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Effects of Drought, Heat, or Smoke Exposure on Tree Seedling and Mature Forest Climate Resilience

Summer 2024

Project Background

As the frequency and severity of both large fire and severe drought events becomes more common across the western US, it becomes imperative to understand whether the forest trees of this region will acclimate to the changing environment, or experience widespread mortality that will devastate the human and ecological communities of this region. Repeated severe drought stress events can lead to increased vulnerability to drought and higher mortality during subsequent droughts, due to accumulation of damages in the water-transporting tissues of the plant. However, this response does not appear to occur uniformly across species; different tree species seem to experience different responses to repeated droughts.

This project aims to understand the effects of prior stress events (drought, heat, smoke) on tree seedling and mature forest response to a subsequent drought event, using a combination of field research in Utah and a climate-controlled growth chamber or greenhouse on-campus to reduce confounding variables. Seedlings of two different tree species (quaking aspen and subalpine fir) will be exposed to an initial stressor (either drought, heat, smoke, or no stress), allowed to re-acclimate to pre-stress conditions, and then exposed to a drought event. The goal of this experiment is to unravel the physiological factors that govern how trees respond to multiple stresses in series, and how responses to multiple stresses may vary by species.

Student Role

As a summer undergraduate researcher in the Anderegg Lab, you would primarily be working with PhD students and postdocs to collect weekly measurements on two species of tree seedlings in the growth chamber and greenhouse before, during, and after drought, heat, and smoke treatments. You would be taught techniques widely used in the field of plant ecophysiology, including measurements of stomatal conductance, water potential, and leaf chlorophyll fluorescence. We do not expect you to have prior experience in these specific methods. In addition to these weekly measurements, you would also have the opportunity to learn additional methods in plant physiology, join multi-day field research trips in the mountains of Colorado and Utah, and work with a large, collaborative lab with undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral researchers of all interests and research background.

Student Learning Outcomes and Benefits

Working with us in the Anderegg Lab will give the student the chance to gain research experience in a large, supportive lab group. Whether or not they eventually choose to pursue an academic or other research-based career, the student will gain many skills working in our lab that are broadly applicable - experience reading and discussing a scientific paper, designing an experiment with feasibly testable hypotheses, planning and troubleshooting experiments, general experience working in a research lab environment, basic data analysis techniques, framing research questions, and presentation skills. The student will have the chance to work with other highly motivated undergraduate students as well as graduate student and postdoctoral researchers with widely varied research interests and study areas.

William Anderegg

Associate Professor
School of Biological Sciences

Our research focuses around a central question:

What is the future of Earth’s forests in a changing climate? Massive forest mortality events of many tree species in the last two decades prompt concerns that drought, insects, and wildfire may devastate forests in the coming decades. We study how drought and climate change affect forest ecosystems, including tree physiology, species interactions, carbon cycling, and biosphere-atmosphere feedbacks. This research spans a broad array of spatial scales from xylem cells to ecosystems and seeks to gain a better mechanistic understanding of how climate change will affect forests around the world.

Mentor Philosophy

We will meet regularly with the student to help them with their independent project design, learn new techniques, to help prepare them for SPUR meetings, and to answer any questions that they may have. In these meetings, we will guide the student and help them learn at their own pace in a supportive environment. We want the student to feel comfortable asking questions while learning new methods and concepts. In addition, students will be able to meet with members of the lab whenever needed or desired so they can participate in our lab’s collaborative environment and possibly work on other projects that may interest them. Near the end of the 10-week program, we will help the student with data analysis, poster creation and formatting, and presentation practice. If the student is eligible and choses to continue work into Fall 2022, we will provide assistance and support for submitting a follow-up (e.g. UROP) proposal.