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Of birds, bugs, and biofuels
Follow the music.
That’s the mantra of applied ecology senior Chad Fortin and other researchers these days as they track birds, bugs, and butterflies in fields of native prairie grasses in southwestern Wisconsin.
Male songbirds chirp and warble to stake out territory. Researchers follow the serenade to locate and monitor their nests. They also collect ground insects, sweep the grasses with nets to gather grasshoppers and butterflies, and clip and collect grasses.
It’s all part of a pioneering effort to assess whether grasses can be a sustainable source for biofuels while still maintaining the productivity and diversity of the ecosystem, including birds and other animal communities, which they document in their forays.
The work is supported by the National Science Foundation through 2010 and is part of a larger campuswide initiative regarding biofuels.
Typically, the search for biofuels has centered on traditional agricultural crops, such as corn and soybeans. But any vegetation can yield ethanol, and using woody biomass and grasses is an emerging technology that holds a great deal of promise because they don’t have to be planted or fertilized.
Fortin and other students and faculty worked in twelve forty-acre fields that were planted with native prairie grasses with varying diversity—from one to many species.
On each forty, researchers randomly mapped out thirty plots. In one-half of the plots, they clip grasses in the fall, weigh them for biomass, and determine their productivity. In the other half, they capture ground insects—"arthropods" like centipedes, millipedes, beetles, and pill bugs.
When they survey the whole field for birds, they walk through the grass—some of it eight-feet-tall switch grass—flush the birds, pinpoint their nests on a map, put down a flagging pin with ribbons, and note the location of each using a global positioning system. They visit each nest to determine whether birds remain on the nest; check on the condition of the eggs, when they hatch, and when the offspring fledges; and monitor the survival rate.
It is one of Fortin’s jobs to collect the ground insects and measure their abundance and diversity. He has buried sixteen-ounce plastic cups so that the lip is at ground level—in essence "a pitfall." Over the summer, he collected more than 26,000 bugs and returned to campus to count them and sort them.
Fortin, who is a hunter, fisherman, and trapper, started out to be a conservation officer. Then he got "wrapped up" in the science of the outdoors and switched majors. Next, he’ll begin his master’s and continue the inquiry, which he says can be tough duty. "You can’t escape the sun," he complains of the Wisconsin summer heat. On the other hand, "There are no biting flies down there." Overall, he "likes to be out there finding out new things."
Faculty advisors for the project are Assistant Professor Chris Webster and Associate Professor David Flaspohler, both of the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. Webster says the touchstone for this project is an effort to "enhance both human and ecological welfare."
From the Miniature to the Mammoth
This small-scale inquiry is the exact opposite of studying extreme storm systems like hurricanes; but understanding the miniscule, Fugal says, might someday explain the enormous.
A salient feature of Michigan Tech research, he says, is that students, including undergraduates, have the opportunity to “do high-profile research projects that make an impact in this field.”
Stephanie Irish is one of these, and she’s also a Goldwater Scholar, one of only 300 in the nation awarded annually.
A senior in physics, Irish, like Fugal, is immersed in cloud physics, as well as cloud chemistry.
Specifically, she is investigating how some of the chemicals that we put into the atmosphere affect clouds—“whether they make more clouds or less clouds, more rain or less rain.”
In her lab, she puts organic compounds on water droplets, adds the ozone that they would be exposed to in the upper atmosphere, and determines the freezing temperature of the droplets.
If ice crystals form sooner, that is, at warmer temperatures, you’re going to get more clouds, and it will rain sooner than it normally would. “That,” Irish says, “affects everything from temperature to flooding.”
She has tested four chemicals so far. All of them are products that are belched into the atmosphere when burning biomass, especially rainforests. She has proven that one of her first four chemicals, oleyl alcohol, is “one of the culprits.” Put on a water droplet and exposed to ozone, it raises the freezing temperature of the water from -21 degrees Celsius to -16 degrees Celsius.
Gauging the effect of that change is the role of climate modelers, who, Irish says, are always trying to simplify their computer models; pinpointing fewer, but more exact, factors would make climate modeling more accurate. Better data, she says, would “shrink the wide spread of predictions about our climate.”
Irish’s solo endeavor is instructive about Michigan Tech’s undergraduate research opportunities. She started working on her project after her sophomore year, and it was a challenge from the start.
“You’re not babied here when you get into a lab,” she says. “They just throw you in the deep end right away.”
Her advisor, Associate Professor Will Cantrell, gave her a broad outline for her project. “It was basically up to me to get this thing rolling.” She had four machines: two airflow controllers, one humidity sensor, and one temperature controller.
She had to design, write, and run a program to get all four of them to talk to each other and the computer that would analyze the data. It took six weeks just to get the equipment working. She started testing compounds in fall 2006.
She likes her work. Nanotechnology is “too small”; cosmology too big. “I need something more concrete. If you get too small or big, it’s hard to understand.”
She has managed the challenge so well that she presented her research at the 2006 conference of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Once again she had to fend for herself. “Basically, I was on my own, and there were professors from other schools coming up, asking me questions, and I had to be on my game.”
She will continue her work—and her presentations at conferences.
“I’m not a very adventurous person,” she says. “But I like the way Tech pushes research."