are the slides I used for it.

Overall, this externship has been a really great experience. I learned so much about the processes of doing science, about what scientists do on a daily basis and how a research group functions. I’m really glad that I got to participate in the lab meeting, explore in the Garden, be a part of many processes of research and eating lunch with the lab group everyday!

I also learned that studying plants is a lot harder than I imagined. It’s a really long process, and there are many biases that could happen. Organizing a lab takes a lot of work, and making a standardized ‘assembly line’ to process hundreds of plants every year is incredibly hard. The results or findings sometimes are not what you expected, or don’t seem to make sense at all. These are all things that I never imagined to be a part of studying plants and ecology. I feel like now I have a much better idea of what the field is like and what to expect moving forward from here. I am really grateful for this experience and for everyone who made it possible.

Final Externship Reflection and Presentation – Cassie

As the three weeks of my externship at the Echinacea Project comes to a close, I’ve learned a lot about the research process and the different stages of a scientific investigation. After coming up with my main research question about density and seed predation in Liatris a couple of weeks ago, I have since been working on cleaning and randomizing Liatris, as well as quantifying seed predation in order to analyze the relationships I wanted to investigate.

After going through all the steps of getting my data ready for analysis, I got to do some data visualization and statistical tests to fully analyze the results of my project. This was done in R, where I make several graphs and ran statistical tests such as t-tests and generalized linear models.

After getting to analyze my data, I put together a presentation summarizing some of my findings and my thoughts about them. To summarize, my main research question was investigating whether the fire-induced density of flowering Liatris plants influenced seed predation, and I hypothesized that burning would lead to higher density, which would lead to higher seed predation. I found that burning did in fact lead to a higher density of Liatris plants, but there was not a significant relationship between nearest neighbor distances and seed predation, with only a very slight negative relationship between the two. There was a steeper relationship between the two in just burned plots versus unburned plots, which I thought was interesting, although I am unsure about why this is the case.

Overall, I found that the reproductive benefits of fire do not seem to be outweighed by the threats posed by seed predation, which is good news for those that want to use fire as a tool for prairie management and conservation. My entire presentation, with background information and the graphs I used, can be found below!

Overall, this experience has been very insightful into the world of scientific research, as well as all of the methodologies and tools necessary to successfully complete a project and gather meaningful data. I’ve learned first-hand the importance of things such as random, unbiased samples, having a thorough, detailed protocol, and having organized workflows and data collection methods. I have also had the opportunity to meet and talk to people pursuing ecological research and learn about that process, which has been super helpful. I think that one of my biggest takeaways from this externship is that you don’t have to have all of the answers and that there are always more questions to investigate.

Externship Day 13: Finishing Randomization and the Introduction of Classifying!

I can’t believe our externship is almost over! Just yesterday we finished randomizing Liatris, so today we started randomizing Echinacea. The procedures were similar, except we used a circle (which looks like a carnival spin-the-wheel) instead of a grid when scattering achenes. The total achene numbers were also unusually small in 2020 and 2021 compared to the previous Echinacea collection years, so we actually had to alter the randomization protocol in order to get a minimum of 25 achenes that can be classified for pollination.

Here’s me, Cassie, and Wanying randomizing Echinacea by scattering the achenes on the circle (lower left) and using the letter randomizer on the project website to select achenes to be put onto the counting sheet (right of the circle)

We also x-rayed the rest of the Liatris today and learned how to classify achenes that have been x-rayed. These x-rays are meant to look at the seed status of the achenes in order to determine which achenes were pollinated. We used the Echinacea classification training module on the Echinacea Project website and created specific criteria for Liatris in order to mark the achenes as empty, partial, and full. We should be able to finish x-raying and classifying the Echinacea we randomized tomorrow morning!

The achene classification training module, which includes an interactive practice classifying session

However, the best part of my day was meeting with one of the Ph.D. students doing research in the lab, Drake, and learning about their current work with parasitic plants. Drake and Lea, who is another Ph.D. student that we met earlier in the week, gave valuable insight about preparing for grad school and Ph.D. programs. They especially gave great advice about not being afraid to cold email people we want to connect with as well as how to take advantage of our unscheduled time for research, especially in the latter Ph.D. program years.

I’m also excited for tomorrow, which is when we will finally get all of our data processed! With this data, we’ll be able to answer our research questions and input the results into our presentation for Friday’s lab meeting. I can’t wait to not just get the results, but also to discuss them and their implications with the project team!

wrap up internship with LFC students

Alondra, Connor, Maeve, and Marina finished their mini-internships with us. It was a great experience for them and us. We appreciate their contributions to science and conservation and they gained valuable experience. As part of their plant biology class, Alondra, Connor, Maeve, and Marina, who are juniors and seniors at Lake Forest College, worked on two projects to assess effects of prescribed fires on reproduction in Echinacea. In the lab, they gained hands-on experience in seed biology over three Wednesday afternoons, including cleaning, scanning, counting, developing hypotheses, and data management. To test their hypotheses, they developed a dataset and summarized their results. In class they presented posters and they are attached here. It was a wonderful mini-internship–thanks to Alondra, Connor, Maeve, and Marina, as well as Prof. Westley!

Externship day 10 update

The second week of the externship is coming to an end. We started the day by finishing off all the counting we needed for our final project. We counted achenes of echinacea heads harvested in 2020 and 2021 from several burnt and unburnt places. The echinacea plants these heads came from also had variation in density and number of heads produced so that the data we generated from counting would be helpful for all of our projects.

We had our weekly lab meeting at 9 and talked about a paper Jared had been working on. I learned more about the process of scientific writing and it was inspiring to learn that studies of one particular plants could provide insight into methodology used in ecological research in general.

Later in the afternoon, we had a brainstorming session on preparing for our presentation next Friday. We all discussed our hypotheses, potential graphs, diagrams and pictures to include in a slideshow. We all felt more confident about it and were excited to see what we could find out next week!

Externship Week 2 Update: Randomizing

This week we’ve been making good progress on gathering the necessary data for our projects! An important part of this, especially for mine and Wanying’s projects, has been outlining our randomization protocol for liatris. After brainstorming a liatris randomization protocol yesterday to ensure we would be getting unbiased samples for our data, today we finalized some of the details of our protocol and started randomizing!

We spent the majority of the day creating random samples of liatris achenes to use for our projects, and we were able to get 60 samples done. It was exciting to put a protocol that we had drafted into practice, and continue working towards our data sets and the final product of our projects. The variation of achenes from each plant was also very apparent during the randomization process. Here’s Wanying, Caitlin, and Wyatt working on randomized liatris samples:

We finished off the day with some echinacea achene counting, which will be important for Caitlin’s data analysis. It’s fun to get a variety of different tasks throughout the day while contributing to different projects. I’m looking forward to more randomizing tomorrow and doing more work on our projects!

Externship Day 8: Project Focus and the Introduction of Randomization!

We’re now past the midpoint of our externship! This week we are focusing more on gathering the data for our own projects, so yesterday Alex and Mia gave us a list of Echinacea purpurea samples that would be helpful to use in my project. Cassie, Wanying, and I separated these samples and moved them through the entire process we had learned so far, including cleaning, rechecking, random letter-number label assigning, reordering, and scanning. Thanks to this work, we only had a few scans to do today and redid the scans that did not have any achenes so that they now include a note to any potential counters.

Here I am adding notes to the achene-less scans, which are done on the right and entered into the computer program

Then we started thinking about Liatris aspera, which is used in Cassie and Wanying’s projects, and how to randomize each plant’s achenes in order to get smaller samples that can be realistically checked for seed predation and x-rayed. We learned the Echinacea randomization protocol today, but there is no protocol for Liatris, so we brainstormed one together based on the challenges of Liatris and our goals. We started to draft this protocol into a document listing our objectives, materials, troubleshooting tips, and methods. Then we cleaned Liatris until the end of the day, and I made endless more grub friends.

Wanying and Cassie cleaning Liatris heads
A grub just chilling and pretending it didn’t eat through the achenes I needed

I’m excited for tomorrow, which is when we’ll hopefully be able to start randomizing and maybe even putting our protocol to the test!

Externship Day 5: lab meeting, seminars and cleaning liatris!

This Friday was day 5 of our externship and we had plenty of new experiences! We started the day by learning how to cleaning a different flowering prairie plant, liatris, or rough blazing star, with Wyatt. Compared to echinacea, achenes of liatris are much easier to be separated from the chaff and the receptacle. However, the fruits of the liatris are spread by wind. So the achenes all have fluffs attached to them which is a little challenging to separate sometimes.

Then we participated in the echinacea project’s weekly lab meeting. We read the draft of a paper Lea had been working on and listened to lab members discussing it. It was really fun and inspiring to see the process of scientific writing and experience the lab as such a collaborative space. I learned a lot about the behind the scene processes in doing science such as designing experiments, deciding on certain sets of data to use for a given topic and different ways to present data.

Right after the lab meeting, we listened to speed talks given by ecologists working in different departments of the Garden including aquatics, remnant forests and some other natural areas. I learned a lot about the history of the Garden as well as challenges and successes in managing different ecosystems within the Garden. I was really surprised when I learned how much work went into maintaining the lake area and the shores of lakes – planting, reinforcing, cleaning algae and other unwanted aquatic plants and so on. It was a great experience listening to talks by ecologists doing hands-on restoration and conservation work here in the Garden.

We also learned the ABT format of presenting a project and all three of us tried to come up with one for our projects here. We also decided on what we’ll be doing for projects. Cassie would be looking at density and seed set in liatris, Caitlin fire and seed set in echinacea, and I would be looking at number of flower heads and seed set in liatris. We planned to do some cleaning, rechecking, scanning, counting and X-raying to get part of the data we need and then do some data analysis. With this in mind, we were much more motivated to do some more cleaning and rechecking and dive into the second week of our externship!

Day 4 Externship Update: Scanning, Burning, and Projects

As the first week of our externship is coming to a close, we’re learning more about the different procedures and tools used in the lab. After finishing up our rechecking and organizing of the 2020 harvest yesterday, we began scanning today so that we can eventually move on to the next step and count achenes. While we scanned, we also took turns continuing the daunting task of rechecking the cleaned 2021 harvest. Here’s Wanying and Caitlin working on rechecking while I scanned:

As fun as scanning and rechecking is, the most exciting part of my day was easily getting to watch a prescribed burn on some of the restored prairie. While the fire was pretty slow and patchy for the most part, it picked up speed during the tall grass sections and was pretty cool to watch overall. Getting to actually see a prescribed burn in practice after learning about it and its effects in the lab was really interesting. It was also a pretty valuable experience in that we got to watch and learn about how prescribed burns are done and the different tasks and precautions that go into the process.

After watching the burn and doing some more rechecking and scanning, we had a meeting with the lab team to brainstorm for the independent projects we’ll be working on for the last two weeks of our externship. We talked about different possible project ideas and questions we could investigate, but struggled some with the feasibility of accomplishing our goals in just two short weeks. However, after some more brainstorming and reevaluating, we were able to come up with some exciting ecological questions to investigate in the lab for the next couple of weeks!

Overall, this week has brought lots of new knowledge about the lab processes and the various projects they contribute to, as well as some great background and context for thinking about goals and ideas for the rest of the externship!