In the shady cool of Virginia Tech’s 11-acre old growth forest, often called Stadium Woods, junior Abby Tenney is observing a slow race.

Using an instrument that measures gas exchange during photosynthesis, the forestry major is comparing the photosynthetic capacities of native and invasive understory plants to see if invasive species are faster at turning the limited understory sunlight into food to grow.

“The photosynthesis machine has a chamber that you can clamp over a leaf,” explained Tenney, who is looking at native blackhaw and spice bush, and invasive privet and amur honeysuckle. “The chamber has LED lights and an infrared gas analyzer, which allows us to 'see' a leaf taking in carbon dioxide in response to different light levels.”

Tenney’s work is one of three summer research projects being conducted by students in the College of Natural Resources and Environment who are participants in the Next Generation Scholars Program.

Housed in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation and funded by a Multicultural Scholars Program grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the Next Generation Scholars Program aims to expand opportunities for underrepresented students interested in the fields of forestry and environmental resources management.

Researchers look ahead — and back — in time

Senior Carley Knight worked with graduate students to determine the environmental impacts of utilizing forest residues — the tops and branches of trees left over after loggers have removed traditional products for processing — in energy production.

“A lot of what I’ve been doing is ground transects to determine what fuels are left over on harvested sites,” explained Knight, a forestry major specializing in forest operations and business. “We’re looking at biomass utilization through the perspective of best management practices, trying to see what amount of slash is left after conventional forest harvesting versus forest residue harvesting.”

Professor Chad Bolding said that the work that Knight conducted, under the guidance of doctoral student Austin Garren and master’s student Eric Hawks, will contribute important insights into the feasibility of utilizing residuals for energy.

“This work will help us better understand the more economically feasible operational techniques for recovering residues that are typically left behind after logging operations are complete,” said Bolding, who is co-principal investigator on a $10 million grant to research forest residue utilization. “Their research also expands our knowledge base of how impactful residue recovery is on the soil.”

While Knight was learning about new avenues for energy utilization in logging, junior Natalie Hedrick spent the summer looking backwards in time.

Working in collaboration with two undergraduates from Virginia Wesleyan University, Hedrick used an increment borer to collect trunk core samples that reveal the life histories of Table Mountain pines, a high elevation tree that requires disturbance events such as wildfires to release seeds. The collected samples provided new insights into the interplay between tree growth and environmental events.

“What we noticed was how disturbance events have really impacted the Table Mountain pines,” said Hedrick, a forestry major. “You could see from our samples that their growth was really compressed in some years, and in other years they had great growth. Matching that with data sets where there was fire or an ice storm or a timber harvest, we’re able to get a clearer picture of how conditions impact tree growth.”

Associate Professor Carolyn Copenheaver, who supervised the project, said that this research has impacts for Appalachian pine tree conservation efforts.

“The U.S. Forest Service has implemented some conservation plans to ensure the sustainability of Table Mountain pine in the region,” Copenheaver said. “Hedrick’s work this summer provides a more thorough picture of the ecology of this species, which is essential for its successful conservation.”

Hands-on experiences broaden horizons

Tenney, who is currently crunching the numbers on photosynthetic rates of native and invasive plants in Stadium Woods, said that it was a benefit to be able to utilize the natural resources of the Virginia Tech campus.

“Stadium Woods is a really interesting place to do research because it’s an old-growth urban forest, which is hard to come by. And the fact that there is such a range of plants located in the same forest makes it a great site to conduct research,” Tenney said.

John Seiler, Alumni Distinguished Professor and the Hon. and Mrs. Shelton H. Short Jr. Professor of Forestry, says that Tenney’s dedication to understanding not just the “how” of advanced technology but why it is important makes her a standout student.

“Abby is using highly technical equipment in her research, and she learned very quickly how to use it,” he said. “More than that, however, she has a strong understanding of how the equipment works, of what it is actually doing. Even some graduate students don’t get to that point of understanding. They just call it the black box.”

For Knight, the chance to get out and research biomass utilization was an opportunity to get firsthand accounts about an emerging marketplace.

“The market for biomass is very up and down,” said Knight, a four-year recipient of the William August Stuermann and Mable Beard Stuermann Scholarship funded through the Virginia Forestry Educational Foundation. “It’s been interesting talking to loggers and consultants, who are really investigating the benefits and costs of biomass harvesting. It’s going to be an interesting future, and I love the complexity of it all.”

For Copenheaver, summer research opportunities like these play a crucial role in providing a new generation of foresters the chance to experience what it is like to work in the field.

“The Next Generation Scholars summer internships provided experiential learning opportunities for these students, who were able to contribute to our understanding of the valuable forest resources within the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Copenheaver, who spearheaded the Next Generations Scholars Program along with Seiler and Assistant Professor Adam Coates. “We expect all three of these young scientists to use these summer internships as stepping stones into careers within forestry and natural resource management.”

Written by David Fleming

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