Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Women in Science - Melissa Willits

A scientist doesn’t have to be published to be a scientist. We don’t have to wear tweed jackets and glasses, sit in wing-backed chairs and drink port wine. We may often be overly dedicated to our work, but we may just as frequently be out at dinner with friends. We don’t need PhDs or glamorous university funding. More often than not, a scientist will be completely, wonderfully, extraordinarily ordinary.

Melissa Willits does not have her PhD, and she’s grateful for it. She was raised by a dentist father and a seamstress mother in Tupelo, Mississippi with a fairly ordinary life. She went to her respected but standard state university with the intention of going on to medical school, but was sidetracked by the sudden and unexpected discovery that she was very good at microbiology, so she went with it. She began to learn Spanish as a second language along the way, and says her pathogenic microbiology class changed her life.

Upon entering the workforce after graduation, Melissa very quickly figured out that to be a woman in her field, or maybe even a woman at all, took a little extra work and very thick skin. Her first job, a microbiologist at an un-air-conditioned chicken processing factory, had her harassed by the men operating the plant, and even had her sexually assaulted by an old mechanic. Her search for bigger things quickly brought her back to university life to seek her Master’s degree in Food Science. After a setback or two—including a lucrative job with Dole and a plane crash—she made it to the end with a degree in hand. She also met and married her soulmate, whom she credits for her survival and success in graduate school. In response to the current social norm of postponing “family life” until a satisfactory “career life” goal has been met, she says, “It’s not that clinical. When you’re ready and fall in love, you get married. Life doesn’t stop. Young women these days want to compartmentalize and it doesn’t have to be that way.”

The rest of her career followed what feels like a fairly typical, albeit somewhat flashy at times, “real world” experience. She opted for what she feels was a more applied use of her knowledge and skills as a scientist than what she believed a career in academia could have offered her. Her jobs involved quality assurance and pathogenic testing for global food manufacturing companies, development of new formulas and systems for making said food, and becoming the go-to person for salmonella contamination and remediation from New Jersey to Bangkok. She was personally involved in the remediation of every significant pathogenic food contamination scare in the late 90’s and 2000’s, and many of her safety protocols and employee training programs are still in effect globally.

Melissa traveled all over the world and was a pretty high-powered woman, and her work-life balance suffered for it. Her husband was extremely understanding and willingly followed her career around the continent whenever needed. Some of this strain she attributes to the pressure from the corporate world as well as pressure from being a woman. She developed a thick skin and a loud voice to rival that of any plant operator or corporate manager that she had to work with. Regardless of whether you choose to be a scientist in academia, in government, or in the private sector, Melissa offers advice to any woman seeking to bridge the gender divide and hold their own with the work force: “It’s not about justice. There isn’t any. It’s about being effective. Cover your bases. Make noise even when people don’t like it…[and] always show strength—not cockiness, show confidence. It drives a lot of men crazy; they think it’s arrogant.”

I think it is hard to forget the stereotype that a scientist is only found in a university office surrounded by books and laboratory equipment. More often than not I think scientists are found in the everyday places, working more for the benefit of the masses than prestige. This is why I chose to showcase Melissa as a woman in biology; the discoveries she has made in her career may have been behind closed doors (and ended up in the ice cream in your freezers), but in an ordinary way, she has had a substantial impact on the daily health and safety of people all over the world, which I think is pretty extraordinary.
By: Rikki Lucas

Monday, November 28, 2016

Women in Science - Dr. Alison Jolly

Dr. Alison Jolly was born in Ithaca, New York in 1937 as an only child to Alison Mason, a landscape artist, and Morris Bishop, a Cornell scholar of romance languages. As neither her parents were involved in the sciences, Jolly pursued the sciences to round out the family. She spent her entire childhood in Ithaca and even earned her undergraduate degree in zoology in 1959 from Cornell University.

Figure 1 Dr. Alison Jolly in the field.

In 1959, Jolly began her Ph.D. in Zoology at Yale University to study sea sponges. After 3 months of unexciting sea sponge research, a chance encounter with lemurs at a Yale primate facility sparked the beginning of her career as a renowned primatologist. Dr. John Buettner Janusch, the founder of the Duke Lemur Center, brought the first lemurs from Madagascar to Yale University to start a research colony and needed students to help babysit them from time to time.

Changing her dissertation focus from sea sponges to lemurs, Jolly traveled to Madagascar to begin field work observing ring-tailed lemurs living in the Berenty Reserve, a private property dedicated to conserving Madagascar’s biodiversity. At the time of her research, in the 1960s, it was commonly accepted that primates, like chimpanzees and gorillas, lived in male-dominated societies. Dr. Alison Jolly discovered that contrary to other primate groups, lemurs, especially ring-tailed lemurs actually live in female-dominated societies.  Dr. Jolly received much criticism and disbelief towards her fi4ndings.


Figure 2 Ring-tailed Lemurs
However, Dr. Jolly’s disposition and personality allowed her to not be easily dissuaded from continuing her work. Dr. Jolly was known to not compete for her positions or give in to academic pressures. Instead, she combatted criticism by continuing to publish new findings on these female-dominate societies in lemurs every birthing season. Dr. Jolly published over 100 articles about wild ring-tailed lemurs and authored textbooks and textbook chapters on lemurs. Dr. Jolly also influenced dozens of up and coming primatologists by encouraging students to join her every field season in Madagascar. As David Attenborough once said, “A whole generation of primatologists and conservation biologists came of age with her encouragement and support."

During her Ph.D. studies, Jolly married Richard Jolly and started their family of eventually four children. Richard and Alison were supportive of each other’s professions and traded off following each other’s careers. Both partners moved to different countries around Africa so each person could move forward in their individual careers. Dr. Alison Jolly sought only visiting professor positions and never attempted to gain tenure at any her affiliated universities.


Figure 3  Dr. Alison Jolly and her husband Richard Jolly

When Dr. Jolly was not working on ring-tailed lemurs, she focused on conservation efforts towards Madagascar’s diminishing biodiversity. There are over 80 different extant species of lemurs and they are all endangered due to the pet trade, deforestation, and local cultural beliefs. Jolly and local Malagasy collaborators created The Ako Project. The Ako Project consists of illustrated children’s books that depict a day in the life of different lemurs and how each one confronts daily environmental threats. Each book is accompanied with an informative poster about each lemur and their habitats. The Ako Project has ensured that each classroom in Madagascar has at least one book per student.


Figure 4 A page from one of The Ako Project books
Dr. Allison Jolly was a decorated scientist that had won multiple awards and honorary doctorates over the course of her career. She was well-respected in and outside her field and is truly missed. Jolly passed away from battling breast cancer in 2014. She is remembered for being a giant in the field of anthropology and an inspirational female role model.
By Marie Vergamini

Monday, November 21, 2016

Women in science - Roger Arliner Young

Roger Arliner Young was the first American black woman to get a PhD in Zoology. Though Young’s life was difficult at times and she did not receive much acclaim while living, it is obvious from her dedication to research and teaching that she was a talented scientist.

Young was born in Clifton Forge, VA and grew up in Burgettstown, PA, outside of Pittsburgh. Upon graduating from high school in 1916, Young enrolled in Howard University to study music. While attending Howard she cared for her invalid mother, which she continued to do for the rest of her mother’s life.

She did not take her first biology class until 1921, with Ernest Everett Just, who saw promise in her work as a scientist. After Young graduated, Just, the head of the zoology department, hired her to teach and assisted to facilitate her work in zoology by helping her to find funding for graduate school and to publish her research. In 1924, Young became the first black woman to be published in Science in zoology for her newly observed findings on paramecium. This study, titled “On the Excretory Apparatus in Paramecium,” was circulated among academia as far away as Europe and Russia.
In 1926, Young received her master’s with excellent grades from University of Chicago studying under Just’s mentor, Frank Lillie. She returned to Howard to teach with Just and was invited to conduct research with him at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Wood’s Hole, MA, researching the effects of UV light on development of marine eggs.

Young had a busy year in 1929: she started going to Wood’s Hole independently and while Just had an appointment in Europe, she stood in as head of the zoology department at Howard and took over the majority of his teaching responsibilities. All while writing proposals for doctoral funding!

In early 1930, she returned the University of Chicago with the intention of pursuing her PhD with Lillie. However, due to the enormous stress of filling Just’s shoes, being separated from her mother, and damage to her eyes during her work with radiation, she failed the qualifying exams and disappeared for a few months.

She persevered and returned to Wood’s Hole and Howard to teach later that year, but her friendship and mentorship with Just was essentially over. He had expected Young to return to Howard after receiving her PhD and was disappointed at her failing the exams. Eventually, she confronted him about his negative attitude toward her and in 1936 she was fired from Howard for misuse of laboratory equipment.

She did not let this derail her life for long, though, and was accepted to a PhD program at University of Pennsylvania under a colleague from Wood’s Hole, Lewis Victor Heilbrunn, where her dissertation was “The indirect effects of roentgen rays on certain marine eggs”.

After completing PhD in 1940, she taught at various black universities in the south. Many of these universities had little money to provide for research and she could no longer afford to return to Wood’s Hole each summer. Her mother died in 1953 and hastened a mental break for Young. She became worried she would end up like her mother, but had no family to take care of her. In the following years Dr. Young was in and out of mental hospitals and could not hold a job for several years. She hospitalized herself in the late 1950s until 1962. In her final years, Dr. Young took a position at Southern University in New Orleans where she died in 1964.
Young wrote, “Not failure, but low aim is a crime” in a yearbook at Howard. I believe she tried to follow this as best as she could her whole life. I can only imagine how hard it was for Young as a black woman in America and the scientific world in the early 1900s. She had to deal with racial and gender disparities throughout entire her life. I am proud that she could pave the way for opportunities for me and other female scientists today.

By: Liz Keily

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Women in Science - Hope Jahren

Hope Jahren has a very unique story on her claim to scientific celebrity. Not only is she a renowned scientist, studying stable isotopes dating back to the Eocene, but she is a prominent writer, a mother, a wife, a friend, and an activist. Hope Jahren got national recognition for writing a book titled “Lab Girl” that was recently published in 2016. In her book, she talked about her journey through science and what she has endured being a woman in Geology.

            Hope Jahren grew up in Minnesota where her father taught chemistry at a local community college. She would go with her dad to his class and he would let her play with the scientific instruments including beakers, pipettes, and even Bunsen burners. She felt a calm whenever she was in his lab, and soon realized that she would be a scientist just like him. While at the University of Minnesota, Jahren had a few odd-end jobs, including a stint at a hospital where she was in charge of making IV bags. While she didn’t particularly like working in a hospital setting, she realized that she was good with working with her hands. This realization soon led to her majoring in geology, in which she as able to work with her hands in a lab, focusing on stable isotopes analysis from soil and plants.

            After receiving her Ph.D. from University of California, Berkley in 1996, Hope Jahren packed up her bags and went straight to Georgia Tech. While going right to an Assistant Professor position, she was not well versed in getting funding. From her Ph.D. program, she brought with her a lab manager and friend, Bill Hagopian. While citing that Bill is one of her closest friends and colleagues, she has never been able to secure him funding. Throughout her career, her and Bill had trouble getting money. This resulted in Bill oftentimes sleeping in their lab, and a constant moving around of positions. Hope Jahren went from an Assistant Professor at Georgia Tech to Johns Hopkins University, to a full Professorship at the University of Hawaii, to most recently the University of Oslo. All the while, she has not been able to secure funding for her lab manager. Even through many awards, including three Fulbright scholarships and pioneering research, her trouble with funding shows the competitiveness that scientists today face.

            Hope Jahren has often cited that being a woman has led her to the many problems that she has had academia and in science. While at Johns Hopkins, Hope Jahren was the first woman to go on maternity leave, which led to much criticism and discrimination from her male colleagues. About this, Hope Jahren said, “It can be a challenge to be the real me and the science me.” Along with the sexism she has often faced in science, including her lack of ability to secure funding, Jahren has suffered from manic depression. Her manic depression was often sparked by the harsh reality of being a woman in scientist. However, through all the issues she has faced in her academic career, she has managed to prevail and has come to be known as Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” in 2016.

            Hope Jahren has been an advocate for women in science over the last few years, and continues to speak out against sexual harassment in science. She has led a campaign over Twitter to get more women working in science to show off their hands, contrasting “#Science hands” with the polished hands that Seventeen Magazine asked to see. Not only has she continued to gain recognition for “Lab Girl,” but she has continued to gain recognition for her activism. Hope Jahren, now in Oslo with her husband, her kids, and her lab manager and best friend, Bill, continues to do pioneering research. There will be much more to come from this amazing contemporary woman scientist.

By Chelsea Barreto

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Moving forward after huge disappointment

Yesterday, November 9, 2016, I woke up after very little sleep feeling hopeless and dejected. Then I had to tell my 9 year old son, who was nervous about the election, why he did not need to be afraid. And I had to tell him the truth. After that, I went to teach a class on multivariate statistics to a class of dispirited students. However, that was nowhere near as difficult as attending a graduate class the hour after learning about the twin towers on September 11. That was hate. A vote for Trump is not. I have spent the day reading news stories, seeing reactions on social media and I have a message of hope. In academic environments we are sheltered from the rest of our nation. What is important to us is not important to everyone. There are many things that we can do to move forward and bring about positive, great change. But it as to start with us. First, we have to stop seeing every Trump supporter as a supporter of hate, racism, sexism, etc. People care about other issues that we may not be aware of or know about and vote on that. I know very good people that voted for Trump for reasons that are important to them and just as valid as my reasons for not. I listened to an African-American woman talk about her vote for Trump because she couldn't fathom a woman in the White House just as a woman shouldn't be leading a church. We need to understand that so many people have grown up different from us and may be scared to realize their own power after centuries of being oppressed. It is a process and takes time. We need to help all women know that the stories we have been told growing up are not true. We need to empower all people to believe in their voice and ability. Second, we must get better at bringing our science to the public. We need to stop focusing on our metrics of success through impact factor and journal citations and also value the ways in which we motivate, train, and mentor others to care about ecology, the environment, and other disciplines in science. Keep talking about what you are passionate about. Help others outside of the acaemic environment see the wonder in the natural world as we do. And finally, we need to be role models of tolerance and hope. Fear breeds hate. There are so many things that COULD change under this new leadership. That doesn't mean it will. The fear of all that can go wrong is what brings about bad policies and people stop listening. When that happens, we lose. There is a bright future ahead of us, even with so much uncertainty. This is what I told me son: our daily lives don't change. Go to school and respect your peers and speak up when someone laughs or jokes about someone, anyone for being different. Know that one person, or a group of people don't get to change our world. And don't live from fear. That is the worst way to start your day.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. -Mahatma Gahndi

Monday, October 31, 2016

Eradicating Pestilence: Alice Evan’s Crusade in Microbiology

Adamantly defending her sensational research, Alice Evans was a bacteriologist who illuminated people to the dangers of unpasteurized milk. Although she faced constant criticism for her research on freshly drawn unpasteurized milk she was able to invoke a significant change in the ideology of bacteriological research. Her contributions to bacteriology and infectious disease research have positively impacted people worldwide. Even though she was a woman she was able to have a successful career in science. She was respected by her peers and able to complete important research for the United States government during a time when women were not expected to pursue any type of professional career.
Alice Catherine Evans was born on January 29th, 1881 in rural Pennsylvania. She was the second of two children. Her mother immigrated to the United States at the age of 14. Her father had been a surveyor, teacher, farmer, and a Civil War soldier. Once she finished secondary school she became a teacher since it was the only profession available to women in rural Pennsylvania. Although she though that teaching was rewarding she eventually became bored due to the monotony of a repeating curriculum. A two-year tuition free nature study course for rural teachers at Cornell University would allow her to cultivate her budding interest in science. After completing the program, she received a bachelor’s degree specializing in bacteriology.

Once Evans received her bachelor’s degree she was able to attend the University of Wisconsin to pursue a master’s degree in bacteriology. She increased her knowledge of chemistry at the University and was even offered funding to pursue a PHD in Chemistry. In addition to receiving an opportunity to pursue a PHD she was also offered a position with the United States Department of Agriculture. Since she did not consider herself prepared to pursue a PHD in Chemistry, and since a PHD was not required for advancement in science at that time she decided to accept the position with the Department of Agriculture.

At the Department of Agriculture Wisconsin division Evans studied ways to improve the flavor of cheddar cheese. While working in the division she was able to coauthor four publications. While working in Wisconsin, Evans was appointed to a position at the United States Department of Agriculture Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington D.C. After accepting the position in D.C. Evans became anxious because of rumors that claimed that the division in D.C. did not want any women. Once she arrived at the division her fears subsided since the people she worked with seemed to not have any problems with working with a woman. While working in D.C. she discovered that Bacillus abortus and Micrococcus melitensis, bacteria found in freshly drawn milk, were closely related enough that both could potentially cause people to develop Undulant fever. Undulant fever or Brucellosis which it currently named, is an illness that involves chronic fever, fatigue, and many other debilitating symptoms. She published her research in the Journal of Infectious Diseases in 1918.

Her research was initially met with widespread skepticism from many science and healthcare professionals since bacteria with different morphological characteristics were never considered to be closely related by bacteriologists. Even though her claims were contested by many people, her research would eventually be supported by many studies. After publishing her research on Bacillus abortus and Micrococcus melitensis she joined the United States Public Health Service Hygienic Laboratory, where she completed research on relevant world health issues such as the influenza pandemic and epidemic meningitis. While continuing her research on Bacillus abortus and Micrococcus melitensis, Evans contracted Undulant fever in 1922. She would suffer from the symptoms of the condition for many years before fully recovering.  She was elected president of the Society of American Bacteriologists in 1928. This society would later become the American Society for Microbiology which honored her through creating an award in her name which is given to a person who contributes to the participation of women in microbiology. Toward the end of her career she researched immunity to streptococcal infection until she retired. She continued to be a strong advocate of the participation of women in science until she died in 1975.

By Grayland Godfrey

American Society for Microbiology. The American Society for Microbiology. www.asm.org.  Accessed 19 Oct. 2016.
“Brucellosis.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, https://www.cdc.gov/brucellosis/.
Colwell, R. R. “Alice C. Evans: Breaking Barriers.” The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine 72.5 (1999): 349–356. Print.
Evans, A. C. “Memoires”. 1963. Early Women of Science at NIH. Office of History National Institute of Health. IN 19 Oct. 2016.

Moreno, Edgardo. “Retrospective and Prospective Perspectives on Zoonotic Brucellosis.” Frontiers in Microbiology 5 (2014): 213. PMC. Web. 19 Oct. 2016.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Women in Science - Dr. Fierro, Forensic Pathologist

An accomplished forensic pathologist, Dr. Marcella Fierro is one of the forefront women in the field of forensic scientist. From humble beginnings at the University at Buffalo to Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, Dr. Fierro continues to be an inspiration to girls and women interested in medicine and forensic science. During the time when Dr. Fierro was earning her medical degree, women with college degrees made up less than 10% of the US population – women were typically not guided toward the medical field. However, she persevered and proved both to herself and to others around her that women would be just as capable as men in any field.

During her tenure as Chief Medical Examiner, she was the medical examiner that oversaw the first case in the country to use DNA evidence in prosecution as well as the Virginia Tech shooting. She handled both of these cases as a wife and a mother of two. In addition to the many responsibilities she had as medical examiner, she was also a prominent member to multiple organizations and associations such as the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Although Dr. Fierro was a pioneer for women in the field of forensic science/forensic medicine, she has said in interviews that she was not discriminated against, nor did she experience any overt sexism. However, she had dealt with police officers who were doubtful of her skills as a medical examiner. She explained that she overcame these challenges by proving these officers wrong time after time by arriving at every crime scene with professionalism, experience and extreme knowledge of material.

Dr. Fierro has also served as the inspiration for a fictional medical examiner in a popular series written by Patricia Cornwell. While the books are considered fiction, she has continued to motivate for women in science through this medium as well.

By Ashley Cooley

Monday, June 13, 2016

Tired of unprofessional reviews

As a scientist, I am no stranger to rejection. I use it to help improve my writing, my message, and the impact of my science. But I don't appreciate reviews that cannot find anything positive to say about my research. I recently received such a review from AoB plants. Needless to say, I decided not to let such an unprofessional review pass unnoticed. As we help move science forward, we also need to shed light on the downsides of science and the areas that still need improvement. I share my response letter with you to take a stand. Reviews that are poorly written and unkind are useless. It is unfortunate that people use the blanket of anonymity to get away with such things. I give you my response here. I do not do this in haste.

To the editor:

Thank you for the opportunity to have our manuscript “Differential Response of Barrier Island Dune Grasses to Species Interactions and Burial” reviewed at AoB Plants. Although the outcome was not favorable, I understand and accept the reasons provided by the Associate Editor to reject the manuscript without consideration of resubmission. However, I am writing to provide feedback on my extreme disappointment with the review provided by referee #2. I find the review to be unprofessional and written by someone still in the dark ages of science. I am able to glean useful information regarding the clarity of the manuscript; however, review #2 is written by someone that could find nothing positive about the paper, which I find difficult to accept given the completely contradictory review by referee #1.

I am familiar with reviews that at least summarize the overall objectives of the paper. It is not clear from the review that the referee understood the objectives of the paper as there is no mention of burial and species interaction. Also, the referee does not understand that our chosen variables were used to assess morphological and physiological responses of species with biotic interactions and burial (even though it is stated in the objectives). The referee states that our “goals seem way too ambitious for the experiments”; however, connecting our results to published work of these species building different dunes was not an objective of the study, but a broader context to help understand the significance of changes in growth due to these biotic interactions and to provide justification for examining these two species. Had the referee summarized our paper and the objectives, this may have become clear to him/her. Instead, the referee begins the review with “The manuscript seems poorly prepared” and gives vague statements such as “In fact, the traits in this experiment are not well justified for the questions addressed in this paper”, “Details are missing about background”, and “things are out of order”, without providing any further examples or clarification to help us understand what is lacking. I understand that more information and citations regarding replacement studies (which are commonly used in recent ecological literature) woulde useful to focus the reader on our objective. Also, I realize we should discuss species interactions instead of competition and discuss the relative inter vs. intra-specific interactions, but this is not an experimental design flaw, rather a point of clarification.

Overall, I am disappointed that a journal would accept a review that is written in such a scathing and unprofessional manner. This does nothing to help advance science or encourage young scientists to pursue the field. I hope in that writing this letter you will reconsider using this reviewer in the future and you will seek a third referee when receiving reviews of this nature.  I also write this letter in hope that the young scientist who is first author on this paper does not let poorly written reviews which are incapable of finding any scientific value in a paper that is “thoughtful, well-formulated hypotheses; appropriate variables, sufficient data, and adequate statistics to address those hypotheses; and it was well organized and clear (to a native English speaker) if not particularly well written” discourage her from pursuing science in the future. Reviews such as #2 are completely unnecessary for helping any scientist to improve and make better and more impactful contributions to science. I will be hesitant in the future regarding submissions to AoB Plants.

Thank you for your time,

Julie Zinnert

As an addendum, I did receive a very respectful response to my letter. I hope that in providing feedback I can encourage others to do so, and also to ultimately move towards a standard in etiquette for reviews. It is difficult to accept a review as objective that is terse and only highlights faults without being written in the context of the goals of the study. We all have bias and it comes out in peer review too easily.

Monday, April 11, 2016

3 months in Cordoba, Spain

We are back in Cordoba, Spain for the next three months to continue developing our collaborations. We are focused both on research interests of plant ecology - hydrology and to establish formal research and training that focuses the ecohydrology of the James and Guadalquivir rivers for better predictions of ecological consequences to sea-level rise. As coastal plant ecologists, we have a great understanding of salinity effects on functional responses of plant communities. As part of the Virginia Coast Reserve, we work with many physical and environmental scientists to fully understand the ecological - physical feedbacks and interactions in barrier islands. We are partnered with Professor Maria Jose Polo, an excellent hydrologist at the University of Cordoba (UCO), and will continue establishing relationships with other UCO ecologists and physical scientists to expand our understanding to riverine systems and associated terrestrial communities. In addition to our work, we will also learn the language and the surrounding environment to fully appreciate the issues and importance of global change to other communities.

On a personal note, we are here with both of our children and have found the city and country to be very kid friendly. As a science mom for over 9 years and partner of a scientist, we have taken (now both) children on travel - whether to scientific meetings or to foreign countries for work. Every time I have visited Spain, I have never felt awkward or out of place having the children with me. Here, they are very accepted.

Driving into Cordoba

Outside the botanical gardens

 Lunch at La Casa del Agua - notice all the children

Flowers are already in bloom

In the historic district

Outside the Mezquita-Catedral of Cordoba
Read more about it here - fascinating history!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Mechanisms of Native Shrub Encroachment on a Virginia Barrier Island


Recent shrub encroachment is generally recognized as a response to anthropogenic disturbance and often a threat to ecosystems, although historically, shrubs represent a shift in successional states after a natural disturbance.  Negative effects associated with recent shrub expansion include decreased species diversity, extreme alteration in community structure, the creation of irreversible alternate stable states, nutrient cycling shifts, and increased susceptibility of shrubland compared to previous ecosystems.  On the Virginia barrier islands, Morella cerifera thickets clearly represent a different community structure compared to grasslands, and decreased plant diversity as well as increased soil nitrogen has been observed with the shift to shrubland. Joseph Thompson's master's research evaluated the effects of Morella cerifera on fine-scale abiotic and biotic factors upon encroachment into grassland. Species composition, temperature, soil nutrients, and leaf area index (LAI) were recorded across three encroaching M. cerifera thicket edges and three free-standing shrubs on Hog Island, Virginia to characterize the effect of shrub thickets on the plant community and microclimate. Electron transport rate (ETR) was taken on shrub leaves to determine if microclimate benefits M. cerifera physiology. Species richness was lowest inside shrub thickets. Soil water content and LAI were higher in shrub thickets compared to grassland. Soil organic matter, N, and C were higher inside shrub thickets. Summer and fall maximum temperatures were more moderate in shrub thickets and at free-standing shrubs. Fall and winter minimum temperatures were warmer inside shrub thickets. ETR was higher at the free-standing shrubs compared to the thicket edge. Morella cerifera significantly changes the microenvironment including temperature, edaphic factors, and plant species composition. These results show that expansion of M. cerifera in coastal systems has an immediate and significant impact on the surrounding environment.



Thursday, March 24, 2016

Emergent interactions influence functional traits and success of dune building ecosystem engineers

Stability of coastal systems are threatened by oceanic and atmospheric drivers of climate change.  Sea-level rise compounded with increased frequency and intensity of storms emphasizes need for protection of inner island systems by dune formations.  Dune building processes are affected by interactions between growth of ecosystem engineering dune grasses and environmental factors associated with disturbance such as sand burial and salt spray.  Climate change may also cause latitudinal expansion of some species, resulting in emergence of competitive interactions that were previously absent.  Topographic structure of coastlines, traditionally influenced by sand burial, could change as a result of competition emergence.  The master's work of Joseph Brown was to determine if species functional trait responses to common abiotic factors are altered by novel and current biotic interactions.  He performed a multi-factorial greenhouse experiment by planting three common dune grasses (Ammophila breviligulata, Uniola paniculata, and Spartina patens) in different biotic combinations, using sand burial and salt spray as abiotic stressors.  He hypothesized that biotic interactions would cause these dune grasses to shift functional trait responses to abiotic factors that are associated with dune building.  The results of this study found that plants consistently decreased in biomass when buried.  When grown together, competition between A. breviligulata and U. paniculata negatively affected dune building function traits of A. breviligulata.  This indicates that competition, if future northward expansion of U. paniculata continues, could lead to dune engineering alterations, especially in the Virginia barrier islands.  In comparison A. breviligulata had a positive interaction with S. patens which increased functional trait responses to abiotic stress. Coexistence between these three species is possible via competitive intransitivity.  In intransitive competition, varying species-to-species interactions create a rock-paper-scissors scenario in which competitive hierarchy no longer exists. Current models suggest that within plant communities, intransitive interactions are most commonly found between dominant species, and dependent on short disturbance intervals and abiotic stress. Overall, these results can be used to make implications on cross-scale consequences of novel competitive events. This experiment also provides evidence that consideration of biotic interactions is important in substantiating connections between plant level dynamics and large-scale landscape patterns in high stress environments.

Joe will defend his thesis on March 29, 2016!
Conceptual model by Joe Brown on how plant functional responses ultimately affect island level processes

High habitat complexity co-occurs with high dune ridge formation

Low habitat complexity co-occurs with overwash and small hummock dunes

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Species interactions affect dune grasses

Barrier islands are on the forefront of sea level rise and climate change. High disturbance regimes and sediment mobility make these systems sensitive, dynamic, and sentinels of climate change. Island foredunes act as protective structures against storm included overwash. Dune grasses are integral to the biogeomorphic feedback that create and alter foredunes. Shifts in dune grass dominance on foredunes could have implications on dune morphology and susceptibility to overwash, altering island stability. In a recent study by MS student April Harris, two dune grasses Ammophila breviligulata and U. paniculata were planted together and subjected to a 20 cm burial to quantify morphological and physiological response. These species form different types of dunes based on vegetative propogation strategy. Ammophila breviligulata uses a network of horizontal rhizomes to stabilize substrates and U. paniculata exhibits a dense compact growth form that binds substrates. The effect of these different strategies is seen in the types of dunes formed (ridge vs. hummock). In the glasshouse experiment the most significant finding was a decline in physiological and morphological performace in A. breviligulata when planted with U. paniculata while U. paniculata was not affected when planted with A. breviligulata. As U. paniculata migrates into A. breviligulata dominated habitat, changes in dune formation could result in altered island stability via increased overwash due to reduced growth in A. breviligulata. Burial had a positive effect on both species as indicated by increased electron transport rate and total biomass. This is typical of dune grasses as the need to rebound after burial is necessary to survive in foredune environments which frequently experience sediment deposition. The decline in growth of A. breviligulata when interacting with U. paniculata can alter foredune community structure by shifting dominant species. Overall, due to the biogeomorphic feedbacks that couple dune morphology to vegetation type on barrier islands, any shifts in dominance could alter island stability and structure over time leading islands to experience new, previously unachieved states.

April Harris will defend her Master's thesis next Thursday!


Ammophila breviligulata

Uniola paniculata


Friday, March 11, 2016

The importance of species and functional groups to barrier islands

We are continuing to understand the importance of woody vegetation to barrier islands, especially in stabilizing sediments and reducing overwash/limiting rollover. In a forthcoming paper in Ecosphere "Woody expansion facilitates liana expansion and affects physical structure in temperate coastal communities", we show the prevalence of lianas on barrier islands and the strong dependency with woody vegetation. The harsh abiotic conditions (e.g. high light, salinity, varying water availability) of these communities are most influential in structuring woody vegetation while liana species are primarily generalists associated with any woody plants. Interacting and possibly synergistic effects of woody expansion and liana proliferation appear to alter the traditional successional processes in coastal environments. Using a space-for-time geographic substitution (i.e. chronosequence) on two stable, unmanaged barrier islands, we show the lack of maritime forest regeneration due to the high leaf area index of woody shrubs and associated liana tangles. Historical photos from the Virginia barrier islands shows significant pine-oak forests that have been washed away from several islands due to erosion. New maritime forest does not appear to be establishing on the islands but replaced by new functional groups. We are continuing to investigate the ecological and ecosystem service consequences of this shift in succession and community structure.

Historical photo from Hog Island shows extensive maritime forest
Ghost trees due to erosion of maritime forest from Parramore Island
Present day woody vegetation - shrub thicket and lianas on Hog Island

Thursday, March 3, 2016

A moment of reflection and remembrance

As a scientist, I often feel encouraged to remain objective and shy away from personal and philosophical matters. As a human, I can't do this. What began as a series on the ongoing and broad research in our lab has been temporarily halted. Sometimes life gets in the way. This time death demanded a shift in perspective on the importance in life. My mom passed away February 18, 2016 after months of illness from cancer. I originally wanted to pursue cancer research, but my love of outdoors made indoor research difficult. My mom always encouraged my love of science as a child and it is in her memory that I pause and share my thoughts and tribute to her.

To mom -

My sister and I have had the great honor to be with mom as she transitioned from her earthly life unto the next. While sadness and deep loss accompanied these moments, mom gave us the privilege to prepare and accept a new reality.  But while we tried to protect our hearts against the pain of losing our mother, it still hurts terribly.  Even though we grieve these days now that mom is not physically here with us, we also celebrate her life and spirit as she has moved on to a new journey. 

Someone recently described mom as a rare bird. I like this image of mom as a bird with showy feathers – where she has flight over this earth and without the limitations of a body that battled illness and major medical issues for over twenty five years. Through this time I came to see a community of love around her, around all of us. I stand amazed at the reach of one person  - the impact someone can have on so many people. There are many lessons to learn from these moments – lessons that are learned and repeated over and over by the 7 billion people here on earth and all those that came before us. There is this thread that connects all of humanity. We all experience the pain of suffering, the thrill of living. And mom soars above it all – free from the limits imposed on us now.

Mom has always been a fighter with a will stronger than anyone I know. She is a believer and has an amazing and admirable faith. She always provided an undercurrent of love and strength to us, even when we failed to see it. She experienced a lot of difficulty in her lifetime here, yet she always kept her faith to guide her through. She always remained positive even when dealing with cancer, treatments, surgeries, and unknown outcomes. She never once asked, “why is the happening to me”. By watching her deal with the challenges before her, mom gave me a strength I did not know I had. At times, as all of us do, we had a complicated relationship. I am fortunate that we were able to find the simplicity in love and being together. I know mom is proud of both Jill and myself and the women that we became. She loves dearly her three grandchildren Cody, Aksel, and Alice Rose. They were the light in her eyes and the joy in her heart.

Mom always had a great sense of humor and was a very social person. We would always find something to laugh about at family or group gatherings. She loved to tell other people all the childhood stories about me and Jill and her grandkids. She had an amazing memory to never forget the really good ones (like when Jill poured molasses in her brand new Sunday shoes – I can’t seem to remember any of the stories about me). Mom never drank. But she kept a bottle of vodka in the closet with her art supplies. We always joked that mom was a closet drinker. Mom had such amazing talents that she shared with all who knew her.  She had a glorious voice and loved to sing. When I was a small child, I ran up to the pulpit in church one time when mom was singing. I always loved it when she sang or played the piano – it was soothing to me. She was a true artist who kept pushing her own boundaries with the wonderful creations she made. When she was teaching at Montessori school, she would spend hours late into the night making a small quilted gift for each of the children in her class. She loved to create and to see the beauty in her world. She always carried her camera and would show me photos of the way light hit some object, flowers, trees, almost always photos of the natural world. Then she would use these images in her art.  

A friend said these words, that are so very true. A mother is our place of solace, our ass-kicker, the person we so desperately want to be nothing like, and later appreciate the traits we find of hers in ourselves. We don’t want to say goodbye to her now. As strong as we try to be, as much as I know we can keep moving forward, there is a hole in my heart that will take time to heal. By hearing her stories, learning more about the woman who was more than just my mother, connecting with family and friends that meant so much to her, we can honor her memory and carry on her legacy by offering love to those who touch our lives.


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Decadal change in Virginia barrier islands

By: Julie Zinnert

It is easy to see how dynamic the landscape is working at the Virginia barrier islands. Dramatic changes to shoreline, dunes, and interior swales can happen in a matter of weeks. One offshore hurricane (like Hurricane Joaquin) can completely destroy a master's dune grass experiment. New shrub thickets can develop over three years in what was previously grassland. Seeing this change is exciting for students and myself after working on the islands over the last ten years.
Recently, we analyzed several of the Virginia islands to see how the islands and communities are changing at the decadal scale. Our results were astonishing! We knew from previous work that woody vegetation has been expanding on many of the islands. In fact, shrub loss only occurred on islands that had lost island area. In a soon to be published paper in Ecosystems, we took a closer look at the upland communities. What is happening with grassy swales? Are shrubs only expanding? Are there any patterns of change consistent across the islands?
What we found was astounding! From the period between 1984 to 2011, all of the islands lost upland area - some more than others (ranging from 12% on Cedar to 62% on Cobb; 29% total area loss from all islands). This is similar to the amount of ice loss from the Arctic over the timeframe. Surprisingly, this amount of land loss was seen over 16 decades in the Gulf Coast barrier islands (not 3 as in Virginia)!

Shoreline migration is how barrier islands respond to sea-level rise. Shoreline hardening to protect economic infrastructure poses a challenge for the future of barrier islands. We first need to understand how barrier islands naturally adapt and change to rising sea level so that we can implement more green solutions in developed islands. The Virginia Coast Reserve provides a rare and unique site for research as the islands are undeveloped.
In our analysis of barrier island change, we found three major patterns of land cover transitions: complete loss of vegetation (these islands are actively migrating onto the marsh platform), frequent transitions between grass and woody vegetation, and increase in woody vegetation. It appears that islands with extensive woody vegetation do not migrate, but rather lose area through shoreline erosion. Woody vegetation may decrease resilience of barrier islands in the same way that human infrastructure does. This is exemplified in Cobb Island (see picture below). Cobb Island had very low woody cover in 1984. Between 1984 and 2011, woody area increased (over 100 ha) while the island lost over 400 ha. Extensive shrub death can be seen at the shoreline. This vegetation prevents overwash of sediments onto the backbarrier marsh. Cobb Island has had virtually no migration onto the marsh during the timeframe.
Shrub death is visible at the shoreline as Cobb Island erodes (a). Loss of upland area and increase in woody vegetation (red) is visible from satellite imagery on Cobb Island in 1984 (b) and 2011(c).
We are beginning to document linkages that occur across island processes. This is an important step as we scale from local level measurements to island and island-chain level response. The relationship between species and dune building is important to determine the species composition of interior swales. Interior swale communities affect sediment transport, island migration, and marsh dynamics. Thus, the ecological function of barrier island upland communities is highly relevant beyond the barrier island landscape.