During the summer, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), in Edgewater, Maryland, is typically buzzing with activity. Scientific staff and volunteers arrive early in the morning to load gear into field vehicles and begin long days of research on land or at sea. Much of this fieldwork, near or in the Chesapeake Bay, deals with pressing and complex environmental threats, such as climate change and invasive species. Roughly two dozen visiting undergraduate researchers move into campus dormitories during the summer and join the research labs where they diligently work to complete independent projects in just ten weeks.
In SERC’s Ecosystem Conservation lab, we investigate how ecosystems respond to global threats, such as nutrient runoff, land-use conversion, and invasive species. Our plan for the summer of 2020 was to revisit over a dozen forest fragments in the Chesapeake Bay watershed for the first time in more than forty years to assess how land-use change has affected plant and songbird populations. Undergraduate researchers were to be instrumental in resurvey efforts and would have the opportunity to design complementary field experiments or surveys that would broaden their experience. Over the winter, we assembled an all-star team: Skye Austin, a rising sophomore from Shenandoah University, enthusiastic about the environment and conservation and ready for her first research experience. Rachael Brenneman, a rising senior at Eastern Mennonite University, eager for the chance to design and implement her own field research after conducting class research projects. And Julia Smith, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago and a data modeler, excited to get outside and experience the nuances of ecological field research.
During any given field season, we anticipate that not everything will go as planned—an unexpected storm may shift the schedule or cause extensive damage to a site, or we might add measurements to account for new field observations. This year, however, the very idea of conducting fieldwork and mentoring students seemed to hang in the balance as the coronavirus pandemic led to nationwide shutdowns and internal policy changes. As stay-at-home orders went into place in March, it was unclear how field research programs would proceed—if at all. Overnight, SERC’s research campus became an unrecognizable ghost town as most of the staff began to telework and only pre-approved, essential staff (including members of our lab) came in to maintain critical operations and experiments. Over time, it became clear that this would be the new normal, and as a result, the organizers of the undergraduate research program decided to take everything remote.
As our lab began planning a remote field season that did not involve a plane ride, we initially inventoried existing datasets related to plant mutualisms, biodiversity, and ecosystem function, and generated a list of possible questions that undergraduate students could address while living at home, turning a fun field-based research experience into ten weeks in front of a computer screen gathering data from the web or navigating the world of statistical analyses. While this type of experience would certainly be valuable for many students, the idea of a computer-based internship did not meet the goals of our three undergraduate researchers who were eager for the chance to design and conduct field experiments. Cue inspiration from none other than Charles Darwin. While most of us go through school associating Darwin with his voyage on the HMS Beagle and the theory of natural selection, many of his theory-testing experiments took place from the comforts of his own home (see Darwin’s Backyard: How Small Experiments Led to a Big Theory by James Costa). We asked, would it be possible for our undergraduate students to conduct field experiments at their family homes?
Before the undergraduate researchers started in mid-June, we determined their locations in relation to SERC, their indoor and outdoor spatial constraints for an experiment, and compiled topics and resources that would help shape the type of questions they’d be able to ask. Coincidentally, everyone lived within three hours of SERC, so with extra steps to keep materials disinfected and acquire administrative approval, we could drive materials to their homes. Furthermore, everyone had outdoor space in their family yards to set up an experiment. Thus, a summer of backyard ecosystem-conservation research began.
Our undergraduate researchers hit the ground running. With minimal direction other than the compiled topics and resources related to our broad research themes and the agreed-upon spatial constraints, they worked together to develop an overarching research question and experimental design that they could each have in their yards. Over two weeks, they read the scientific literature and met daily to settle on one overarching question: how does nitrogen pollution from runoff affect plant and soil communities? To address this question, they would each set up sixty one-gallon pots in their yards, each pot containing two native plants. Plants within a pot could be one of three native species: Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), sensitive partridge pea (Chamaecrista nictitans), or Virginia wild-rye (Elymus virginicus). All possible combinations were represented, meaning that a pot could be planted with either two of the same species or two different species.
Next, the team identified measurements that would allow them to answer more specific questions based on their individual interests. Skye was interested in the capacity of these native plants to uptake added nitrogen under different diversity treatments. Rachael asked how added nitrogen and plant diversity treatments affect the soil microbial community. And Julia wanted to understand how nitrogen addition and diversity treatments affect plant competition. Everyone was responsible for collecting the data that would be needed to address each of these three questions. They would take plant growth measurements, collect soil and invertebrate samples, and harvest plants for analyses of biomass and nitrogen content.
After settling on the questions, experimental design, measurements, and materials, we spent a week purchasing and preparing all the required materials. We then made a ten-hour road trip to drop off the materials at each house. Traditionally, lab mates would help with project setup, but this year, the undergraduate researchers were left to handle those steps on their own. To ensure each researcher made the same judgment calls during setup (such as how to orient the plants in the pot), they held a multi-hour video meeting to discuss the process. Later, long video discussions became a reoccurring theme as the team took each measurement for the first time and harvested their plants at the end of the experiment. But various household members (parents and friends) did help each student with the setup (and maintenance and harvest). In some cases, parents became just as invested in the success of the plants as the undergraduate researchers themselves, checking on the experiment periodically just to see how the plants were getting along.
In total, the experiment ran for a little over five weeks, with plants exposed to four weeks of fertilizer treatments in concentrations that matched those found in runoff from residential yards. After the last plant was harvested, we made a final road trip to collect their samples, as well as the equipment loaned for the summer. Back at SERC, we dried and stored samples that will be analyzed in the lab at a later date. For our undergraduate researchers, a final virtual presentation bookended their summer experience. Together, the researchers eloquently presented their fieldwork experience and discussed how they designed a single experiment to answer a host of meaningful questions related to ecosystem conservation.
While this summer was a far departure from our initial plans, and a deviation from what is traditionally considered remote fieldwork, each undergraduate researcher experienced the hallmarks of conducting field research. Everyone coped with the heat and humidity of the DC, Maryland, and Virginia metropolitan area as they took their late-summer measurements. They anxiously sat and watched their pots from indoors as Hurricane Isaias brought heavy winds and rains to their yards. They all agreed to add herbivory observations to their data collection after each experiment had evidence of unintended interactions with residential wildlife. But, most importantly, everyone felt the ownership and satisfaction that can only come from developing and completing an experiment.
Data analysis for this project is ongoing and will continue through the fall and winter. Many of the samples still need to be processed in the lab to determine plant biomass, and leaf and soil nitrogen content. While Julia is currently starting her doctorate, Skye and Rachael have continued as fall interns in the Ecosystem Conservation lab, working to finish these analyses and lead the efforts to publish their results. The initial results are beginning to tell an exciting story as to how plant diversity may help combat nutrient pollution. The data suggest that some species can continue to grow just as well under high nitrogen conditions from runoff and in different diversity treatments.
A bonus of conducting remote research from home this summer was the realization that undergraduate researchers can, in some cases, continue to be supported once they return to school. As our lab continues to function over video conferencing, undergraduate researchers can be involved in lab meetings and SERC virtual events. And as SERC moves through the phases of its reopening plan as coronavirus cases drop in the region, the undergraduate researchers will finally be able to make it into the lab to process their samples.
The current pandemic has changed many aspects of our day-to-day lives and how we conduct science. At times, these changes are overwhelming and do not have clear resolutions. Yet, this pandemic has also demonstrated our ability to be resilient and adapt to the previously unimaginable. Our ability to pivot from an in-person field program to conducting remote science in our backyards is one of many examples of how field scientists have coped this summer. These examples, however, should not come as a surprise. As field scientists, we know that disruptions are inevitable, and we need to be flexible and open to new solutions. If anything, conducting science during an unprecedented time is what field research has been preparing us for all along.
Amy Hruska is a postdoctoral fellow in the Ecosystem Conservation lab at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). Kimberly Komatsu is the senior scientist and principal investigator of the Ecosystem Conservation lab at SERC.