Hello Mr. Cullen,
It was so good to see you again today, and I really hope that I can bring some pride to Flag High. I apologize for being so low on communication lately- I have been working *ahem crying* over my undergraduate thesis so that I could not only receive honors in my field but write a draft for a future coauthored first or second author scientific paper to (hopefully) a recognized journal like Nature.
As an update to the work itself: you probably know that I'm working on permafrost at that point, it's become my life and I just can't seem to shut up about it! I wrote a proposal to my undergraduate internship program that offered a full stipend for flying to anywhere in the world so long as you have a *very* sound scientific basis and experimental plan. My lab is interested in permafrost thaw dynamics and the fate of the global carbon budget in a field site in Abisko Sweden. So I wrote a proposal and presented it to a board asking to fly there to study how plant communities shift in response to this thaw. Our research is mostly microbial based, and many of the scientists have been finding that methane producing microbes up there are starting to become more abundant and respirate at higher rates, which is a problem because methane is 33 times more potent in the atmosphere than the ever notorious carbon dioxide. We also have a bunch of chemists, some hydrologists and virologists that are stationed across the world from Australia, Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, Sweden... I'm pretty proud of how big and collaborative the project is. But basically, we had really only one other scientist looking at plants.. and these are VERY important to microbial respiration because as plants die, they get chewed up by microbes like little pac-men, which in turn respirate and create that methane or carbon dioxide and create what's called a positive feedback loop to climate change. I and my grad student were interested in exactly how much organic matter was getting fed to these microbes and just how easily that organic matter could be 'digested' which is based off of exactly how much nitrogen and carbon is in that matter. We've seen in previous work that when permafrost thaws and collapses, bogs and eventually really waterlogged fens start to form and plants that originally survived there may no longer be able to uptake oxygen to their roots. This can open up that niche in the environment to bigger plants (more food for microbes!) like sedges which are large leafy plants that act like sippy straws and can take oxygen to their roots through this adaptation. I got accepted and flew out to Sweden for two months and took plots of plants from two different time points, first when they were budding, then at their peak of productivity, and yes, we also tried to get the roots so I had to *hand-pick* every single plant out to ID its roots.... in sub-0 weather and mosquitos loud enough to hear as they hit my coat at.. high velocity...
I have not had a summer to myself- and to be quite honest with you I never thought I would end up here because I hated my life when I first started in the program working on shifts in microbial communities from the Great Barrier Reef in response to pollution and well quite frankly hated my life because I didn't take the samples. But then this happened. I loved my work with plants (much easier to see than microbes) and understood its implications and when the results started popping up on screen after days of crying and pulling my hair out over trying to teach myself coding (something that is typically in graduate level courses) I felt like I had really contributed something to society. All those days of skipping lunch to spend the entire period talking to Mr. Taylor about EVERYTHING **I mean it!!!** made me remember why I just absolutely positively LOVE science.
So I started finding some things that weren't what we expected- like how we actually didn't see a huge increase in biomass from the thaw gradient... bigger sedges should mean more biomass right? Not only that, we found NO growth over the season, in fact, we found some DEATH. That just doesn't make sense. But as science goes, there is no 'bad data.' At first we thought there was error in how we had paired the plots because once we dug up a plot we couldn't dig it up again. But then we started noticing even in the pictures we took but other statistical analyses as well that the moss at the intermediate sites was actually significantly decreasing and skewing our data. We have two alternative hypotheses for this: that 2015 was an El Nino year or that due to the permafrost thawing and collapsing, water was infiltrating from the previously frozen ground and actually killing the moss. Even more disturbing is that there is a significant decline in biodiversity due to the inability of plants to survive in these conditions, it isn't a novel finding but certainly worth noting. We also think now that there may be a heightened turnover in plants which may explain why there was little 'growth' that we saw over the season and explains why microbes have been noted to be more productive in other studies. We haven't really finished a whole lot of chemical analyses yet to see just how 'digestible' this organic matter is (think of it this way, more nitrogen is easier to chew, sort of like an oreo, versus less nitrogen and more carbon, which is difficult to digest like Thanksgiving turkey)
I went to a national poster conference in San Francisco, the American Geophysical Union fall conference, to present this work funded by the honors college. I've also presented the work twice at my smaller internship's annual conference. I'll attach a photo here. I also wrote my thesis on this work and plan to try to publish it as I move on to my master's dissertation. I have been accepted into a lab at the University of Alaska Fairbanks that is a bit more interested in how plants cycle nitrogen, but also focuses on the fate of carbon and its implications on the global carbon budget. I have full tuition covered and double minimum wage salary (which is insane for just a graduate student who usually makes barely enough to live). I hope to maybe do a cross comparative study...