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 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!

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!

3rd Day Externship Reflection

Today marked the third day of our Carleton externship! We started out early in the lab, cleaning echinacea heads with some admirable longstanding volunteers. Then we started rechecking the 2020 cleaned batches instead, and I felt like I had moved up in life.

Funnily enough, a couple of days ago I was timid to touch anything in the lab that I could possibly mess up, but now I just dive in and a few hours pass by like nothing. After we finished the 2020 rechecking (yay!), Wanying and Cassie started reordering the 2020 envelopes, which were assigned random labels in order to remove biases during analysis.

I, on the other hand, started rechecking the 2021 batch. I definitely realized how much I loved having the others’ help, as after today I am still left with this 2021 mountain of a box:

In addition to learning more about the research process, I enjoyed our meeting with Jared today, who prompted us to start thinking about what projects we want to pursue during the externship. Some ideas came up about working with the data at different stages, meeting with other employees at the garden, and proposing hypotheses that can be answered with the team’s available lab data.

The day ended with some great banana bread from Alex and a plan of more project group brainstorming the next day. My goals for tomorrow include both the project focus and the 2021 box. Tomorrow we also move along the process and start scanning the ordered achenes.

Overall, today gave me an appreciation for the people contributing to this project as well as excitement for how I can explore my curiosities using the research and guidance of this incredible team.

Caitlin McWilliams

Echinacea Project 2021

I am part of the Class of 2025 at Carleton College and I plan to major in Environmental Studies.

Research Interests

In general, I am interested in helping to conserve natural prairie areas through networks and corridors so that they can become more resilient to climate changes. I am also curious about how to connect with stakeholders and landowners to make this happen, but also how to combine my interest in GIS with prairie restoration.


I am from Rochester, MN, but my home away from home is our cabin near Lanesboro, where I help to restore the surrounding native prairies, forests, and savannas. I also greatly enjoy hiking the bluffs there with my family and dogs.

Collecting seed with my dad at our cabin for Project Wingspan