Not a Cookie Cutter Lab: UF Students Take on Trees
This is the second in a series of stories delving into the various research that College of Science faculty members at the University of Findlay are working on. In an effort to show readers, in part, what UF offers its students in the areas of science, these stories will reveal the diverse methods, processes and topics that faculty shares with students.
Ben Dolan, Ph.D., University of Findlay Associate professor of biology and Director of natural areas and plant collections, did not grow up wanting to be a professor of biology. In fact, due to an instructor he didn’t particularly care for, he hated biology in high school, subsequently attending college to study French/international business. When he got to college, however, he did well in his initial French class, but didn’t care for the professor in it. He took classes from other professors, though, and studied abroad, while also excelling in biology. After doing a seminar on the fires in Yellowstone, he found himself interested in disturbance ecology, and his enthusiasm about the area took off, eventually leading to undergraduate degrees in both biology and French.
Now, Dolan is hoping to instill in his students that same love of the great outdoors and the plant life it has to offer. Through the research they help to conduct, and what he calls the “novel lab experiences” that his classes are fortunate to partake in, he is opening students’ eyes to the natural world surrounding them.
Dolan, whose main area of research is plant community ecology, or the study of how disturbances affect the distribution and abundance of plants and trees, said he normally teaches ecology, conservation biology and geographic information systems at UF. The University and Dolan are lucky to have the Rieck Center for Habitat Studies, which includes 54 acres of natural areas, including forests, prairies and wetlands, among other offerings for study.
On a warm day in September, Dolan and his class made their way through the forest at the Center, identifying trees and studying the landscape. Dolan, walking stick in hand, led the class off of the designated trails and quizzed them on the multitude of trees they were seeing. From sugar maples to red oaks, the students wrote down the attributes they noticed–rough or smooth bark; pointed or flat leaves; how the trees rose from the ground and the direction in which they grew–and, after a bit of time, were asked what they thought they were seeing. This type of experiential research and learning allows for students to literally use their senses to see how plant life is being affected by its surroundings and any disturbances that might occur and prevent it from prospering.
Coincidentally, Dolan arrived at the University at around the same time a major disturbance was just beginning to make its presence felt in the area–the beetle known as the emerald ash borer. The insect decimated the area’s ash trees nearly entirely. Dolan said that he started sampling ash trees right away at that time, and that his research, helped along by his students’ findings on their class treks through the forest, didn’t turn out as he expected. “I thought that the trees would die and subsequently let in light that might influence the distribution of species,” he explained. “I published a research paper last December, though, that showed there was really no change. But that’s why we do the research.”
The Rieck Center is a great place for research during the warm months in northwest Ohio, but what to do in the winter? It’s not realistic to expect to go out into the forest with an ecology class when either the temperature is below zero, there is a significant amount of snow on the ground or there are only a scant few leaves on the trees to identify.
“Pawpaw trees,” said Dolan. “This is where the Pawpaw research started to happen.”
The Pawpaw is a small, understory tree, indigenous to the area, that produces a fairly large, fragrant fruit. “I had to come up with a lab sort of at the last minute,” Dolan said. “We’d go collect parts of plants and make some teas where we soak the parts in water with seeds to grow along with it. The Pawpaw seeds were unique in that their growth was inhibited, so it created a new opportunity for study. It was definitely different and interesting and led to independent studies with undergrads following up. In fact, it’s still ongoing.”
These unique studying environments and approaches are a way to keep the students interested while still learning, and it helps students greatly to prepare for real-world experience. “With many of the resulting projects, they work in a group,” Dolan explained. “They divide up the labor, but they work collaboratively. They write a manuscript, present the research as a poster, and kind of go through the process of doing an experiment in half a semester. It’s really hard, but they generally enjoy the results and working together is important going forward.”
These “novel lab experiences,” this experiential learning and research, is at the crux of the science program at UF. “Keeping it ongoing. Keeping it interesting,” Dolan said. “That’s what we’re looking for. That’s how real learning happens.”