This past fall I worked as a research associate for the Sork Lab of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.  The research of the lab centers around the evolutionary histories of oak species and their adaptive potential in the face of climate change. As research associate, I assisted with a variety of projects and was exposed to the breadth of research conducted in the lab.  Additionally, and most excitingly, I assisted in a number of field trips-which allowed me to experience California through the lens of ecology.

There are twenty oak species native to California.  Although they vary greatly in their morphology and environmental range, oak species play a key role in maintaining ecosystem health and function.  Oaks grow as trees and shrubs; they grow in valley bottoms and high altitude deserts. They are found as far south as Mexico and as far north as British Columbia.  The acorns of oaks are an important food source for a variety of animals—woodpeckers, squirrels, mice, and deer among others.  Traditionally, native peoples have harvested the tree to make acorn meal (a dietary staple), collected firewood, and used various parts for decorative purposes.  Throughout the few months I worked in this environment, I gained insight as to the function of the tree in all of these realms.

One of my key duties in the lab was to create and organize the “Sork Lab Oak Herbarium.” Over the years, various researchers working in the lab collected a number of specimens from their research sites and field visits.  The herbarium is a resource to represent the variety of species and morphologies throughout California.  It is a reference for identification, preserving the physical and genetic attributes of collections.  Creating the herbarium was very similar to a large arts and crafts project.  Specimen were pressed and dried.  Representative types were then mounted and labeled.  It was essential (and a great difficulty!) to have a source of reliable data associated with the specimen (correct species identification, collector information, date collected, location, etc.).  Chosen specimen were tastefully arranged on large sheets of herbarium paper, carefully glued, taped, and sewed down.  Additional envelopes of loose materials were attached along with the label created.  In going through the hundreds of specimen collected over the years (some dating back to 1996), I gained familiarity with the diversity of species, the variation of morphologies, and the different field sites visited. Later, when I would go out to the field, it was neat to mentally place the lab specimen into the context of the environment from which they came.

The field component of my experience included: a) visiting two common garden sites in Northern California and b) collecting Valley Oak acorns throughout the state to be used in future common garden experiments.

The two established common gardens are located at the Placerville Institute of Forest Genetics and the Chico Seed Orchard.  Both of the sites are in Northern California but are located at different elevations and have different climatic patterns.  The gardens are composed of thousands of young Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) seedlings.  The seedlings are sourced from throughout the extent of the species’ range.  The common garden was designed to determine to what extent genetics, epigenetics, and environmental factors affect the growth of the individual trees.  The study began when the acorns were planted in the greenhouse ten years ago and will continue in the coming decades as the trees continue to grow.  This year’s census was limited to noting whether the trees were alive or dead, the maximum height achieved, and any notes of interest.  While this seems fairly simple, when one is measuring 7000 trees in two days, the work can be quite intense!  As the trees continue to grow, more questions surrounding genetic and environmental influence and expression of traits can be asked.

The rest of the fieldwork entailed collecting Valley Oak acorns for future common garden experiments.  More often than not, this meant driving around California to previously visited sites and driving along until we found trees with a sufficient number of acorns.  In some sites this proved to be much more difficult than others!  At some sites, we struggled to find a single tree bearing acorns; while at others, acorns rained down when one shook the tree branches.  Due to the wide range the Valley Oak, I was fortunate enough to spend time in both the lush forests of coastal northern California and the arid hills and valley bottoms of the southern interior—very beautiful and very different landscapes!  I joke that I got paid to be a squirrel!

Our acorn collection culminated in a massive planting party during my last week.  We sanitized, weighed, labeled, potted, and watered over 2400 acorns over the course of three days.  The acorns planted represent fourteen different sites throughout California.  The young seedlings have the potential to form the basis of future long-term experiments and educational opportunities.

As I write this, I realize how much of my experience in the Sork Lab fails to be adequately captured in a thousand words.  The months flew by and brought new and exciting learning opportunities.  As I reflect, I find myself thinking about the beauty of the biology, the scientific process, and the interconnectedness of all life.  There are connections between all parts of the ecosystem- plants, animals, soils, microbial life, etc. Furthermore, the study if these connections creates a diverse network of people with a common interest. I worked with researchers in various stages of academia, with different universities, with the U.S. Forest Service, with the native Chumash people, and with passionate citizen biologists.  Working alongside so many knowledgeable and passionate people was inspiring and stimulating.  It reminded me of why I was initially drawn to the natural sciences.

About the author :

Erin Fitz grew up in the sunny city of Los Angeles and moved up to Vancouver to complete her degree at the University of British Columbia in Natural Resources Conservation. While her interests are many, they all tend to circle back around plants and the natural world. She is particularly interested in the interactions between humans and the surrounding environment. Erin enjoys hiking and climbing through the unique places of this world and drawing and writing as she attempts to understand them. Through exploration, Erin hopes to find the role she can play as a part of this beautiful planet.