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Water Works

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  January 2, 2016 — Leave a comment

In a first-time summer internship research project, two college students set out to understand how plants were responding to the Garden’s shoreline restoration projects. They took a deep look into how variations in water levels may be affecting the health of the young plants. The results of their work will help others select the best plants for their own shorelines.

A silent troop of more than one-half million native plants stand watch alongside 4½ miles of restored Chicago Botanic Garden lakeshore. The tightly knit group of 242 taxa inhibit erosion along the shoreline, provide habitat for aquatic plants and animals, and create a tranquil aesthetic for 60 acres of lakes.

PHOTO: The North Lake shoreline.

The North Lake shoreline restoration was completed in 2012. Photo by Bob Kirschner

Now ranging from 2 to 15 years old, the plants grow up from tiered shelves on the sloping shores. Species lowest on the slope are always standing in water. At the top of the slope, the opposite is true, with only floods or intense downpours bringing the lake level up to their elevation.

Wading In

Jannice Newson and Ben Girgenti moved through clusters of tightly knit foliage along the Garden shoreline from June through August, taking turns as map reader or measurement taker. On a tranquil summer day, one would step gingerly into the water, settling on a planting shelf, before lowering a 2-foot ruler into the water to take a depth measurement. The other, feet on dry land, would hold fast to an architectural map of the shoreline while calling out directions or making notes.

Newson, a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) intern and sophomore at the University of Missouri, and Girgenti, a Garden intern and senior at Brown University, worked under the guidance of Bob Kirschner, the Garden’s director of restoration ecology and Woman’s Board curator of aquatics.

PHOTO: Interns Ben Girgenti and Jannice Newson.

Interns Ben Girgenti and Jannice Newson gather plant data on the shoreline.

When the summer began, Girgenti and Newson had hoped to locate and measure every single plant. But after the immense scope of the project became clear in their first weeks, they decided to focus on species that are most commonly used in shoreline rehabilitation, as that information would be most useful for others.

View the Garden’s current list of recommended plants for shoreline restoration.

“We’re interested in which plants do really badly and which do really well when they are experiencing different levels of flooding, with the overall idea of informing people who are designing detention basins,” explained Girgenti, who went on to say that data analysis of the Garden’s sophisticated shoreline development would be especially useful for others.

“The final utility of this research will be to inform other natural resource managers,” confirmed Kirschner, who added that successful Garden shoreline plants must be able to withstand water levels that can rise and fall by as many as 5 feet several times in one year.

Steering the Ship

Along the shoreline, the interns followed vertical iron posts that were installed as field markers during construction, in order to find specific plants shown on the maps. “The posts are pretty key to being able to map out the beds,” said Girgenti.

PHOTO: The Malott Japanese Garden shoreline 3 years after the 2011-12 restoration project.

The Malott Japanese Garden shoreline two years after the 2006 restoration project.

Once they found a target plant, they then counted clumps of it, and put it into one of six categories based on the amount of current coverage, ranging from nonexistent to area coverage of more than 95 percent.

They also measured the average depth of water for beds with plants below the water line, noting their elevation. For plants above the water line, the elevation was derived from the architectural drawings.

Data about the elevation and coverage level of each measured plant, together with daily lake water level readings dating back to the late 1990s, was then entered into a spreadsheet and prepared for analysis to identify correlations between planting bed elevation and plant survival.

Beneath the Surface

For her REU research project, Newson was careful to collect data for one species in particular, blue flag iris. “As a preliminary test of the project hypothesis, data relating to 101 planting beds of Iris virginica var. shrevei were analyzed to see if there was a significant correlation between the assessed plant condition and each planting bed’s elevation relative to normal water,” she explained in her final REU poster presentation in late August.

PHOTO: Southern blue flag iris.

Southern blue flag iris (Iris virginica var. shrevei), photo by Jannice Newson

An environmental science major, she initially experienced science at the Garden as a participant in the Science First Program, and then as a Science First assistant, before becoming an REU intern.

Girgenti began his Garden work in the soil lab, where his mentor inspired him to focus on local, native flora. “I was kind of pushed up a little bit by the Garden,” he said. The following year he did more field work in the Aquatics department. “I wanted to come back because I really enjoyed being here the last two years,” he said. “Every year I’ve come back to the Garden, I’ve been very excited about what I’m going to do.”

Aside from the scientific discovery, the two also refined their professional interests. “I do enjoy being out in the field as opposed to maybe working in a lab; it’s a lot more interesting to me. And also just working in the water with native plants is very interesting,” said Newson.

“I was really interested in getting into more of the shoreline science and also learning which native species were planted there,” said Girgenti. “I really love working here. I’ve never really been involved this much in science, so this has been a really great experience—just all of the problem solving that we’ve had to do over the course of the summer.”

Newson also enjoyed the communication aspect of her work, as Garden visitors stopped to ask what work she and Girgenti were doing along the shoreline. She was especially excited to share with them and her fellow REU interns that “the purpose of why we are doing this is that it provides a beautiful site for visitors to see, it helps with erosion, and also improves aquatic habitat.”

PHOTO: View of the Kleinman Familly Cove.

A view of the Kleinman Family Cove highlights the small bay where our youngest science explorers can learn about the shoreline.

Although the interns have left the Garden for now, the data they collected will have a lasting impact here and potentially elsewhere. Kirschner is currently working with his colleagues on the data analysis to complete a comprehensive set of recommendations for future use.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

No Day at the Beach: Summer Meant Research for REU Participants

Field research + skilled mentorship = next generation of plant scientists

Amy Spungen —  September 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

On a recent day in Chicago, with the sun beating down and temperatures climbing into the 90s, many college students idling through their last week at home headed for the beach. Lounging about was not on the agenda for the undergraduates gathered at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, on August 14, however. Instead, they stepped into the cool interior of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center to present their summer research findings.

Thirty college students were at the end of their ten-week Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, and 22 of them were scheduled to talk about it. Far removed from beach banter, they spoke the language of population genetics, plant diversity, arthropods and fungal pathogens, and the floral preference of bees, among many other topics.

Funded primarily through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, with additional funding from Northwestern University and others, the REU program is held each summer, and hundreds of hopeful candidates from colleges and universities throughout the United States apply to the program. Based at the Chicago Botanic Garden for the past ten years, the program enables a motivated group of undergraduates to explore a diverse array of topics related to plant biology and conservation. NSF-funded participants receive a stipend of $5,000, plus an additional subsistence and travel allowance.

Though the stipend is much appreciated, the main benefit of the REU program is professional: these young scientists perform detailed research out in the field and within sophisticated laboratories, under the skilled mentorship of senior scientists and doctoral and master’s students. At the Garden, participants have access to the nine laboratories of the Plant Science Center. Some REU participants use these labs while they serve as research mentors for teens participating in the Garden’s College First program. (College First brings talented Chicago Public Schools students who are African American or Latino—both underrepresented demographics in the professional science field—to the Garden in summer for a range of learning opportunities that introduce them to professional and academic options.)

PHOTO: Jannice Newson.

Jannice Newson

“The REU program was really interesting—I learned so much,” said Jannice Newson, now a sophomore majoring in environmental science at the University of Missouri. She stood before her poster in the Plant Science Center before presentations began. When prompted, Newson, who evaluated 242 species of shoreline plants over the summer, described a typical day in the program; by the time she patiently finished laying out the daily process, the magnitude of her accomplishment was clear.

“From a scientific perspective, I’m so proud of how Jannice developed her research skills over the course of the summer,” said her mentor, Bob Kirschner, director of restoration ecology and Woman’s Board Curator of Aquatics at the Garden. “Her commitment to the environment—and her now-refined desire to prepare for a career in the applied aquatic sciences—bring a huge smile to my face!“

The Science Career Continuum and near-peer mentoring

As hard as the work was, the experience invigorated Newson. “I would love to come back and do more of this work,” she said. “It was such a great group of people!” She previously participated in  College First and is an example of how students can move along the Garden’s Science Career Continuum. The continuum allows the Garden to connect its own programs for middle- and high-school students (Science First and College First, respectively) with those offering internships and mentoring for college and graduate students.

Jazmine Hernandez, now a sophomore majoring in health sciences at DePaul University, was both a Science First and College First participant. She hopes to go beyond the walls of the Plant Science Center and explain her population genetics research at a conference this fall.

PHOTO: Jazmine Hernandez.

Jazmine Hernandez

“I am so grateful to have been accepted into the REU program,” she said. “I heard about it through the Garden’s peer mentoring program, and then my College First advisor e-mailed me to suggest I apply.” She smiled and threw her arms wide. “Science First prepared me for high school; College First prepared me for college; REU is preparing me for life!”

“The near-peer mentoring that the REU program makes possible is incredibly important,” said Anya Maziak, the Garden’s director of foundation and government relations, who helps secure funding for the continuum and was reviewing the posters. “High-school students are mentored by undergraduate students who are mentored by graduate students and so on, offering all participants relatable models who encourage and support them as they pursue plant science careers.”

Hernandez noted that her REU mentor, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D.—a Garden conservation scientist and manager of both the molecular ecology lab and the REU program—covered much more than research throughout the summer, such as ethics, publishing papers, and preparing a resumé. “It’s just a great experience,” she said. “When I returned to the Garden for the REU program, all I could think was, I am home! I love it here.” Hernandez, whose poster was titled “Population Genetics during a Manrove Range Expansion,” plans to become a plant pathologist.

Winners among winners

A team of three Garden experts—Andrew Bunting, assistant director and director of plant collections; Greg Mueller, Ph.D., Negaunee Foundation Vice President of Science; and Eileen Prendergast, director of education—evaluated the posters and selected several for special honors. Taran Lichtenberger’s poster, “Functional trait diversity in prairie plant species,” was deemed Best Poster. Best Presentation went to Lisa Cheung, who elaborated on her poster, “Molecular markers distinguish hybridization patterns in Castilleja.” Evan Levy, whose poster was titled “Floral preference of bees in a Montane Meadow in Flagstaff, Arizona,” won the title of Best Overall.

Official honors aside, it was clear through the detailed research posters, the enthusiastic and articulate presenters, and the beaming faces of family, friends, and mentors that every REU participant was a winner.

“As a first-time judge, I was extremely impressed with the posters,” said Prendergast. “Every one of the students and mentors should be really proud of their work this summer.” (See summaries of each poster here.) Prendergast raises a good point in citing the mentors as well as their students, because it takes time, energy, and patience to work with even the most highly motivated and intelligent students—and there are no slackers in the REU program. “Mentoring REU students does take some time out of Garden scientists’ rather hectic summer schedules,” said Kirschner, “but the rewards to both the Garden and the student are just incredible.”

“Days like this remind me of why I’m here,” said Dr. Fant, who has managed the REU program for the past four years. He nodded toward the clusters of presenters and excited visitors. “It can be challenging to manage the program, but every year, seeing what these students have accomplished reassures me that among the next generation of scientists, there are many talented enough to take our place.”

The number of REU applicants rises yearly, and Fant expects the number accepted into the program to increase to as many as 40. (That’s about as much as the Plant Science Center and staff can accommodate.)

It’s not hard to see the attraction. As Dr. Mueller said, “The REU program provides a potentially life-changing experience by giving these undergraduate students research that can help them figure out what they can do with the rest of their lives. They work hard, and they have a good time.”

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On any given day, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s science laboratories are bustling with activity. Some of the researchers are extracting DNA from leaves, analyzing soil samples, discussing how to restore degraded dunes—and talking about where they’re going to college. The young researchers are interns in the Garden’s College First program, studying field ecology and conservation science, and working side by side with scientists, horticulturists, and educators.

PHOTO: Orange-shirted middle schoolers examine palm trees and take data in the greenhouse.

Science First participants gather data in the Greenhouse.

PHOTO: Two high school girls wearing blue "College First" tshirts and latex gloves examine samples in the lab.

Two College First participants work on analyzing samples in the Garden’s plant science labs.

The Science Career Continuum consists of five programs:

  • Science First, a four-week enrichment program for students in grades 8 through 10.
  • College First, an eight-week summer internship for high school juniors and seniors with monthly meetings during the school year.
  • Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), a ten-week summer research-based science internship supervised by a Garden scientist and funded through a National Science Foundation grant. In 2014, three College First graduates will participate.
  • Conservation and Land Management (CLM) internship, offered through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and held in 13 western states.
  • Graduate programs in plant biology and conservation, offered jointly with Northwestern University for master’s degree and doctoral students.

The program is part of the Science Career Continuum, which is aimed at training the next generation of dedicated land stewards and conservation scientists. The Continuum engages Chicago Public Schools students from diverse backgrounds in meaningful scientific research and mentoring programs from middle school through college and beyond. “Each level of the Continuum challenges students to improve their science skills, building on what was learned at the previous level and preparing them for the next,” said Kathy Johnson, director of teacher and student programs.

College First is a paid eight-week summer internship for up to 20 qualified students. Isobel Araujo, a senior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago, attended the College First program in 2011 and 2012. As part of the program, she did research on orchids and learned how to estimate budgets to fix hypothetical ecological problems. “It was definitely challenging, but it was awesome,” said Araujo, who plans to major in environmental studies.

During the school year, College First students also attend monthly meetings that help them select colleges, complete applications, and find financial aid to continue their education. More than 94 percent of College First graduates attend two- or four-year colleges, and many are the first in their family to attend college. Three students, including Robert Harris III, received full scholarships to universities beginning in fall 2013.

Harris is a freshman at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. As a junior and senior at Lane Tech High School in Chicago, he made a three-hour daily round-trip commute to the Garden for the College First program. During his internship, he learned to extract plant DNA and study genetic markers in the Artocarpus genus, which includes breadfruit and jackfruit. Harris said the program was a great experience. “You get out of the city and experience nature close up,” he said. “The Garden itself is one big laboratory, and it was a lot more hands-on than in high school.”

PHOTO: An intern carries a quiver full of marking flags, and takes notes on her clipboard.

Science First and College First programs lead into other graduate and postgraduate programs. Visit chicagobotanic.org/research/training to find information on these programs.

PHOTO: A group of about 50 people pose at the end of the Serpentine Bridge.

Conservation and Land Management (CLM) postgraduate interns for 2013 pose for a group photo at the Garden. Visit clminternship.org to find out more about this program.

Because of funding restrictions, enrollment for the Continuum programs are limited to students from Chicago Public Schools. For more information, visit chicagobotanic.org/ctl/teacher_students or call (847) 835-6871.


This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the spring 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Ants, trees, soil, and more: REU presentations conclude summer of science

Garden and Field REU interns gather at the Field Musuem for research finale

Amy Spungen —  September 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

To some people, gathering in an auditorium on a bright summer day for a packed schedule of science presentations might not seem exciting. I will confess that once I was among those poor, unenlightened individuals. Now, I know better.

PHOTO: The REU group gathered in front of the brontosaurus skeleton on the grounds of the Field Museum.

REU interns from the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Field Museum gathered at the museum on August 16.                  All photographs are by Stephanie Ware, Field Museum research assistant.

The reason I know better is because recently, I attended the Fifth Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium at the Field Museum in Chicago. There, college students participating in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Chicago Botanic Garden and at the Field revealed some intriguing research findings about plants and animals.

For example, who knew that hormones likely determine the rigid caste system of those scary army ants? (“Scary” was not a scientific term used in the presentation, but trust me, they are.) Or that some species of tropical trees in the Yucatan Peninsula access water by sending their root systems through the tops of underground caves, enabling them to survive drought? And that native plant restoration helps fight air pollution? (How, you wonder? It improves carbon sequestration, a process in which carbon dioxide is transferred from the atmosphere to the soil—do not even think “dirt”thereby removing the air pollutant.)

Funded through National Science Foundation grants, the REU program is held each summer, and hundreds of hopeful candidates from colleges and universities throughout the United States apply to the programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Field Museum. Selected participants number only in the teens, and this fortunate group explores a diverse array of scientific topics related to plant and animal biology and conservation. They receive a stipend of $4,500 for the ten-week program, plus an additional subsistence and travel allowance.

PHOTO: Garden REU intern Christopher Wright

Garden REU intern Christopher Wright

Though the stipend is much appreciated, the main benefit of the REU program is professional: these young scientists perform detailed research out in the field and within sophisticated laboratories, under the skilled mentorship of senior scientists and doctoral and master’s students. Along the way, they gain meaningful professional experience that will help them as they pursue further education and careers. At the Garden, for example, participants have access to the laboratories of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, equipped for research in ecology, soil science, genetics, reproductive biology, GIS, microscopy, population biology, geochemistry, isotopic analysis, and other areas of investigation. Some of the Garden’s REU participants use these labs while they serve as research mentors for teens attending Chicago Public Schools and participating in the Garden’s College First program.

PHOTO: Ben Girgenti

REU intern Ben Girgenti describes his project at the poster presentation.

“The REU internship program is a human infrastructure development initiative funded by the National Science Foundation. What better way to introduce students to doing scientific research than immersing them in it over the summer?” said senior scientist Patrick S. Herendeen, Ph.D., co-director of the Garden’s Division of Plant Science and Conservation and director of academic partnerships. “We select applicants with an interest in the science that we do here at the Garden. Many of them have not had an opportunity to participate in research, so the internship is a great opportunity for them, and for us too! When the interns return to their colleges and universities for their senior year, we keep in touch and provide guidance as they consider the next steps in their career path.”

On August 16, after a rigorous summer of scientific exploration, the REU graduates gathered at the Field Museum to lay it all out.

Kenneth Angielczyk, Ph.D., curator at the Field Museum, introduced the combined group of 17 presenters. “This symposium is the capstone experience of the REU program,” he said, noting that for many students, it was the first time they presented a talk in a scientific context.  Dr. Angielczyk warmly welcomed the Chicago Botanic Garden REU participants, who traditionally have made their presentations separately, at the Garden’s Glencoe campus. “I hope this is the beginning of an ongoing collaboration going forward,” he said.

PHOTO: Rosalba Herrera

REU intern Rosalba Herrera explains her research at the poster presentation.

One by one, the speakers stepped to the stage and described their work. The breadth of their research, and the significance of what these undergraduates concluded, was startling. (See the agenda, which lists their topics.) Through the focus of research varied widely, the subtext of climate change provided a sobering backdrop to many of the presentations.

After a couple of hours my focus began to waver, but only because my caffeine levels had dropped. Fortunately, Stephanie Ware, Field Museum research assistant and REU symposium coordinator, had arranged for coffee and pastries between sessions.

PHOTO: presenters and audience mill around posters and chat.

REU interns, families, and mentors take a coffee break and review poster presentations.

Soon I found myself perusing the poster presentations in the lobby, coffee in one hand and muffin in the other. (There may have been some healthy snack offerings, too, but if so I trotted by them too quickly to notice.) Nearby, REU participants, their families, and the scientists who mentored them mingled, and I overheard phrases like “mediated plasticity,” “fungal partners,” “phylogenic attributes,” and “bryozoan morphogenesis.” Then it was back into the auditorium for another round of presentations.

At the event’s conclusion, conservation scientist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., the Chicago Botanic Garden’s molecular ecologist and laboratory manager, and coordinator of the REU program at the Garden, thanked the participants. He encouraged the students to consider presenting their summer work at other meetings. “Mentors and audience members alike are impressed with the caliber of your presentations today, which are worthy for presentation at any national science meeting,” he said.

Meet the Chicago Botanic Garden’s 2013 REU interns.

The REU program begins accepting applications in January 2014 for next summer’s program. If you are an undergraduate student passionate about plant science and conservation, consider applying to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s REU program. The Field Museum’s program also offers unique collections-based research opportunities. Both enable students to get involved in what Dr. Angielczyk described as “the real scientific process” through meaningful mentorships. 


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org