Since first getting involved in the environmental movement in high school, I’ve focused a lot more on politics and organizing around environmental issues than on environmental science and research. As an Oberlin College first-year, I plan on studying environmental studies with a focus on policy. So when I had the opportunity to choose a Winter Term project (Oberlin’s version of the J-Term) for this January, I knew I wanted to mix things up and experience some of the environmental science I’d been missing out on.
I found a spot helping with a research project led by Rebecca Montgomery, a University of Minnesota Forest Ecology professor (her website here). Professor Montgomery and a team of graduate students are looking into the way changing climate—specifically, changing winters—affects the timing of buds breaking on oak and maple trees from different locations across the U.S.. Using a stand of research trees grown from seedlings from several different states, the team collects twigs from the trees every two weeks and brings them into a warm greenhouse. They then record the number of days each twig spends in the greenhouse before its buds start breaking—a number that may be influenced by the length of “winter” for that twig, or how long the twig spent outside before being brought into the greenhouse.
When I did a little reading to prepare for the project, I learned that this kind of research is called “phenology”: the study of cyclical or seasonal events in nature, such as buds breaking. Although Professor Montgomery’s research is more complicated, phenology can be as simple as counting a certain type of bird in the backyard or watching for leaves to start changing color in the fall. Understanding how changes in climate will influence phenological events is critical because phenology affects nearly every aspect of the environment and the resources it provides us.
On my first day on the job, a twig collection day, I quickly realized that the research papers I’d read could hardly convey what it was actually like to do the research. I showed up in snowpants and a parka. Two graduate students and I spent the next two hours outside in the -5 degree windchill, lugging long poles, pruning shears, plastic numbered tags, and an enormous bag of twigs through our stand of research trees. Walking through row by row, we cut twigs off the trees and marked each with a numbered tag.
Although my first day was a real adventure, I spent much more of my time recording observations on our twigs from the comfort of the greenhouse. For a few hours every other day, we went through every twig we’d collected so far and looked at its buds, marking down which ones were swollen, breaking or had open flowers. With hundreds of twigs to look at, I expected the twig observations to get pretty grueling, but instead it was exciting to get better at recognizing the different stages of the buds’ growth and to be able to predict which buds might be breaking the next time I checked them. Another bonus was hanging out in a warm, sunlit greenhouse on below-zero winter days.
By helping out in Professor Mongomery’s lab, I got a brief look beyond the charts and numbers in published research papers to the work that goes into them: the challenges of getting your pruning shears’ extension pole caught in tree branches, trying to tie tags onto twigs when your fingers are frozen, or spending hours sorting through buckets and buckets of twigs. I also got to feel some of the satisfaction of working to answer a question using a carefully designed experiment and methodical research. These experiences will inform organizing and policy work for me in the future, and have also inspired me to add more science into my educational plans.
A final lesson I’m taking away from my Winter Term is that no one needs a whole J-Term to participate in a science experiment just as cool as this one. Simple, accessible phenology projects let people of all ages get a behind-the-scenes look at scientific research in their local environment. Several organizations are making phenology resources even more accessible—The National Phenology Network provides curriculum as well as data collecting sheets just like the ones Rebecca’s team uses, and The National Wildlife Federation has a full page of citizen science projects that bring together phenological data recorded by people from across the country. As I go back to school, I’m looking forward to sharing my enthusiasm for phenology and applying what this J-Term has taught me about scientific research.