SPUR 2019: Using plant physiology to predict the future of western US forests in a changing climate


Trees play an important role in how ecosystems function and are particularly critical in the regulation of the hydrological cycle. Climate change is projected to cause more frequent and severe droughts therefore tree response to drought is critical to understand global carbon and water fluxes under future conditions.

This research project aims to improve our understanding of how western US forests will respond to changes in water availability (i.e. drought) driven by climate change. Current research suggests there will likely be a mismatch between the rate of climate change and the ability of certain forest tree species to acclimate, either in-place or by migration. A potential management option for these tree species is assisted migration, which involves selecting and planting the trees expected to grow best under climate change.

We plan a suite of field and lab measurements to assess drought tolerance in multiple major western US tree species. We will conduct a common garden study with aspen trees from natural populations across the across the Intermountain West US (i.e. Utah, Colorado) to address this research topic. We will conduct fieldwork in multiple forest stands to assess in-situ drought-resistance. This research project will consist of both field and laboratory components to conduct plot surveys, collect meteorological data, measure various morphological and physiological traits, and analyze tree cores.

Student Role

At any given time, the student role in this study will be highly variable and time will be spent across a wide range of tasks. Participation with this project will mostly entail assisting a graduate student with both fieldwork and laboratory work as detailed below. However, the student will be expected to select and investigate an independent research project using the data collected for this project. Fieldwork for this project will consist of traveling to/from the University of Utah campus to pre-selected aspen forests across Utah and Colorado. In the field, the student will help establish plot boundaries, conduct plot surveys, collect aspen root cuttings, plant aspen saplings into the common garden, collect tree cores and other samples for laboratory analyses, and assist with other in situ morphological and physiological trait measurements. The fieldwork will involve camping, so the student should be prepared to spend 1-2 weeks during peak field season (May and June) away from campus, which will not interfere with the SPUR required bi-weekly update meetings. Laboratory work for this project will consist of measuring certain morphological and physiological traits in the laboratory, managing/entering/analyzing datasets, and analysis of collected tree core samples. Laboratory work will also consist of spending time in the University of Utah greenhouse facility to help propagate the aspen root cuttings. In general, the student will also be expected to participate in bi-weekly lab meetings throughout the summer and to attend all SPUR-required activities. The student will be expected to work 35-40 hours per week.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

Participation in this research project will provide an excellent opportunity for any student interested in pursuing a research career, but especially for students interested in plant ecology research. The student will become familiar with common plant ecology and physiology methods and techniques, using state-of-the-art technology for certain methods. The student will also become familiar with common plant ecology fieldwork practices, including use of a compass, GPS unit and other field-based measurements. Exposure to this research will afford a familiarity with forest types across the Intermountain West and climate change-related problems affecting these forests. In addition, the student will also gain critical skills in science communication. The student will learn how to effectively collaborate with others, and to communicate their research through bi-weekly lab meetings, the SPUR bi-weekly update meetings, presentation of research at the Summer Symposium, and publication through the Undergraduate Research Journal. The student will also be gain important skills as an independent researcher. The student will be able to develop an independent research question and answer that question by collecting and analyzing their own data. By the end of the summer, the student should feel like a more confident scientific researcher and will have gained critical methods, analytical and communication skills that will be crucial for any future career.

William Anderegg
Assistant Professor

School of Biological Sciences
College of Science

As a mentor, I intend to assist the student throughout the course of the summer with project development. My graduate students and I will help the student develop an independent research question, collect necessary data for the project, and properly analyze the collected data. We will also have bi-weekly meetings during the summer to help the student with project development and to prepare for the bi-weekly SPUR update meetings. The student will also be able to establish regular one-on-one meetings with both the adviser and the graduate student on a more flexible, needs-based schedule for support and project development throughout the summer. Work in the lab is collaborative, so the student will also be able to get involved with other members of the lab group for advice and project help. At the end of the summer, we will provide resources and assistance for poster development and poster presentation, allowing for numerous practice presentations to provide appropriate feedback to the student. If the student is eligible and choses to continue work into Fall 2019, we will provide assistance and support for submitting a UROP proposal.