Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Newton’s Lost Wetlands and Buried Brooks

Posted by Richard B. Primack


“As in many countries precious metals belong to the crown, so here natural objects of rare beauty should belong to the public.” -Thoreau in his Journal, 1861

Until about 120 years ago, Newton, MA, was filled with wet meadows, marshes, and swamps, connected by miles of brooks. Where did they go? In an article published June 7 in the Newton Tab, I explain how over the past two centuries, as Newton changed from farming to industry, and then to a Boston suburb, developers and town workers buried brooks in culverts or put them into channels. Wetlands were filled in and became the sites of playgrounds, schools, other public buildings, and residential neighborhoods. The forgotten brooks and wetlands of Newton are periodically remembered when basements, streets, and playgrounds become flooded after heavy rains. 


Modified 1892 drainage map showing the main brooks and associated wetlands, with the current position of some schools and village centers and the Newton Library. Map by Matt Rothendler.

Many New England towns are revisiting past decisions to bury and channelize brooks. Some towns are uncovering buried streams and removing the vertical walls of channels, allowing streams to re-integrate with wetlands. Restoring brooks to something closer to their original condition and adding natural vegetation could help clean the brook’s water, reduce flooding, provide natural water features, and improve the recreational value of playgrounds, parks, and neighborhoods. 


Cheesecake Brook appears wild and well-integrated with the surrounding forest along Fuller Street.

Returning brooks to their natural state is expensive in the short term, but in the long run the economic, environmental, and recreational benefits to the people and businesses of Newton might be worth it. After a long history of channelizing and burying brooks and filling in wetlands for development, Newton’s future could benefit from undoing some of its past. 

Cheesecake Brook is channelized and separated from natural habitat along Albemarle Road. 


Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Leaf Longevity at the Arnold Arboretum

Posted by Linnea Smith and Sarah Pardo

Hi! We are two new members of the Primack lab: Linnea Smith (yes, like Carolus Linnaeus), an undergraduate at Boston University who’s joined the Primack lab for the summer with funding from the BU UROP program; and Sarah Pardo, a rising senior at BU Academy.

Linnea and Professor Primack doing fieldwork at the Arnold Arboretum

We are investigating how many years evergreen plants at Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum retain their leaves, and why. Ecological theory suggests that a leaf stays on the branch, photosynthesizing, until it’s made a profit on the energy that went into making it. We want to determine if the amount of time a leaf remains on a plant is more influenced by the original environment in which the plants grow, or their evolutionary history.


Professor Primack and Sarah examining pine needles in the field

When tree branches begin growing in the spring, a scar is formed on each twig where bud growth had halted the previous winter. By counting the number of scars, we can determine the number of years of twig growth and leaf formation on a tree branch. For example, say a twig has leaves on seven scar-separated segments and no leaves on the eighth segment or beyond. This tells us that leaves stay on that twig for seven years. So far we have evaluated 173 species including conifers such as pines, firs, spruces and hemlocks and other evergreens like rhododendrons and hollies.


Showing seven years of growth on tiger tail spruce at Arnold Arboretum

We’ve both really enjoyed our work in the Primack lab so far and appreciate the warm welcome we’ve been given!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Old Plants, New Tricks: Phenological Research Using Herbarium Specimens

Posted by Amanda Gallinat

Herbarium specimens offer a unique opportunity to measure changes in plant phenology over broad time periods and geographic ranges. Many of the specimens currently housed in herbaria were collected in the 19th and 20th centuries, but in just the last decade there has been a huge increase in herbarium-based phenology research-- particularly addressing modern questions about how plants are responding to climate change.


Panchen et al., 2012 used herbarium specimens, combined with field notes and photographs, to show that 28 plant species in Pennsylvania are advancing their flowering over time.

Earlier this year, Richard Primack and I were co-authors on a review paper led by Charlie Willis entitled "Old Plants, New Tricks: Phenological Research Using Herbarium Specimens." The review, published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, provides a thorough assessment of how herbarium specimens have already been used in phenology research, with most studies focusing on flowering, in northern, temperate biomes. 


Willis et al. (2017) Figure 1, shows where previously published herbarium-based phenology studies have been located (studies are indicated with blue circles; the larger the circle, the more species sampled). The heat map shows the source of digitized specimens (available via the iDigBio portal), which included 1.8 million specimens as of February 2017! 

We also discuss the future of herbarium specimens, with a special focus on the widespread digitization efforts currently underway. Digitized specimens are already being used by researchers to access more specimens in more locations than they could visit in person, and to use citizen science efforts to identify phenological stages online. Lastly, we review the biases inherent in using herbarium specimens, from those that arise during collection, to digitization, to observation. 


CrowdCurio is a web-based platform for identifying phenological stages on digitized specimens. In this case, citizen scientists could identify buds, flowers, and fruits on a lowbush blueberry specimen.

For our part, we plan to continue using herbarium specimens--including digitized specimens--to improve our understanding of species-specific effects of climate change, in both spring and autumn!

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Primack Lab in the News

Posted by Richard B. Primack

Here are a few recent pieces relating to Thoreau, climate change, and the Primack lab.




On July 12, Richard Primack was interviewed on National Public Radio for the program Morning Edition by Bob Oakes about research in Concord.



On June 28, Primack was interviewed on National Public Radio for the series Climate Change in Massachusetts by Carey Goldberg about the new program at the Cemetery using citizen scientists to monitor tree phenology. 




A picture of Primack taken by Sam Walker was a featured on the New York Times Learning Network. 510 people submitted comments on what Richard Primack was doing in the picture shown above. Most people thought he was mourning his dead wife. In fact he is recording the flowering time of bluets. The picture is staged as Primack always wears a hat in the field, and he never lies down when doing fieldwork, in part due to concerns about ticks.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Thoreau as a Scientist

Posted by Richard Primack

“Science is always brave, for to know, is to know good; doubt and danger quail before her eye.”
-Thoreau, in Excursions

Walden Pond has still many things to teach us about science and beauty

In the article Thoreau As Naturalist: A Conversation With Four Authors from the July-August issue of American Scientist, Dianne Timblin interviews four authors, including myself (author of Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods), on the importance of Thoreau as a scientist and naturalist. The other authors are:

Richard Higgins, author of Thoreau and the Language of
 Trees

Geologist Robert M. Thorson, who recently wrote Thoreau, The Boatman

Laura Dassow
 Walls, author of the new book Henry 
David Thoreau: A Life

A key theme of the article is that Thoreau clearly wrote about the connections between science and larger social, political, and intellectual subjects. His views remain highly relevant to important issues facing modern society such as human health, sustainable development, environmental protection, and climate change.


Richard Primack and group of BU freshmen discuss the importance of Thoreau to climate change research

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Should you be using a professional editor?

Posted by Richard Primack

“Improve every opportunity to express yourself in writing as if it were your last.”
-Thoreau in his Journal, December 17, 1851

What are the secrets or best practices to achieving balance between work and family life? A recent news article in Nature, “Workplace habits: Full-time is full enough,” quotes several scientists describing their strategies. For many scientists achieving work-life balance means getting as much work done as possible in 40 hours per week, and devoting the rest of the time to family and personal life.

In the Nature article, I am quoted saying that I hire professional editors to help me work more efficiently in my position as a professor, textbook writer and editor. My comment inspired a post at the Dynamic Ecology blog, in which Meghan Duffy asks, “Have you ever used a professional editor for a proposal or manuscript?” In a follow-up article, I share my experiences in working with professional editors, and I summarize some key points here: Got a professional editor?


In this staged photo, Primack relaxes with the family dog, while a professional editor polishes a paper

I often hire professional editors on a freelance basis to help me write scientific papers, grant proposals, chapters of my conservation biology textbooks, professional correspondence, popular articles, press releases, and oral presentations. Hiring an editor often makes the difference between meeting or missing deadlines, or handing in sloppy work or well-written papers.

In my experience the best editors are advanced graduate students, post-docs, and early-career researchers working outside of tenure-track faculty positions. They are often excellent writers who want to make some extra money.

The amount of time needed by an editor depends on the document length, how much work the document needs, and the editor’s speed. Most recently, a professional editor spent 10 hours helping me on a grant proposal, 2 hours on an editorial for Biological Conservation, and 4 hours on a research article.

Working with editors can especially help scientists for whom writing is not a strength (including those for whom English is not their first language).

I think that working with a professional scientific editor can help many people in improving the chances of a grant being funded or a paper being accepted for publication.

Monday, June 12, 2017

My #DDIGstory

Posted by Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie

Recently the National Science Foundation announced that the Division of Environmental Biology will no longer accept Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG) proposals, citing “increasing workload” and “changes in priorities.” DDIGs are relatively small grants (up to $13,000 in direct costs when I applied in 2014) with outsized impacts on the graduate student community: just read through the swell of #DDIGstory tweets that followed NSF’s announcement. 

My dissertation research was shaped and improved by a DDIG. The process of writing a DDIG proposal — developing the story around my hypotheses and research methods, creating a budget, working with the Research and Outreach office at Boston University —was a transformative experience. Applying for a DDIG introduced me to the inner workings of NSF proposals, revealing the process of navigating overhead and fringe benefits and planning a multi-year project. Just submitting my DDIG application felt like a major accomplishment, on par with passing qualifying exams. When I celebrated that fall, I did not realize that another notable life milestone would intersect with my DDIG.


Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie in the field at Acadia National Park

My DDIG memories are intertwined with my experience as a new parent. At my March 2015 committee meeting I announced two items of good news: I’m pregnant and my DDIG is funded! The DDIG provided my own source of support for two field seasons in Acadia National Park and allowed me to hire two wonderful undergraduate field assistants that April. Mentoring these students and teaching field methods was an invaluable experience, and though I was healthy and hiking all the way through the field season/second trimester, it was reassuring to know that my assistants were ready to pick up the slack if I needed a break. With DDIG funds, I traveled to the Ecological Society of America Annual Meeting that August to present a research talk. I was 34 weeks pregnant and my DDIG-supported conference-adjacent, air-conditioned hotel room was a perfect home base. 

The DDIG provided a kind of force field for me against the misogynist baggage that invariably strikes a pregnant grad student; it deflected questions about my commitment to a career in science or my ability to complete my dissertation. On a practical level, I had financial independence to do the fieldwork and present my research. But it was also a symbolic win, a sign that I was a serious scientist, regardless of the elastic waistband in my maternity field pants. Later, as I struggled through the haze of diapers, pediatrician appointments, sitz baths, and 3 am feedings, I could look forward to the second half of my DDIG fieldwork. The concrete plans built around my DDIG smoothed my transition from maternity leave: I returned to the field and accelerated through my last year of grad school. 

My DIGG is directly responsible for two chapters of my dissertation, two manuscripts currently ready for submission, and an unshakable confidence in my research and my ability to balance work and life, science and parenthood. I don’t think there is another fellowship or grant opportunity for ecology graduate students with the gravitas, the opportunity to engage in the full process of grant-writing, or the prestige of a DDIG. My career and my life would certainly not be the same without it. Eliminating this program is a serious error that the NSF should reconsider.