Trees, Forests, Landscapes, and My Pursuit of a PhD

Shore Pine. Patrick’s Point State Park, California. 2010.

By Sarah Bisbing

Each year as spring transitions into summer, there are certain feelings aroused in a field ecologist – those of anticipation, excitement, and fear. Anticipation for the answers we’re seeking, excitement for the many adventures that will surely arise over the course of the field season (grizzly bear charge, anyone?), and fear that we are nowhere near ready to head out and that we have absolutely no clue what we’re doing. Yet, these are the things that keep us coming back – year after year, field season after field season. Until . . . one day, we find ourselves camped not underneath the blanket of a forest canopy but instead behind the brightly lit screen of a computer. Yes, my friends, at some point the data must be dealt with.

That’s where I’m at in this whole, crazy process. And despite the lack of both fresh, mountain air and impending adventure, I come back day after day, still feeling the anticipation for answers and the fear that I have no idea what I’m doing. My own acceptance of this new role begs the question: if a field ecologist is no longer venturing out to the field each summer, does she still remain a field ecologist? Hmmm. Let’s ponder that.

As once stated by my Master’s advisor (Dr. Paul Alaback), the act and art of science is driven by the questions but ultimately lies in the interpretation of the data. Although we are so engrossed in the many hours, many tasks, and many challenges associated with collection of this data, the understanding and advancement of scientific knowledge actually takes place in a completely different arena. The magic happens during the process of interpretation and application.

What good is all of this data if it doesn’t provide profound ecological insight (oh, don’t we all wish) or inform management and conservation?

But, it’s so easy to get caught up in the questions and the act of data collection. I can’t help but find forests and their associated processes incredibly interesting – so much so that I am continually coming up with new questions before answering the questions I’m already in the process of addressing (any of you also fascinated and maybe a little obsessed with the trajectory of the 2012 wildfire season?). Geez, Sarah.

This leads me to where I stand in my research career: a nearly 4th year PhD candidate with four chapters worth of questions and data begging to be assessed, analyzed, and written up. Questions and data related to the how, where, and why behind species distributions. Questions and data related to the connectivity among and relatedness of populations across one of western North America’s most widespread species. Questions and data related to adaptation, plasticity, and species’ response to climatic change.

How did I get here?

This madness began on a routine field day in the summer of 2009. I ventured to southeast Alaska to pursue research questions addressing the distribution of tree species across a gradient of site types (wetlands versus dry uplands, for example). On my first day as a PhD student, I stood amidst the grandeur of southeast Alaska’s dramatic transition from ocean to rugged mountain peaks, amidst its (surprisingly) humbling wetland-dominated landscape, and amidst the spectacular forest trees produced by this region’s climate. It was awesome (a word I no longer over-use or take for granted after being reminded by my PhD advisor, Dr. David Cooper, of its actual meaning).

Shore pine. Juneau, Alaska. 2009.

And yet, despite the splendor surrounding me, I was most captivated by the twisted, stunted, pygmy pines scattered across the peatlands of the region. On that day, I was introduced to shore pine (Pinus contorta ssp. contorta). I stood in awe of this unique, yet somehow familiar, tree. I stood, I stared, and I pondered. I’m an ecologist . . . that’s what we do.

Lodgepole pine. Banff National Park, Alberta. 2011.

Unbeknownst to me until that day, these crazy, pygmy, bog dwellers were (and still are, of course) classified as the same species I had always known to inhabit the dry, fire-prone slopes of the Rocky Mountains (lodgepole pine, ssp. latifolia). I mean, come on. Really? How can a tree that grows in dense, dog-haired stands and regenerates following catastrophic wildfire be related to a bog-dwelling, dwarf tree? But, despite my initial disbelief, turns out they are in fact classified as the same species. Furthermore, this species has two other related subspecies that grow under entirely different conditions in completely different regions of western North America (Sierra lodgepole pine, ssp. murrayana, and bolander pine, ssp. bolanderi). Each subspecies actually inhabits a discrete portion of the species’ range, growing under (and hypothesized to be locally adapted to) a unique set of environmental and climatic conditions.

Sierra lodgepole pine. Inyo National Forest, California. 2010.

By the end of that field day, I decided that I just had to know more about the distribution, connectivity, and relatedness of these visibly-different subspecies. And, thus, this is where and how my many research questions were born. I just couldn’t help myself. The distribution of species and the drivers of these distributions are ecological phenomena that keep me up at night (I’m not kidding). The species and the systems change, but the wondering is pervasive.

Bolander pine. Mendocino, California. 2010.

So, it was only fitting that my chance encounter with shore pine would lead me down a path of questioning the connectivity, plasticity, and adaptive potential of this widespread species. Now, if only I could spend all of my time wandering around western North America, pondering the ecology of it all. For the time being, though, my computer and I will be spending a lot of time together.

** Stay tuned for posts on the Science behind it all.