Allison Swartz and undergraduate technician, Cedar Mackaness, taking stream chemistry samples, gas tracer samples and measuring stream specific conductivity and dissolved oxygen.
Credit: Allison Swartz

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.

Allison Swartz is in her first year of a PhD after completing her Master’s degree at Oregon State University and 4 years at the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest LTER. Recently she spoke with Sidney Gerst, a communications fellow at the LTER Network Office, about her research and her experience as a graduate student representative for the LTER network.

SG: What is your research focus?

AS: I study how forest canopy structure influences aquatic ecosystem processes and biota. I focus on how localized increases in light, due to gaps in the forest canopy, can influence stream temperature, productivity, nutrient demand, and fish and salamanders.

SG: What does a typical day of research look like at your site?

AS: A typical day [in the field] starts with checking the weather, packing up gear, and charging batteries. Then after an hour drive with a three person team and a short hike, we start deploying sensors into the water, or scraping algae off of rocks, or measuring nutrient concentrations. I also do population estimates, so we electroshock the stream to collect fish and salamander counts, lengths, and weights.

Back in the lab, there’s a lot of filtering of samples and a lot of time spent on the ion chromatograph to get nutrient data. There’s also a lot of downloading of data from sensors and measuring and weighing algae samples. And of course, data entry.

SG: Why are you passionate about this research topic?

AS: I wanted to work in freshwater ecosystems and have been interested in nutrient or other abiotic interactions that control biotic responses. I also really like the applied aspect of the work – knowing that it can influence policy and management. 

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

AS: It’s an awesome community, and I have been fortunate enough to get to live on-site for the past four summers. It’s a fun and supportive place to live. You get to live and interact with people who are interested and care about understanding what’s going on in this specific place. A lot of my community in grad school has been built around LTER and the LTER grad students.There’s also a bit of a legacy of forest research there, so it’s interesting to get to see what it looked like before I got there and what it looks like now. It’s fun to be there but also kind of fulfilling to be a part of a process that gets used in forest management.

SG: What do you do as an LTER grad student representative? What do you hope to catalyze by connecting grad students across the network?

AS: Our main goal at Andrews is to connect the grad community together, but also connect older grad students who have been there longer with newer students so they don’t have to start from scratch. Students who have been here for years can help by providing a knowledge base or providing data availability that students can access. This also allows students to build on past work and not create the same projects that have already been completed. We mostly build a community among the grad students. 

We would also hope to connect students across sites. We want to try to create collaborations between students themselves, rather than being limited to just their advisor’s network. The grad reps meet and want to work together, but we want support from people who aren’t just grad students in the network. We’d like to ask questions that go beyond our own LTER and build collaborations between students. 

SG: If you have worked at another LTER site, and if so, how did it differ from this LTER site?

AS: I spent this last summer working at Hubbard Brook LTER. I went there to do a comparison study between there and here in Oregon. My advisor did his undergraduate work at Hubbard Brook, so it was cool to finally see it. They’re two of the similar forested LTERs and are similar in watershed size. The climates of the two are really different. In Oregon we don’t have to worry about summer thunderstorms at all. It was a shock at Hubbard Brook when there would be huge, violent thunderstorms and you would have to stop working. These precipitation events cause high flows of water which are an important control on algal production — unlike in Oregon. It was also just cool to see the different tree communities and streams. 

Hubbard Brook also starts off their summer with an annual meeting where everyone introduces themselves. It gets everyone into the same room immediately and lets everyone know what everyone else is up to and can share ideas before they go into the field. It’s just a nice way to start the season. It’s fun too. There’s a barn party on the last day,  a great uniting thing. At Andrews we have a monthly meeting and see each other much more often, so it was interesting to see a different set up.

SG: What do you think is the biggest challenge for early career researchers?

AS: Attempting to do science in a vacuum or all on your own is really challenging and unproductive. New ideas don’t just come out of the blue, they’re built off of incremental efforts and having different experiences to build ideas and ask new questions. It’s not good to just sit in your office alone rather than getting out into the field and collaborating with others. 

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

AS: I didn’t understand the magnitude of opportunities available. I didn’t have any exposure to what I could do. I took a couple years off between undergrad and grad school and that allowed me to have an idea of the possibilities in what I wanted to study. A lot of people don’t know that grad students can be funded in a lot of the science fields. If that were more widely known, more people could go on into grad programs in the ecological field. 

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

AS: Luquillo. I would love to check out the streams there. They just have a large history of nutrient dynamics and I would love to experience the tropical system.