After surviving my flights from Philadelphia that were filled with bear hunters and spirited battles for the armrest the size of a chopstick, I’ve arrived for my fourth summer in Alberta. Many of my friends don’t understand what it is about this place that draws me away from the city in the summertime. I do, admittedly, miss out on some things by being absent. (I’ve reached the age that people I know are seriously adults, so I’m missing five (5!) weddings this summer.) Aside from getting me out of buying someone a meat tenderizer (Card: May your love remain as tender as this spiked hammer will make your steak), I love it for many reasons—the smell of spruce trees, the glimpses of wildlife through a truck window, the river that rolls through town on the journey from its glacial origin in the Rockies—that and so much more. I get to do work that brings me outdoors every day, and makes me feel as though I’m doing something I truly care about that has a positive impact on the world as a whole. The other thing that keeps me coming back year after year is the experience of living in community with other people who are passionately working alongside me. I started as an undergraduate assistant and then began my own research as a graduate student last summer.
My project focuses on nitrogen mineralization, or the conversion of organic nitrogen found in decaying organic material into the chemical form preferred by plants and microbes. Spoiler alert: not very much of it happens in our bogs, partially because the organic nitrogen in dead things decays very slowly. The other reason is that thus far we’ve measured net rates: that is, what’s left over when you don’t include nitrogen-hungry microbes’ intake. This summer, I ‘m going to start experimenting with gross rates, which will tell us how much mineralization happens total. Obtaining those numbers might help illuminate plant-microbe competition in the bog and avoid confounding different processes together.
This job also gives me an excuse to take photos of some of nature’s weirder plants, lichens, and fungi. Here’s a couple from my collection.