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The unseen, but not unimportant, side of ecological research

Flushing my soil incubation vials at the end of a long day of measurements.
Flushing my soil incubation vials at the end of a long day of measurements.

Where is the beautiful landscape or study organism, you ask?! It’s right there in that cooler. Or, well, the analog of the beautiful landscape (in this case a Texas grassland) and my study organism (in this case the soil microbes living at that grassland) are in there. But yes, I will admit that this isn’t the most breathtaking EcoPic ever. It’s a reminder that us ecologists are often found in the lab, after hours, toiling away to get answers to our burning questions. Quite often, we see patterns in the field, and in order to work out the mechanisms behind what we see (or what we predict based on those patterns), we need to take our “field site” into the lab. The lab allows us to design a highly controlled environment where we can test effects of factors like temperature or moisture without the confounding factors we would find outside.

I study the effect of temperature on soil organic matter stabilization. I want to understand whether warming or cooling will affect how much soil organic matter stays in the soil, and how much is respired by soil microbes. That respiration creates greenhouse gases – mostly CO2 – that contribute to climate change. My question is very hard to test in the field (beileve me, I have done it). Things like vegetation, soil type, and soil moisture all influence respiration, and if we manipulate temeprature in the field, those tend to change, too. When that happens, we can’t tell whether the effect we’re seeing is because of temperature, or because of those other factors. So, here I am. At midnight on a Friday night (did I mention that the hours tend to be terrible?). Staring at a cooler full of little vials that are priceless to me. We do some pretty funny things in the name of science.



Jocelyn Lavallee is a PhD student studying the controls on soil organic matter stabilization in Dr. Rich Conant‘s laboratory at NREL. She loves the lab, but is only sane because of free podcasts. She also took the picture in this post.