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#ThisIsEndicott - Redwood Research Creates Real Opportunities For Melissa Enright '13

#ThisIsEndicott - Redwood Research Creates Real Opportunities For Melissa Enright '13

If you're looking for Melissa Enright '13 (York Beach, Maine) you probably won't be able to find her on the ground. There's a high chance that she'll be up on top of a redwood tree in California.

A 2013 graduate, Enright was a member of the Endicott field hockey team. While she was a member of the program, the Gulls won their first two Commonwealth Coast Conference (CCC) Championships in 2011 and 2012. Enright co-led the team in goals in 2011 (15) was a member of the All-CCC Second Team in 2011, and All-CCC First Team selection in 2012. She currently ranks tenth all-time in goals at 32. 

Enright, an environmental science major at The Nest has spent her graduate school years working on a Master's in Biology at Northern Arizona University, under Dr. George Koch.

Her research focuses on how redwoods respond to water stress. Water Stress is a condition that occurs when the air is hot and dry and pulls an excessive amount of water out of redwoods leaves.

The research for Enright is critically important, "The climate in California is changing and redwoods on the foggy coast are experiencing hotter drier conditions. In order to predict how these trees will respond to further changes, we need to know how they interact with climate now," she said.

Not only is this research important for the redwoods but it allows her to help undergraduate students learn and understand the research and the impact that the climate is having on the redwoods while they help out with lab work and sample processing.

"I have spent much of my time in graduate school learning and adapting challenging lab methods, and now I am passing those skills on to excellent younger students interested in plants and the environment," Enright said.

Not only is she teaching them certain lab skills and helping them become better students, but she is also making such an impact that it is shaping what some of her students want to do post-graduation.

"One of them took on a semi-independent project within the scope of my thesis, and we traveled out to a conference in California, so she could present it. At the end of that weekend, she told me she had thought to herself 'I need to apply to grad school!' which was awesome for me because I knew that I had introduced her to something she hadn't considered and might play into her future," Enright said.

Enright has also used her research to reach out to the greater community in Flagstaff and teach students from local schools about plants, ecology, and opportunities in the natural sciences.

"I've had a lot of fun bringing kids from Flagstaff schools into the lab to show them what I do when I bring them in, I focus as much as possible on more visual things, like how I dye wood samples and what that actually shows me," she said.


Now, how does this research even take place?

Every six-to-eight weeks Enright would make trips to the Big Creek Reserve in California to climb to the top of the redwood trees which vary in height from 200 feet to 240 feet. At the top, she would collect small branch samples, take those samples back to the lab, and measure the flow of water through them, examine them under a microscope, and measure the extent of the damage that occurs due to water stress. Enright also measures the growth of the living branches while she is at the top of the redwood so she can figure out how much growth of new cells can counteract the loss and function in damaged cells.

Through this research, Enright has noticed some trends. First, redwood trees are in a sense more resilient to water stress than what she and her team originally thought. Enright and her team also noticed that there is little damage at the top of redwoods despite the amount of stress they are under, but they are not growing as much at the top.

"They seem to be sacrificing growth in order to prevent cell damage when temperatures are high or conditions are very dry," Enright said.

She continued;

"We also found some really exciting evidence of repair of stress-induced cell damage in redwood treetop branches when conditions are favorable. Plant hydraulics scientists debate whether this is even possible in plants in general, and especially in plants like redwoods but there is growing evidence suggesting that it does happen."

After completing the research, it was time for Enright to complete the presenting part of her research.

For some people giving presentations in front of large groups can be scary and nerve-racking, but not for her.

"I really enjoy giving presentations and find it pretty exhilarating," she said. "I love talking about what I do and it's especially fun to have a large group of people there to hear it."

As part of this process, Enright gave two different presentations. One was a three-minute presentation in front of a few hundred people as part of a three-minute presentation event.

"I had to condense my work into a very short presentation and convey it in a way that anyone could understand, while also making it moving and convincing. This was a really cool experience and was exciting both because it was a competition and because it was a really big and formal venue," Enright said.

The second round of presentations was at the American Geophysical Union's (AGU) fall meeting which took place in San Francisco California. For Enright, this was an entirely different experience. She had just finished defending her thesis a week ago and needed to start from scratch making a whole new presentation.

"My defense talk was an hour-long and was designed for an audience of scientists, but not necessarily people who studied plants," she said.

At the AGU meeting, Enright was presenting for just 15 minutes in front of famous scientists who were experts in plant hydraulics and had written most of the papers that she's read during this process. Certainly a daunting task, but once again Enright was at the ready.

"I decided on the most controversial parts of my work so I could get a preview of the review process and see how they would respond to my claims when I try and publish them later," she said. "I was surprised to find that no one took issue with my conclusion that redwoods may be repairing cell damage, and it was validating to have them ask lots of questions. None of them challenged my findings, but all showed that they were very interested and treated my research as valid and professional," Enright added.


For Enright, her Endicott experience was shaped based off of the relationship she created with her professors.

It was the one on one relationships that Endicott strives on that helped shape Enright to where she is today.

"Professor Tripler was a really great mentor and designed an independent study with me, looking at the effects of a parasitic insect on local eastern hemlock trees," Enright said.

While they didn't end up publishing a paper, it was similar to what she would be getting into during grad school. Professor Tripler also treated her like a real scientist which gave her confidence when applying to school.

"Because of that experience and his feedback on my work, I felt confident touting my strengths when I started applying to grad programs and grants," she said.

So where can you find Enright next?

You most likely won't be able to.

She'll spend her summer in Alaska working with the Forest Service's Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program. The FIA is like a census of the country's forest. Enright will either take a boat and or aircraft to incredibly remote locations where roads do not exist through most of the are her and her group are responsible for. She will be on a boat with a helipad on the back and move through the region over the course of the summer hiking through whatever terrain lies between there and the plot of land they need to get to, even if that means scaling or skirting cliffs, fording rivers, or bushwhacking through thickets of horns.

As they journey through Alaska they will collect data on the health and growth of trees in randomly selected plots in all forested areas from the Ketchikan area up to the Kenai Peninsula and the data collected is not only summarized by the Forest Service but also used by scientists in different fields like carbon dynamics, climate change, boreal ecology and more.

She'll also continue her research with the redwoods.

"We'll be installing cameras at the tops of some of the largest redwoods at locations throughout northern California to add to the PhenoCam Network, which captures photos of ecosystems across the country at high temporal intensity," Enright said.

These photos will help Enright and her team look at the timing of the growing season when species lose their leaves, as well as the health and greenness of forests, continuing the important work that she has been doing throughout her graduate school experience.

And while you may not be able to find Enright or see the work that she is doing,  there's no doubt that the impact her work and research make is something we'll be able to see for years to come. 

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(Photo Credit - Melissa Enright '13)