When Lindsay Day ’12 came to Emerson to study Writing, Literature, and Publishing, she never imagined that her studies would take her to New England lakes and ponds to learn how climate change can affect trees. But this summer, she took part in the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program at the Harvard Forest, a Harvard University–affiliated research center in central Massachusetts, and helped uncover clues about the decline of a New England tree species that occurred more than 5,000 years ago.
Day worked alongside Emerson Assistant Professor Wyatt Oswald on the project. Oswald specializes in paleoecology: reconstructing past changes in climates and ecosystems by analyzing sediments that have accumulated in lakes and ponds. “In short, as you go deeper into the mud, you are going back in time,” Oswald said.
Their work focused on the response of the eastern hemlock to a change in climate 5,500 years ago. Previous research demonstrated that the hemlock population declined abruptly at that time and then was rare in New England for some 1,500 years. Studies by Oswald and his collaborators suggest that this decline was initiated and sustained by a series of major droughts.
Day and Oswald studied how the eastern hemlock responded to that period of dry climate by measuring pollen grains preserved in lake sediments from before, during, and after the population decline. Their aim was to see whether the trees had evolved in response to the climate change, with the idea that shifts in the size of the pollen grains could be indicative of an evolutionary change. Once they finish analyzing and interpreting their data, Oswald and Day plan to author an article for a scientific journal.
Day’s participation in the project spanned several aspects of the research, including fieldwork, collecting sediment cores from various sites on Martha’s Vineyard, and lab-based work, examining thousands of pollen grains with a microscope and an image-analysis system called Scion Image.
“The program opened up my eyes to different pathways after graduation,” said Day. She now hopes to pursue a career in research communications, a field that works to promote and share important scholarly studies and research.
Day is the third Emerson undergraduate who has taken part in this program. Previous Emerson students who have participated are Adriana Marroquin ’11 and Allison Gillette ’12.
The Research Experiences for Undergraduates program accepted just 30 students to do summer research from a pool of more than 500. The Harvard Forest is Harvard’s main research facility in the fields of forest ecology and preservation.