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Emilia and her field tech, Elliot, in the field sampling black spruce forest fuel loads at Bonanza Creek LTER in Alaska.

This spotlight is part of an ongoing series featuring many of our wonderful LTER Network graduate student representatives who contribute valuable research and leadership across the network. To learn more about graduate research in the LTER network, visit this page.

Emilia Grzesik is a second year Master’s student at the University of Fairbanks, Alaska (near completion) and is the graduate student representative for the Bonanza Creek LTER. 

Sidney Gerst, a science communications fellow with the LTER Network Office, interviewed Emilia about her research and her experience in the LTER network.


SG: First things first: can you tell me about your research focus and why it interests you?

EG: I study plant communities in black spruce dominated forest in interior Alaska, and I am interested in how these plant communities vary in regard to fire. Here in Alaska we have an intensifying fire regime due to climate change. In particular, my work focuses on investigating and characterizing organic fuel loads and how they influence fire when it does occur. Fuel loads in general are just organic biomass, which includes tree canopy to understory, live and dead plants, as well as what you can’t see below ground. Within black spruce forests, there are typically very thick below-ground organic layers that tend to burn. When you have more severe fires come through black spruce forests, it will burn away the soil organic layer almost completely. This will shift the resulting forest type after the fire instead of recovering to black spruce, which has huge ecological implications and may impact the services that local communities receive from these ecosystems. 

The excitement comes from not only knowing this is happening, but seeing it happen. I think that I didn’t expect to become so passionate before I started this project, but once I started it I was very interested in black spruce dominated plant communities themselves and the processes within the fire regime that affect them, but also intrigued by what this means for us as a whole. There are many levels to my passion and research. 

SG: What do you like about working at an LTER site?

EG: I like the fact that there are so many resources, despite being remote and feeling so far away from the rest of the country or the rest of the world, we actually have a lot of resources up here in Alaska. Because of our remoteness, our communities kind of grow tighter and we support each other more. I feel like that is transferred to our LTER site as well. I like that we have a lot of different groups from different parts of the country and different universities all visiting to do research in the summer. Our research season is so short because of winter and the limited number of plant growing days that people come up here in hoards almost. So for a couple months in the summer it really feels like there is just a big cohesive lab group working at the sites here. We help each other out with collecting and sharing data, and really focus on the general goal. This goal is to understand how these systems are responding to the effects of climate change and understand what this means for the future of these ecosystems and the communities up here in the North, and in other parts of the world that are being affected by climate change similarly. 

SG: It’s so great to hear about close collaboration in the field. I know that sometimes grad students can feel isolated during their degree; it’s important to feel like you are part of a larger team.. 

EG: Collaboration is huge a lot of the time because it is just so unrealistic or feasible to collect all of the data yourself. There is an overlap between different fields, like up here there’s overlap between biogeochemistry and microbiology along with climatology  because all of it is really influencing each other. I feel like more and more of that collaborative, overlapping science is happening up here. It’s really nice to see, especially when everyone is up here all together and you can all talk as a group and see what everybody’s doing, how you can benefit from other people’s research, and how you can help other people out. 

SG: What do you do as an LTER grad rep? What do you hope to happen by connecting grad students across the network?

EG: I think as a grad rep for Bonanza Creek LTER I hope to showcase everybody’s research that’s happening at our site. I want to showcase it here amongst our group, but also amongst the wider LTER community. Collaboration is a big thing and I think sharing your work and findings is one way to do it. Last summer I did a pretty detailed week of instagram posting where I actually met with a lot of grad students here in different research groups that do research at our site. I made sure I understood what research they were doing at our field sites and what that means as an overall site research goal as a whole. I felt like that was the starting point for this kind of showcasing of different people’s research. Since then we chat with some of the grad students who do work here about articles we should be reading that relate to our site. I think that I can do more as the grad rep in terms of bringing our groups together. It’s hard because we are at such a far distance. Even for Alaska LTERs, those are hours or a plane ride away. 

So encouraging students to participate more in the opportunities that this LTER grad rep group is providing for us like the different grants and funding and such. I think that it’s worth it to participate in that, so I will aim to get some of our grads into that and participate because it’s worth it. 

SG: What’s one thing you wish you knew about science/research/grad school when you were an undergrad?

EG: I wish I knew or was taught more about the process of research and really thinking through your question before you take it on. I think that’s really valuable because if you are able to think it through you have solutions to some of the problems you’ll have through the research journey, and then it will make the whole process a lot easier. I would have liked to be more prepared to deal with problems that arise. I think I have become a better problem solver through doing research now. 

I think another thing I would have liked to have learned more about is the value of data management. It happens — sometimes you lose data! You need to have a really good solid system for keeping track of your data, and you need to be able to understand it when you’re looking at it. This semester I took a course that’s just on the R program and it’s been so helpful. Not that I couldn’t get through statistics or data management before, but it has made me a more efficient R user. I understand my data more because I understand R more. We as undergrads don’t really get taught about these computer programs that allow us to do statistics. They’re kind of integrated into our courses, but do you actually know Base R language? No, not really! Everybody should have to take a course like that in their undergrad. They’d be more set for future data management obstacles. 

SG: Have you worked at another research lab, and if so how does this LTER site differ from it?

EG: I’ve worked in a different research lab that was also affiliated with this site. The group dynamic with that group was awesome. I was a field tech and it was my first time doing field work, and their sense of community was so great that it kind of set the bar for future field work experiences. Now that I’m doing my own research and leading my own field technicians, I aspire to create as great of a group dynamic as I had in that group. Just having a healthy work environment, and being able to ask questions, or being able to say if they’ve made a mistake is really important. You are trusting people to collect data because it’s just not possible for you to collect everything. Field techs have to be able to trust you and be able to tell you when something is wrong and have to spend time redoing something. And that’s ok! I’d rather redo something than have it wrong. My experience at my other lab set the bar and I aspire to be as good as a crew leader as my crew leader was that year. 

On the other hand I learned about what not to do as a crew leader. Sometimes I would think as a field tech and want to solve a problem differently. I definitely felt that at times I couldn’t put in input even though I should have been able to or it would have been nice to have been asked for my opinion. So now asking for somebody’s input and considering it as a crew leader is important.  

SG: In the next step of your career, what will you bring with you from your experiences at the LTER site?

EG: Healthy group environments so we can properly and efficiently do our work. I’ve been taught how to do good science up here. I think I will be able to bring that to whatever next experience I get into, and not be afraid to question when something that we’re working on could be done better or with more integrity. That’s something that I value. There’s a lot of field practices that I’ve learned up here that I didn’t know before, including driving an ATV or a four wheeler. I didn’t know how to drive one, but I got put on one and was told, “here you go!” Also, coming form a city, I wasn’t experienced driving large vehicles with large trailers or boats on the back. So that was one thing that I’ve learned, and I’m pretty comfortable with it now. The trust that your bosses and advisors put into you doesn’t go unused because that made me a better scientist and made me better in the field. Before this experience, I wouldn’t have even attempted some of these things and would have asked someone else to step in. They start to expect more from you and you start to expect more from yourself and just do your job. 

SG: What’s one other LTER site you’d love to visit?

EG: Santa Barbara Coastal! I follow the LTER Instagram page, and whenever I see posts from that site it looks so cool. It’s so far removed from what I do, which makes it that much more intriguing. I don’t know anything about marine ecosystems! I don’t know why, but it’s just so different from what I do up here and it’s interesting to me. Ocean ecosystem studies or marine studies in general are intriguing. Like kelp forests, I don’t understand them, but do I wish I could? Yeah! There’s just so many levels of interactions that I think that would be amazing to study. I mean, there are people that SCUBA dive to get to their field sites, that’s pretty cool! It seems very glamorous from a research perspective.