Strategies to find and grow the smallest possible plant

We are so excited to welcome Emily Morris to the blog today! Emily is doing an MSc at Ryerson University in Toronto, and will tell us all about her adventures doing fieldwork for her Undergraduate thesis. For more about Emily, see the end of this post. 

My undergraduate thesis project provided me with the mission to find the smallest possible plant of about 50 different species in the Kingston area. This task follows a particular, repetitive formula: driving around aimlessly trying to spot plants out of the window. But don’t think once you find the perfect plant that it will have any seeds whatsoever; that’s nature’s way of making you work for it. So you end up crawling around with your face on the ground looking for a plant that does have seeds. Oh, you found one? Better take 20 minutes to collect your data, only to hear your partner yell, “I found a smaller one over here!” The pain doesn’t end there. As luck would have it, the smallest possible plant is always in the most inconvenient, problematic location.

Through my painstaking experience with this process, I have made a list of strategies to help scientists in the future whose goals involves finding and collecting the smallest possible plant of a species:

  1. Wear thick denim pants because you will inevitably end up sitting on the side of a cliff in a juniper bush.
  1. People driving by are going to see someone sitting cross-legged on the side of the road shoving a ruler into the ground; bring your neon vest so you look like a city worker to avoid never-ending questions
  1. If you think you will need 2 sharpies to write on the paper bags, buy 15 – these mysteriously go missing constantly.
  1. HAVE BACK-UP COLLECTION SITES (in case the current ones are overtaken by a toxic invasive species; looking at you, wild parsnip).
  1. Surround yourself with people who are comfortable with curse words.
  1. Don’t be afraid to rock a poncho in the rain.
  1. Invest in a full-length mirror so you can obsessively check for ticks everywhere on your body (everywhere) after each field day

Despite encountering a multitude of trials and tribulations during my field work, I thoroughly enjoyed it and wouldn’t change a thing. The field sites were beautiful and I had amazing colleagues to work with. Field work has become my favourite thing about being a scientist and it’s all because of my undergraduate work.

field

One of my favourite pictures from an old field site during my undergraduate work.

 

Once I managed to collect the seeds from the smallest possible plants from the field, I then transplanted them into a greenhouse project. I eventually had about 50 species spread among 1,000 pots planted in the Queen’s greenhouse. At first it was great – the greenhouse has an amazing view and there is something therapeutic about gardening for the sake of research. While completing my greenhouse project, I ran into some trouble along the way; I was ultimately grateful for these hindrances, as they all came with a lesson about life as a scientist:

  1. I definitely underestimated the amount of time it takes to water and fertilize 1,000 plants on a weekly basis; sometimes it felt like a full-time job (on top of an undergraduate degree). This taught me to plan projects with the expectation that it will take longer than you think it will – that way, you can only be pleasantly surprised.
  2. In October of 2015, the greenhouse temperature skyrocketed and my plants were drying out faster than ever. Many of them died and I lost a chunk of replicates for my experiment. At the time, I was freaking out, but I learned later that situations like these are not the end of the world. I still had a huge amount of data to work with, and I was still pleased with the results I obtained.
  3. An aphid infestation tore through my plants in February of 2016. This was unexpected (and frankly, gross) and I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. This taught me the importance of considering all possible difficulties that can be encountered during an experiment and having back-up plans to combat challenges.
A few of my many pots in the Queen’s greenhouse for my undergraduate thesis project.

A few of my many pots in the Queen’s greenhouse for my undergraduate thesis project.

Science is one big “trial and error” but the errors and challenges are the best thing about science because they teach you the most. I would not be where I am today without the experiences from my undergraduate thesis project. It was something I will value throughout the rest of my career as a scientist and the many lessons it taught me will continue to stick with me in the future.

emilyEmily Morris is a Master’s student at Ryerson University, where she works with Dr. Michael Arts and Dr. Lesley Campbell. Her current project is looking at the effect of temperature change on fatty acid composition in grasses. She completed a Bachelor of Science in Biology at Queen’s University. During her fourth year, she worked with Dr. Lonnie Aarssen and Amanda Tracey on an undergraduate thesis project, examining the effect of crowding on plant body size.

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