Luther biologist Beth Lynch receives second year funding for NSF research grant

July 16, 2009

Beth Lynch, Luther College associate professor of biology, has been awarded $109,000 for a second year of funding on a National Science Foundation grant to support a four-year collaborative research project titled "The effect of landscape context on the sensitivity of vegetation to climate change."

The collaborative project involves researchers from Luther, the University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin and provides paleoecology research opportunities for Luther students.

Lynch, who holds the doctoral degree in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior from the University of Minnesota, said the objective of the project is to understand how landscape context, such as soil quality and presence of natural fire breaks like lakes and wetlands, affect the sensitivity of vegetation to climate change.

Lynch said she began thinking about the need to better understand the role of fire in the oak and pine barrens of the Northwestern Wisconsin Sand Plain while working as the botanist for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission in the 1990s.

The sand plain ecosystems are maintained by frequent fires, and 20th century fire suppression in northwestern Wisconsin resulted in major vegetation changes, open savannas and barrens turned into close forests and pine trees replaced by oak trees. This resulted in the loss of native habitats that threatened the existence of many species dependent on open landscapes.

After developing questions and preliminary research on her own for a couple of years, Lynch began collaborating on the project with two other colleagues, both of whom did graduate and study in the same lab as Lynch at the University of Minnesota.

"We realized that we had the perfect set of skills to tackle this project, and that by collaborating we could do work on a spatial scale that had never been attempted in our research area of paleoecology," said Lynch. "It took three proposal submission attempts before we got our first big grant, but that is typical, especially for 'new' people whose work is potentially risky."

Lynch developed and submitted the research proposal along with proposals from the collaborating universities, and the total grant awarded to the three institutions is approximately $245,000 over four years.

Having already published several papers and made numerous presentations at professional meetings on the project, Lynch's work on this project spans a decade.

In this phase of the project, Lynch and her colleagues are using paleoecological methods to reconstruct vegetation and fire history over the past centuries at 10 sites in northwestern Wisconsin.

In February and March 2009, Lynch and her team collected long sediment cores from three lakes that should contain continuous sediment records for the past 13,000 years. In the lab, researchers collected small samples from the cores and looked at pollen grains to reconstruct vegetation history and at charcoal to reconstruct forest fire history.

Because the sites differed in soils and exposure to forest fires, the core samples allowed researchers to test hypotheses about the role of landscape context in affecting how climatic changes over the past 8,000 years have affected vegetation at local scales. The research is designed to answer questions about what makes the vegetation of some sites more or less vulnerable to rapid change, or why some places are more stable than others.

"The results of this work are of interest to conservation biologists as they assess the vulnerability of different habitats to future climatic changes," said Lynch. "It will tell us which sites may respond more easily to prescribed fire and other restoration efforts, and also which sites may be expected to change more under rapidly warming climatic conditions in the near future."

Students at Luther have assisted Lynch on this project since she came to Luther in 2001, reaching a total of 15 students. Lynch advocates for student involvement in research projects as a space outside the classroom for education.

"I think collaborative research is a terrific learning experience for students because they can be part of something that involves scientists beyond Luther," said Lynch. "Most research in science is very collaborative, and it shows students what it is like to be engaged in research in a professional manner."

Under the current NSF grant, Luther students were involved in a directed readings course during the spring 2009 semester in which four students used this project as a case study for learning about the questions paleoecologists ask and the methods used to answer those questions.

Additionally, Luther junior Jennie McEllistrem and sophomore Chris Nevala-Plagemann worked on the charcoal analysis from two different lakes throughout the past academic year. Both plan to continue working on the project during the 2009-10 academic year.

"Research provides opportunities for students to take on major responsibility for the work they do," said Lynch. "I enjoy having an active lab here at Luther because the learning that happens here can not happen in traditional classes."

This year's funding will pay for expenses related to the research, primarily radiocarbon dating and lab supplies.