As a recipient of the Chancellors Undergraduate Research Fellowship, I was able to embark on a journey that taught me so much about the research process, under the supervision of my mentor, Dr. Emily Elliott. This opportunity has been incredible, as I have had the chance to work with many of my professors, researchers, and curators of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s herbarium collection.
Conducting research can be difficult and intimidating, but also incredibly rewarding and educational. My understanding of the research process developed over the course of the semester as I moved forward with my research and analyses. When I started the process, I was unsure of what to expect. After developing my research questions and beginning my research, I realized that over time, my original research questions began to change and evolve. After discussing my project with Dr. Elliott, Dr. Daniel Bain, Dr. Josef Werne, and Dr. Mason Heberling, I decided to focus my research on studying how air pollution levels in Allegheny County and the surrounding areas affected the chemistry of carbon and nitrogen found in woody and non-woody plant specimen preserved and stored in the herbarium at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. After sub-sampling herbarium specimen of both woody (Red Maple, Acer rubrum) and non-woody (Ground Ivy, Glechoma hederaceae L.) plants found in urban and rural areas during two different time periods, I was taught how to prepare the samples for analysis. During this process, I learned a lot about how isotopic analysis works, which is something I was not familiar with before starting my work in the lab. I then worked with Dr. Elliott Arnold to complete the process of running my samples for isotopic analysis. This was a very fascinating process, as there is a lot more that goes into it than I realized. After the run was complete, seeing the results was so exciting. All of the samples ran well, and it felt great knowing that I would be able to start my analyses after a semester of hard work.
After I had received my data, I was able to compare the concentration of carbon in each of the samples to begin to answer my research questions. The nitrogen concentrations for some of my samples were not high enough to get an accurate measurement, so my analysis focused on carbon concentrations. I found that carbon levels in red maple leaves generally increased over time in Allegheny county, but remained rather stable in Westmoreland county. I believe that this may be because Allegheny county experienced higher levels of air pollution during the industrial revolution, which is why there was an increase in the carbon content in the leaf tissue. The carbon content in ground ivy increased over time in both Allegheny county and Westmoreland county, but the increase was significantly higher in samples from Allegheny county. Again, I believe that this is a result of high air pollution levels in Allegheny county due to industry in the area. I will be continuing my analyses during the next few weeks, and hope that others will take on similar research projects in the future, as I feel that this research has a lot of potential.
I feel that the most valuable thing about this experience was gaining hands on involvement with the research process. I learned so much throughout the semester and had the chance to work with many of my professors to complete research of my own. Having this opportunity has made me consider taking on other research projects in the future, which is something that I previously had not given much thought to. After graduation, I hope that I will be able to get involved with other research projects in the field of environmental science. This fellowship has provided me with knowledge and experiences that I believe will make this a possibility.