Author Archives: Courtney Hill

Time Traveling back to Week 1

When we came into this program, one of the first posts we wrote was about our expectations for the program. With this available, I thought it would be useful for me to reflect back on that post now, 8 weeks later and see how I felt these expectations were accomplished.

The primary desire I wrote about having was seeing some actual germination which is really quite funny to me because there was so much germination over the past couple of months and the germination began probably 2 or 3 days after I wrote that post. And was that as satisfying of an expectation to have been made a reality as I thought it would be? Why yes, yes it was. As I’d mostly hoped the germination was satisfying because it meant I actually got measurable data, but also it was satisfying because it meant I got to have baby trees and shrubs, and in many cases even planted them in the greenhouse which was probably my favorite part of the physical tasks I did over the summer.

I also briefly mentioned hoping to become more comfortable and familiar with my lab setting and I would definitely give that task a check mark too.

Also, I went on to share that I hoped my research experience would extend past the end of the program, which happily enough, it probably will. Me and Dr. Wright have been discussing the specifics of these plans, but I probably hope to do an independent study. During this time I would likely replicate my own work, this time faster and cleaner now that I am very familiar with the process. Eventually, he mentioned to me that I might be able to take the sprouts I have been planting and carry out a new experiment with the actual plants, and I would test salinity effects in some way with them as well. I am quite excited to see where this leads.

Finally I wrote about hoping to gain more insight into my academic and career goals. One of my main specific hopes under this category was to determine what major I might be interested in between Environmental Science and Biology (with a focus in ecology). I did decide, based on my experiences in the program with conversations and more exposure to the science that I want to major in Biology, which seems to have more classes and course requirements that meet my interests. I think keeping knowledge of policy and being connected to the career resources that the Nicholas School has is also important so I also intend to pursue an Environmental Science minor. It seems like I have enough space and enough overlap to perhaps double major, but I will start out pursuing a minor and evaluate further after this semester. The second specific goal I had under this umbrella was determine if lab research was something I was particularly in love with. I did come up with more clarity on this too. I definitely think lab research is useful and important, but I decided that this kind of research is not where my primary interests lie, and I do not expect to have a lab in my future. Just because I don’t see it in my career though, doesn’t mean I don’t see its importance, which I believe lies in understanding that lab work is where much of our current scientific knowledge comes from, so for these reasons among others I hope to continue doing research in school.

Overall, I thought BSURF was a very rewarding experience. The scientific curiosity I had satisfied, the direction for my future, the social experiences I had with my fellows on and off the clock, and even my enjoyment of central campus living all equated to me being a happy ecology nerd this summer. Also field work was really fun.



Figuring out the future… with help

My primary motivations for getting involved with/applying for BSURF were primarily based around me having a general knowledge of my interests but not idea how to apply them to come up with a game plan or possible career for myself. For this reason, each and every talk I heard this summer made a difference for me and was important not only for the science portions, but especially for the portions in which each faculty member gave a summary of how they came to be where they are. There were more than a couple “aha moments” for me when a presenter would say something about their life that really clicked with my goals and got my ideas running on how I could accomplish my goals in similar ways. But beyond the broad future help, the science itself was also super great in that it was always interesting; even when it did not relate specifically to anything I knew well presenters tended to touch upon themes that run throughout all of biology so that I could connect how their science might relate to the science I am used to studying (ecology, organism/habitat interactions, etc.).

In some cases this link was easier to make than in others, as I found to be the case with Dean Nowicki’s presentation. I imagine that my interests in Dr. Nowicki’s work was grounded in several things. Funny enough, I had previously read into Dr. Nowicki’s work a bit earlier in the year, unknowing that he would be a BSURF presenter. I had found his lab while scanning through something on some biology page and I was drawn in by the picture of his bird on his lab page because plants and animals are all super cute. So, as I read on his lab page earlier in the year and as he presented to us, he studies songs in song sparrows and he tested sparrows’ ability to differentiate between songs using a habitation/recovery type test. I hadn’t heard of this kind of test before and thought it was a great and interesting idea because it is quite a conceptually simple idea but can reveal so much about the sparrow communication and behavior. I enjoyed how Dr. Nowicki made the comparison between categorical differentiation in bird songs and in human understanding of the “pa” and “ba” sounds, simply because it made the technical material easy to understand. There were several other aspects of this presentation that caused me to favor it; in short: the fascinating topic of neurological processing of sound, the differences in calls being affected by habitat location (so basically evolutionary differences) that was briefly touched upon, and the relatability of the research to human speech development.

As an aspiring ecologist, animal behavioral work is something I typically enjoy, and I was lucky enough to have Dr. Nowicki and several others touch on one of my favorite broad topics this summer. But even beyond that, I am grateful to every one of the distinguished lecturers that took time out to help guide my and my colleagues’ wandering feet in the right direction toward our future goals.

Progression of Research

When my research experience is compared with my original research expectations, I find that the two vary significantly. My expectations of what I would be doing in a lab (before my PI told me) were basically that as a young undergrad, I would be doing a lot of small odd jobs for superiors that would marginally have to do with important research and then as time progressed after the program I might move up, doing more and more actual research, and seeing more of the big picture. I just thought, since a lot of us had little experience in labs and weren’t yet very qualified scientifically or even extremely experienced as college students yet, that labs asking important questions would not want to risk giving us extremely important work. However, what I have found instead is that BSURF fellows are, in fact, trusted with important work, included in the lab’s big picture from the very start, and even given our own very own projects. I am super glad to have found this program in which you are kind of launched into the thick of research and not really handheld too much into it.

Apart from generally just being pleased with how my research experience has provided me with responsibility and the idea that my work will actually be significant in answering important scientific questions, my actual specific project has had its joys and woes that differed from my original expectations. My research overall is definitely going well, I’d say. I wasn’t sure if my seeds would actually germinate in the very beginning, and now not only have seeds germinated but more continue to with time and repetitions of the experiment show measurable results as well. So I’d say the fact that the experiment is producing results is certainly a joy. Another joy is that I enjoy the greenhouse portion of my experiment in which I plant successful sprouts, partly because its a part of my experiment which I didn’t originally expect to do (so the novelty/surprise factor) but also because I am nerdy and I get a joy from the plants’ growth and from seeing other experiments and exotic plants in the greenhouse.

A sort of ‘woe’ is that I did not work through my project as quickly as I had hoped, and I have decided to stop at the three trials I have completed versus the original plan of doing five. Though I am disappointed to not have been able to meet my original time table, I also have found that this experience has given me useful revelations. First I realized, as others have mentioned, that experiments are never as straightforward as expected and I think that is important to have experienced so I can apply it to my planning in future experiments as I continue in research. Second, I believe I had to realize that carefully getting accurate and useful data in these three trials would probably be better than rushing to do five trials and possibly making mistakes or not leaving a long enough span of seed observation time to produce useful data. So this woe may be a sort of woe but I think my realizations from it are definitely a joy.

I have enjoyed my experience, and I am interested to see where it will lead to in my future.

Talking about the Talks: A reflection on our chalk talks

The chalk talks I, along with my fellows, was able to hear were definitely intriguing in different ways. Some talks were really great at explaining in simple terms the nature of their project, while others were really identifiable for me in content that I understood specifically and could relate to my project. Despite my interest in all of the talks, one of the talks that stood out to me interest-wise was that which was given by Ricardo. Since I also found myself very interested in the talk given by Raj about advancing the capabilities and design of electrodes, I think my interest in these may have been based in some of the electric engineering I studied in high school.

Anyhow, Ricardo’s research question was “What is the relationship between lag times of unimanual vs bimanual tests?” I liked that Ricardo’s work dealt with a broad range of biological specificities, from the tiny scale of signaling between neurons in the brain and the engineering complications of monitoring that, to the broad area of study that is interested in providing body function to individuals who have lost it. Also on a not as formal note I just thought it was really cool that Ricardo’s research was dealing with monkeys, which are a deal more complex/intelligent than other model test subjects that we are all using (I mean I’m using plants!).  Lastly Ricardo did a good job in explaining his project in terms that were easy to understand, even the complex side of it, such as the data modeling.

These talks were a really great preview for the poster session that we will have, and they made me quite excited to see some of the results that people will come up with and excited about the opportunity to just look more into methodologies and background of the many projects that I found especially interesting.

A Sea of Seeds

With two trials of seed plates running at the same time at various levels of progress (this means 182 petri dishes of 25 seeds each), and three trials left to be made, a day in my lab is usually nice and full of many activities that need to be done. I tend to vary my day’s activities  just based on what needs to be done to upkeep and observe the plates, but we can look at Friday as an example of particulars.

On Friday, like many days before, I came into my lab and looked for a brief period (maybe 10 minutes) through my lab notebook, to see the dates of the last times I had performed various tasks. Though it is important that I start setting up new trials when I get a chance, it also doesn’t make sense to leave tasks that I’d started on other days incomplete, or to start a new trial without giving my existing seedlings the water they need to survive.

On Friday I saw that I still had one concentration of trial 1 and all seeds from trial 2 left to sort through for sprouts and plant the existing sprouts. This task is kind of fun to me because I had only just begun it the day before, on Thursday, so it is still new and exciting. For this process, what I do is I take all the plates in which I am looking for germinated seeds out of the dark drawer in which they are germinating, I then look at each plate and remove any seeds that look well germinated and ready for planting (Some things I look for to determine this are: Has the sprout from the germinated seed left or almost left the seed coat? Has the sprout developed leaves? Is there green in the sprout or is it mostly still root emerging from the seed coat?). I then weigh whatever I remove from the plate so that later when I weigh the plate to add back the water loss, I don’t count the missing sprouts in the weight of lost water. After I have recorded all of the weights, I go down to the greenhouse with my cart. In the greenhouse, I get seed trays and fill them with soil, then thoroughly wet the soil. I bring these trays back up to the lab in Biosci and I plant the germinated seeds. Each pocket in the seed tray holds one species of plant at one concentration of pretreatment saline water. So for example, I do not plant persea palustris sprouts that were germinated with 0.5 ppt saline water in the same pocket as persea palustris sprouts that were germinated at 2.0 ppt. After I plant all the sprouts, labeling each pocket along the way, I return to the greenhouse with my trays and set them on my designated bench.

I finished my day out by taking care of plates that have been affected by mold, which has proven to be quite a time-consuming pest. In my observation of trial 2, I have noticed less of a mold prominence, likely because I knew to expect molding by the time I made the trial, so I am always quick to clear away even the tiniest amount before they spread and give me some of the complications I’ve seen in trial 1. On Friday I left my lab around 4:15 so that I could do some weekend errands, but I typically leave around 5:30 at this stage of my project.

Other tasks I might do on a typical day include recording observations of each seed plate (Have more seeds in the plate germinated? How many? What other changes are apparent?), then weighing the plates to determine water loss based on an original weight I have recorded in my journal. I then bring the weight back to original weight.  Though not exciting sounding by description, there is seemingly always the reward of seeing new baby sprouts, which is cute and satisfying. The last main thing I do is create trials, which just means for each trial, I make 96 plates containing 25 seeds each in a 5 by 5 array (16 species of plant at 6 concentrations of saline water).

At home after, I usually work on putting all my data into excel, and when I am up to date on that, I will start trying to learn a program called R that my PI said will become helpful for me to know as I progress in biology.

So the lab has kept me busy, but of course very interested because I’m working on plants which I am eager to learn about in all manner of ways. Plus as part of my greenhouse training I got a tour of the greenhouse and I saw all kinds of plant wild species from all over the world, and it was very cool.

The effects of salinity on germination

One undertaking of the Wright Lab is to work on projects benefitting the Coastal SEES project (Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability). This effort as a whole is dedicated to the understanding of coastal systems through various temporal and spatial measures, producing results that will help make predictions for coastal systems, and finding ways to improve coastal sustainability. These goals are important because coastal areas containing particular freshwater ecosystems like swamps and creeks are expected to be overtaken by saline waters as the sea level rises, and in fact, even now due to soil oxidation, drought, and human influence, salted waters are already beginning to permeate into such ecosystems. With these kinds of changes, the Coastal SEES project holds that it is important to investigate the human and natural processes that are involved in salt intrusion into surface waters along coastal ecosystems.

My particular project specifically observes how different concentrations  of saline water (0, 0.1, 0.5, 1, 2, and 5 ppt) affect the germination of seeds from 16 plants that are native to coastal areas of North Carolina. For my testing, I place 25 seeds from each type of plant in a petri dish. Once all 16 plates are completed, I wet the filter paper in the petri dishes with one of the concentrations of saline water. I repeat this process for each concentration, leaving me with a total of 96 plates per trial. I will complete 5 total trials to ensure consistency in variations of success (assuming there will be such variaions in germination success) between the various salt concentrations for each plant.

Every few days, I note my observations of changes in the dishes, and bring the water level in the dish up to original weight. The most notable changes have been successful germination in many of the seedlings, but another notable change includes the growth of molds which may affect seedling success and is corrected for by removal after recording of presence. Additionally different types of seedlings appear to display signs of coming germination including separating of the seed coat, and such changes are also noted.

Though even the seed germination data alone could serve as a moderate predictor for plant success as saline levels gradually rise, the lab hopes to be able to take well germinated seeds and plant them in soil for continued growth and treatment with saline water to observe the success of the plants. This project could even be expanded further to see what variation in salt level does to growing plants: for example how will decreasing salt stress by a concentration level change the vitality and growth rate of the plant, among other possibilities.

I am excited to see the avenues this project could be taken down based on how many possibilities exist in this general line of thought. For example, in one of the background papers I read in preparation for my lab, seeds that were pretreated with salt later grew into plants that were more resilient when water stress( decreasing access to water) was applied in comparison to seeds that were not pretreated. This would certainly be an interesting pattern if I could produce similar results in support of those found in the paper. Thus, I highly my project because of the room for expansion that it has, the possible implications on a broader scale of results that I might observe, and the relevance of salt water intrusion in modern issues.

Also because trees are just plain lovable.

Inquisition, Investigation and Application: An Interview with Dr. Justin Wright

I was lucky enough not only to be assigned Dr. Justin Wright as my PI, the Primary Investigator of the lab I’m working in, but to also be given the opportunity to know more of his story through an interview. One of the primary take-aways I gathered was the importance of passion within your given area of science in order to achieve success. Since I was assigned to Dr. Wright because of his work in ecology and my particular interest in it, I found it really intriguing to see the ways in which our passions for human and environmental relations went beyond just interest in the science and into even more personal shared interests and hobbies.

However with Dr. Wright’s high achievement in the area of science I did plenty of asking about that too. When asked to describe the goal of his work in one simple way, Dr. Wright explained that he inquires about and investigates the effects of biodiversity and the consequences of changes in biodiversity. His path to this kind of work can be traced back to undergraduate school when young Justin Wright had a general idea of what interests he had for himself; he wanted to investigate the relations between humans in the environment. However, at first he was not sure which avenue in this broad topic he would choose to venture down upon. He considered different areas of biology and anthropology as possible options, but eventually he felt his leanings were towards Environmental Science itself. However that opened up another avenue of curiosity: would he be more interested in the science of the field or the policy? (In my opinion, this is a very familiar question among myself and other students leaning towards environmental studies.) Dr. Wright says what really decided this question for him was a year-long fellowship he became a part of. In this fellowship, he spent 6 months in New Zealand and 6 months in Madagascar working out in the field, collecting data and getting very close and personal with the science of the environment. So that is really where it all took off from for Dr. Wright. He explained that he furthered his studies and really went after asking questions and getting his work out there. I, myself, have pondered the idea of eventually being faculty at a university and Dr. Wright emphasized that earning your Ph. D and really doing good science and research is integral to becoming distinguished enough to stand out in applications to universities.

Apart from Dr. Wright’s basic path, I was also interested in his interests on a more personal level. The first question I asked him to answer these curiosity was what his favorite paper was that he had written and why. The paper he selected seemed to come to mind for him quite easily and was a paper called “Biogeographic Synthesis of Secondary Succession Rates in Eastern North Carolina.” This paper had particular resonation with him because the story of how it came to be was interesting and clean to him in that it followed the standard “scientific process” unusually well. Dr. Wright explained that much of scientific research is messier than it is originally expected to be. The basic background to how the paper came to be was that Dr. Wright was interested in beaver meadows and the processes within them, and so he did some research into them and found that beaver meadows were reported to have a standard amount of time of existence before a new cycle of time began. However when he went to do research in a different area of the east, a colleague of his explained in passing that the beaver meadows there cycled over a time period different than the one he had found in his research. So with this in mind, the paper Dr. Wright wrote actually shows that the time period that this cycling occurs over varies for different areas in Eastern North America and it delves into old historical records of agriculture and other resources to explain what types of things affect these rates of succession.

Finally, I asked about Dr. Justin Wright as a person of the world and not a scientist. What does he like to do and what are his interests? It was cool to see that we shared a lot of these interests as many within environmental fields tend to: for example Dr. Wright enjoys being outside, hiking, travelling (He’s been to Germany among other places), running, and archaeology. Particularly though he likes to spend time with his family which includes his wife and two daughters.

I enjoyed talking with Dr. Wright and getting to know his background because not only is it interesting, but also I feel it will be helpful to me in giving me guidance for my own future. In the same way I can draw similarities in our scientific interests and hobbies I see similarities in what he has done with his career and some goals I also might hope to accomplish in my own future.


PS I had to add this! Some of my seed plates have had successful examples of germination already,  and the baby trees are very adorable. Check them out and marvel at their cuteness below.



Dreaming of Baby Trees

What do you expect from your summer research experience?

Yep, that’s right. You understood that title correctly. You see, like many of my fellow BSURF researchers, one of the main hopes I have for my summer experience is the humble desire to just have done my experiment correctly and to see results. In my particular situation results will come in the form of sprouting seedlings of a select group of trees and shrubs. Now to see these type of results will be exciting for me for several reasons. First, as I pointed out, growth will indicate that I haven’t completely failed my experiment, which would be really great. Secondly, and this is my inner plant nerd coming out here, the idea that within my many, many petri dishes of many, many seeds, life is being brought forth to await my observation is just plain exciting to me. It’s exciting in that I am just interested in plant growth in general, and for the fact that my observation of these sprouting seedlings and any patterns I see and conclusions I draw about growth in differing salinity levels can eventually play a role in a bigger picture in which I am very passionate about, and that is conserving tree life in the actual outside world, one of the goals of my ecologically-based lab.

So, in terms of expectations I would say I expect this kind of interest and passion to grow as I (hopefully) see results. Also, I do honestly expect to see some such results eventually, partly because I feel that I have followed the procedures to my experiment carefully/with understanding and partly because at the very least, I know I will be able to ask my PI, Dr. Wright, for pointers and corrections if I end up needing to. I also believe that as time passes I will become more comfortable in my lab setting as I start becoming increasingly familiar with where things are, how to operate experiment-related machines, how to set up my experiment more and more efficiently, and as I become increasingly comfortable with those working in my lab with me. For the most part, these have been kind of short term expectations, so in the long run I expect my summer experience to impact my life by perhaps becoming a longer term project that I can alter for even more detailed and helpful results down the line. Additionally, I hope that this experience will give me insight into my academic and occupational goals. For instance, I have been weighing my interests in Duke’s Environmental Science program versus Duke’s Biology (with a focus in Ecology) program, and my new connections to other students, graduates, and biology faculty have given me more information on the program differences so that I might go where my main interests are. As another example, I wanted to walk away from this summer knowing whether research is a side of science in which I am particularly interested so that I could apply that information to my plans for my future job and/or schooling decisions.

Basically, then, to answer the question about my expectations, I am looking forward to BSURF helping me get to know my interests and goals better as well as helping fuel my ever-growing fascination with plants (especially trees!). And honestly, all along this adventurous road I’m embarking upon, I will probably be daydreaming about my little seeds bursting forth with life and becoming the most adorable baby trees ever.