The research that I am currently working on has been an exciting, and sometimes frustrating, learning experience that has taught me more than I could have imagined about pursuing a career involving biological research. I think that the research project showed me all the benefits and rewards associated with research that is only experienced by overcoming the many complications and obstacles. I started this research project in August 2019 by traveling to the Monteverde region of Costa Rica with Dr. Eaton and several other peers. The experience allowed me to develop skills in field research, independent laboratory practice, and multivariate statistics.
This experience has shown me the wonderful opportunities associated with scientific research. The research experience gave me the opportunity to travel internationally and observe the local culture. Being able to travel internationally is a huge opportunity that I had never experienced before that allowed me to have a first hand experience to local culture. The opportunity also allowed me to interact with local farmers and researchers who discussed their concerns about the effect of deforestation on the native landscape. One of my favorite parts of the trip was walking through the Cloud Forest in Monteverde and seeing the native plants and animals. During that experience a portion of the trail was completely destroyed through industrial deforestation which left a somber feeling for the extensive and irreversible impact left by humans.
This experience has also taught me the motivation required to accomplish the goals of a research project. One of the skills I developed during this experience was problem-solving. In the field, much of the research conducted required long confusing conversations on hypothetical approaches to develop our experimental designs and procedures. It involved trying one approach and discovering various issues ranging from running out of paper towel to discovering holes in the experimental approach and having to restart. I also had to learn how to maintain focus and motivation as much of the statistical analysis was endless staring at numbers and running tests you’re not yet fully confident in discussing. Another challenge from the experience was the ongoing pandemic and lack of resources. The closure of schools prevented access to computers with the necessary programs to run the multivariate tests and limited contact with faculty and advisors. The main motivation to finish the research was knowing that this research will help to further research on climate change.
If there is anything that scientific research will teach you, it is patience. Many aspects of scientific research require multiple attempts, inconclusive results, missing data, or even human delays. In my current project I am experiencing all of these things. My research group is currently waiting for data to be sent to us from a team at Rutgers however, they keep delaying it every week. It is putting us far behind in the research we need to conduct and is forcing us to review older work until we receive this new data.
Currently we are able to use data from pervious years who have done similar studies. we are able to do this because much of the data is similar, it is just the specific habitats we are comparing that are different. However, I will have to harness even more patience because when we finally receive the current data, we have to perform the same statistical analysis in a very short amount of time.
For my research I am currently studying the effects of deforestation from the development logging roads. In particular, I have chosen to study the direct effects of different habitats (forest, logging road, and edge) on the microbial environment. Specifically I will be studying the bacterial and fungal lignin degraders which take complex carbon from plant roots and convert them into nitrogen. This has required a large amount of data analysis in excel and PrimerPermanova.
In excel I have analyzed the abundances and diversity of each of the fungal and bacterial groups across habitats and also the composition of the nutrients in the soil. I then performed a permanova test on the data to find any significant differences between the habitats. I have identified that there is a relationship between the success of the lignin degraders and the quality of the soil. Where there was less abundance and diversity in the bacterial and fungal populations as there was an increase in the percent composition of sand. Meaning as there was more sand there was less lignin degraders in the soil. This also means that there is a decrease in the available nitrogen within the soil which prevents the increase of biomass by the plants.
Now that there is a clear relationship between the soil composition and the lignin degraders, the next step will be to identify which specific genera of lignin degraders are the most influential between habitats.
Restoration efforts in Costa Rica have been conducted for the last 15 years. Much of the research has been focused on the components of above-ground vegetation and little on the effects of the soil’s microbial life and nitrogen cycle. The Genus Inga is known to be a major source of nitrogen fixation within the soil of Costa Rica. Nitrogen fixating is an important component to the carbon-nitrogen cycle. The carbon-nitrogen cycle is the model describing the use and recycling of the carbon and nitrogen by plants and invertebrates (bacteria/fungi) within the soil. Specifically, Inga are nitrogen fixating trees that convert ammonium into nitrate which is the most useable form of inorganic nitrate used to increase the recovering forests biomass. The goal of the research in Costa Rica will be to assess the success of restoration efforts by the Monteverde Institute in regards to the ammonium, nitrate, carbon biomass, organic carbon efficiency, and bacterial/fungal genera within the soils of plots planted 3-15 years ago. By the end of the research we hope to determine if the restoration efforts conducted by the Monteverde Institute are successful and to create a model for future restoration efforts.
In order to conduct this research a team of students led by Dr. Eaton traveled to the Monteverde Institute in Costa Rica to begin field research. Several different experiments were planted by the Monteverde Institute prior to our arrival, each involving their own set of treatments and variables. We initially established several plots for each treatment type and then took soil samples, involving 5 soil cores for each sample, from each of the established plots. We then extracted DNA from each of the samples to determine the genera of bacteria and fungi. The remaining soil from the samples was then sent to a lab for nutrient composition analysis. With the data collected from the field, we will now compare the genera composition with the soil composition and determine any correlations.
By the end of the research, I hope to gain experience in field research and laboratory work as I pursue a career in environmental sciences. I will also then continue to work with Dr. Eaton and my peers in hopes of writing a publication based on the research conducted in Costa Rica.