Research and multicultural partnership uncover climate change in trees
September 25, 2016
A Virginia Tech professor studied the effects of climate change on sugar maples, along with a student and faculty member from the University of West Alabama, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative on Climate Variability and Change.
Carolyn Copenheaver, associate professor of forest ecology in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, and Keita Shumaker, associate professor of biology at the University of West Alabama, who met in 2011 during a plant genomics workshop, developed a working relationship that eventually led to collaborating on a research grant proposal through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The two partnered to recruit Brittany Butcher, a senior majoring in biology at the University of West Alabama, for Virginia Tech’s Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program Summer Research Internship, a 10-week program designed to prepare undergraduate students for graduate-level work. The department of agriculture research grant funded Butcher’s internship.
Climate Change Study
Their climate change study is part of a larger three-year project involving six U.S. universities, each of which is responsible for researching how a different set of tree species reacts to changing climate conditions.
“Many species are seeing massive mortality, particularly in high-latitude areas like Alaska’s boreal forest,” Copenheaver said. “Areas that were formerly forested are converting to shrub and grasslands.”
To understand the effects of climate change on trees on the East Coast, the researchers visited the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania. There, they collected tree core samples, a technique that allows them to see the tree’s annual rings without cutting down the tree.
“The samples are only about the size of a drinking straw,” Copenheaver said, “but they allow us to see the ring width. Wide rings indicate good growth conditions while narrower rings indicate poor conditions.”
For Butcher, this type of research was uncharted territory. “Dendroclimatology was totally new to me. I was starting from scratch, but I really like learning new things and I don’t like to give up,” she said.
The researchers used temperature and precipitation data to analyze the tree rings, but were puzzled to find no real relationship between this data and how fast the trees were growing. A breakthrough came when discussing the project with colleagues at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, another participant in the department of agriculture study.
“They suggested looking at relationships between tree groups before 1950 and tree groups after 1950,” said Copenheaver. “The effects of climate change really began to appear during that later time period.”
Once the researchers changed their focus, they soon discovered that prior to 1950, sugar maples were not particularly sensitive to precipitation levels. Post-1950, however, they became increasingly sensitive.
According to Copenheaver, drought conditions caused by climate change have put stress on the trees. “Before 1950, these trees didn’t experience drought conditions. Now that they do, the trees are changing how they are responding to climate. Even though we don’t have mortality in Eastern forests like in some other places, we are seeing stress related to lack of moisture.”
Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program
Butcher produced a poster and an oral presentation detailing the group’s findings for the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program’s Summer Research Symposium in August. The program, which hosted 46 interns from around the U.S. this summer, is designed to increase representation of traditionally underrepresented groups in graduate programs at Virginia Tech and provide holistic support to both undergraduate and graduate students.
Butcher’s internship included preparation for graduate school through a variety of workshops, professional development opportunities, and Graduate Record Exam prep courses offered through the program, in addition to conducting research with Copenheaver and Shumaker.
“We had retreats and workshops where we learned what would help us get into graduate school,” Butcher said. “There were also fun monthly activities like bowling or pizza parties.”
Shumaker, who often mentors first-generation college students at the University of West Alabama, explained the importance of the Multicultural Academic Opportunities Program and others like it. “All the skills they learn in internships allow students to appreciate diversity and learn to communicate with others. It’s very important for students to have those experiences.”
“Brittany had never realized that she was well suited for research,” Copenheaver said, “but I watched her gain in confidence and, by the end of the summer, I was able to communicate with her as though she were a scientific peer rather than a student.”
The internship also allowed Butcher to discover an exciting new career path. In addition to research opportunities and development workshops, Butcher also was able to talk about her career goals with Virginia Tech faculty members. After discussing her interest in the field of medical geography with Associate Professor Korine Kolivras in the Department of Geography, Butcher decided to continue working toward a career in research.
“I was worried about my next steps, but after meeting with the faculty at Virginia Tech, it opened my eyes to how much more is out there and how much I liked research,” Butcher said. “I learned research skills, interview skills, and presentation skills that will help me in grad school.”
With her eye-opening internship behind her, Butcher, who will graduate in December, plans to return to Virginia Tech to pursue a master’s degree in geography.