Liatris Project Update #11 (Last one!)

It has been an absolute pleasure getting to work on this project. After many weeks of hard work, I presented the final poster I made, going over the details and findings of everything we did to learn about how Liatris head count affects predation. We did find some evidence that there is an effect on predation rate based on headcount, but the evidence itself was not strong enough. We did fail to reject the null hypothesis, but that did not discourage me from thinking about other things that could have impacted the results we found. I mentioned that confounding variables such as soil richness, fires, and rainfall may have affected our results, especially given the differences found between 2021 and 2022. These confounding variables are worth looking at, making me curious to learn more about how they influence Liatris.

With that, there is so much to learn still, and it does not only apply to Liatris. Other prairie plants, such as the Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora), are being looked at by the Echinacea Project, and there is so much to learn about them. Keep up the excellent work with what you do, and most importantly, keep learning how to protect our precious prairie ecosystems and plant species. You are their only hope!

Lastly, I enjoyed getting to know all of you and learned a lot while I was here. Conservation science has been something I have always been interested in, so having the opportunity to research prairie plants was something special. I want to thank Stuart Wagenius, in particular, for letting me intern here and learn the ways of scientific research in a professional setting. I look forward to hearing what comes next from the project, and I sincerely thank you!

Liatris Project Update #1

I am happy to say that the Liatris Project is off to a good start. After taking inventory of all the Liatris plants this past week, I got to start the cleaning process. A total of 293 Liatris plants have been counted in the inventory, and all have been sorted randomly into 5 different batches. Today, I got to start cleaning the ones in the 1st batch, and while cleaning, I noticed several similarities and differences compared to cleaning Echinacea plants. Overall, I found that Liatris achenes were much easier to extract from the plant than Echinacea achenes, but counting them proved much more challenging. To make things easier, random selection sheets of different numerical ranges were arranged that listed random numbers from left to right down the sheets. Using these sheets, I could randomly pick out a flower head and count the number of achenes associated with that head. I also had to observe if any achenes were missing from each head on a Liatris plant. I recorded the total number of heads per plant and the number of heads with no achenes, some achenes, or all achenes missing. After taking these recordings, I removed all the other achenes present on the Liatris plants and sorted them into an envelope. Any chaff leftover got put into a separate envelope labeled as “chaff.” So far, a handful of plants have been cleaned, but there is still a long way to go.

Beginning of “The Liatris Project”

Today will mark the beginning of a new project that I will conduct analyzing Liatris aspera (Rough Blazing Star). Like with the Echinacea Project, this project will look at reproductive quantities of Liatris and the potential factors for influencing plant reproduction. At the moment, a specific research question is still in the works and the actual project requires some introductory steps that need to be completed. In the lab, I conducted inventory checks for the Liatris plants that have been harvested and made sure their were not any errors in what was taken into inventory. While doing the checking, I had Leah help me make sure everything was accounted for. Trying to do this alone would have been frustrating so I send my absolute thanks for helping me out with this part. As for the next steps in the project, I hope to begin cleaning the Liatris plants next week and start to come up with a potential research question in the near future. Very exciting things to come!

Externship Reflection ~ Padmini

Today is the last day of our externship. As an extern, I learned about the entire process of data collection and analysis for the Echinacea project. I worked through the workflow of processing the heads that were collected in the summer and then separating achenes, counting them, creating a random sample, x-raying, and classifying to determine whether achenes had a seed inside (were pollinated).

With all of the data that we helped collect, we got to pick and explore a question from 3 years of data of ~32 prarie remnants. I decided to work with paired samples (looking at the same plant over two years) rather than looking at the entire data set (or a population), which resulted in around 11 sites to analyze. Comparing paired samples is interesting, because they control for site, isolation, and other differences. With the pairs, I looked at whether burning influences reproduction.

Three aspects of reproduction- achene count, head count, and seed set interested me, because they all are extremely important to how many seeds are developed. Achene count did not change between burned and unburned years. Head count and seed set show some evidence (not statistically significant, but really close to it) that they potentially change between burned and unburned years. It is interesting that head count shows some differences, because I was a bit unsure whether it would change, as either genetic or environmental factors could play a role.

For more information and graphs related to my question and data analysis, here are my slides for the presentation that I gave today:

We also got to meet other people who work at Chicago Botanic Garden, walk around and enjoy the garden, get a tour of the production greenhouses, see the exhibition greenhouses, and watch presentations of other researchers at CBG. All of these experiences were helpful, and interesting to consider with doing research.

Overall, the externship has been a great experience. I learned a lot about using workflows, organizing work, writing and presenting work, the research process, asking and answering research questions, and more. In the future, I look forward to exploring more of science and research, whether with prairie organisms or elsewhere.

Final externship reflection and presentation

During the three weeks of my externship with the Echinacea Project, I am grateful to have learned about the steps used to process data in this lab and about the scientific process more broadly. I spent the majority of my time with the Echinacea Project practicing lab techniques that make it possible to answer critical ecological questions using Echinacea. While learning about data processing, I was supported in creating my own research question and hypothesis that I was able to analyze with data and the knowledge I gained about prairie ecosystems. Here is a photo of Padmini and I randomizing!

I learned how to analyze data with R and make graphs that helped me visualize the data and the relationships between remnant area size, isolation plants, and seed set. I used statistical tests to assess the strength of relationships between these factors in order to draw conclusions from the data pertaining to conservation of echinacea and other prairie species who use similar systems. 

I wanted to investigate how pollination is impacted by the degree of isolation of plants and remnant size. My research questions were if isolation or remnant size impacts seed set, and which is a better indicator of seed set. My null hypothesis was that neither isolation nor remnant size impacts seed set. I predicted that a larger area would correlate with a higher seed set and that higher isolation would result in a lower seed set. 

I found that the number of flowering heads correlates with a higher seed set, however neither the area size nor the degree of isolation had a significant effect on the seed set. These results suggest that the proximity of flowering heads is more important than how large the remnant is. Many of the remnants are close together, and pollinators likely travel between remnants and move pollen between flowers at different remnants. Therefore, measuring isolation only within remnants does not take the full context into account. Here are my slides:

Other than my research project, some other highlights of my time at the Chicago Botanic Garden were meeting a variety of scientists and hearing about their projects and experiences. I particularly enjoyed seeing the production greenhouses and learning about the Plants of Concern Program. Here is one of my favorite orchids from the production greenhouse:

Congrats volunteers and students!

It’s been a busy spring at the lab: 11 volunteers and 6 students from Northwestern and Lake Forest College contributed to the Echinacea Project. We are currently wrapping up before field season starts, and we want to celebrate everything they accomplished in the last few months! Since January, volunteers and students:

  • Finished cleaning cg2018 (4 bags)
  • Cleaned 9 bags from cg2019 (only 4 left!)
  • Finished scanning rem2020 and rem2021 (359 heads)
  • Counted 194 heads from rem2020
  • Finished randomizing rem2020 (221 heads)
  • Randomized 227 heads from rem2021

And that’s just Echinacea. People also worked on several other prairie species: Liatris aspera, Lilium philadelphicum, and Andropogon gerardii.

In total, volunteers and cleaned ~1,014 Echinacea heads, scanned 359 heads, counted 194 heads, and randomized 448 heads. Citizen science at its best!

There are 106 heads from rem2021 left to randomize. Can we finish by next week???

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!