Hello! Michele here checking in for her final CLM blog for the Joshua Tree Genome Project (JTGP) from the City that Built the Hoover Dam.
Interning at the USGS Western Ecological Research Center has been a blessing. The past month has been a crucial time spent entering, organizing, and cleaning up the data we have collected over the past 6 months. We’ve been chipping away at this during the entire internship, but since we are all off to other adventures at the end of the week, we need to create a master spreadsheet for every Joshua Tree we have data attached to, along with explanations of our processes and organization. Let’s just say, I think all of our excel skills went from lowly merchant level, up to lord status. Note, I did not promote us to kings and queens because we still have yet to master pivot tables.
Seeing how the project progresses in the future, after we are gone, will be exciting to catch-up on later during our conservation careers.
This internship has taught me the trial and error that goes along with ecological research, and I am grateful to learn how to tackle and overcome these hurdles. Life in the desert has been all about adapting. Adapting to living in extreme heat, adapting to life with 3 other interns that I will be forever grateful for, adapting to a new position as a CLM intern, and adapting to the plot-twists that our Joshua Tree seedlings threw at us. All in all I wouldn’t change a thing.
Michele here from the City that Built the Hoover Dam. That is Boulder City, NV if you did not know that fun fact.
This week the Joshua Tree Genome Project team was greeted by a break from the desert heat. A high of 81℉??? What a delight. At 10PM I felt a chill in the air for the first time since I arrived in the desert. For a group of interns that are accustomed to fall breezes and leaves turning blazes of orange and red, we were ecstatic to see some weather that even sort of resembled a “fall” before a swift return to 100 degrees awaits us.
Aside from the cool weather, this week the interns split into two teams. Two of us went into the desert to help monitor a restoration project and two of us continued working at the greenhouse taking care of the Joshua Tree seedlings. I was on the greenhouse team. Along with continuing to collect data on the growth of the Joshua Trees, our task for the week seemed simple at first. Our goal is to plant new seeds for the Joshua Trees that had died after transplanting the seedlings into the crates, but then we took a closer look at how many needed reseeding. Lets just say, we planned for 3,200 trees in our crates and we need to reseed nearly half that number. Nonetheless, we took on the task and persevered through the maze of tracking down each seedling that needing replacement, preparing plant bands for reseeding, finding the corresponding maternal lines to reseed, and of course planting the seeds. This time around, we would plant the seeds directly into the plant bands and we would plant two seeds in hopes of increasing our chances of having a healthy tree from all of the maternal lines needed. By the very end of the week, we had reached our goal, and our crates were FULL of seeds.
To say that all of our plants were dying, however, is far from the truth and quite the negative perspective. The trees that are healthy, are absolutely thriving! We are starting to have a little forest of Joshua Tree seedlings. They are beginning to have as many as five leaves on them! It is amazing to see them grow from the first signs of life, as at the first stages they could be easily confused for a blade of grass. Now they are beginning to look a bit more like multiple blades of grass! I know, how thrilling! But for the life of a Joshua Tree Genome Project intern, it really is incredible.
Next week the team is switching spots, which means I get to go out into the field! I am excited for my first true adventure out into the desert. Usually the field work I have done in the past has been venturing out into forests or prairies, so I am excited to see the contrast the desert will provide. One of my true joys is venturing far into natural landscapes that are well off the beaten path. Having the opportunity to experience places that many others have not is such a blessing. I am excited to see the native plants, walk through the dust, and gaze up at the stars at night.
Like a well oiled machine headed down Route 66, we worked through another meeting regarding the Joshua Tree Genome project (JTGP). After hashing out questions, and weaving through theoretical discussions with an almost religious fervor, we finally felt ready to disconnect from our mentors and carry out our plan, and so we did. And in that single click, a wave of relief brushed over us momentarily as the tension of another video call rescinded. But this post-collaboration satisfaction came crashing down as soon as we opened our mouths again to reveal that all four of us interns had a completely separate and completely different understanding of what we had just agreed to do over the call.
“I think I’m just gonna call Lesley back”
The above passage highlights some of the joys engendered by botanical collaboration under the desert sun. And despite its sweaty faults and confusing twists and turns, we still consider it fun. Fun in an esoteric “type-2” sense of the word, but fun none-the-less! This week’s “fun” has coalesced itself in the form of 3 main lessons.
Lesson #1: Sorghum cotyledons look pretty similar to Joshua Tree cotyledons. We had been enthralled with the idea that one of our mighty seedlings was growing so quickly! The seedling in question was one of the first plants we were able to observe as the germination experiment was just getting off the ground. In excitement we called over one of our mentors, Todd Esque, to show him our photosynthetic anomaly! Looking first to the plant, and then back to me, he couldn’t help but let out a gentle chuckle before asking why we were growing crops in the greenhouse. In hindsight it should’ve been obvious we were growing a member of the grass family, but hindsight always runs 20/20 (as we all know).
Lesson #2: Joshua Trees are plants of the desert, and probably should not be sitting in pools of water. During our stint as sole operators of the greenhouse whilst our mentors took a much needed break, we followed a strict schedule. Water the crates every morning at 8:00 AM, and water more lightly every evening at 4:00 PM. We ritualistically followed these guidelines given to us, without even considering the warning signs of over watering. Some of these warning signs included the rust orange pools of filth gathering underneath our crates, the intensifying humidity of our work environment, and of course the emerging fungal “snow cover” noted upon the substrate of some of our plants. Luckily for us our head mentor, Lesley Defalco, pulled the plug on our 5000 attempted murders, and as a result our plants did not spend enough time swamped to be significantly damaged! We now follow a more conservative practice of watering only every other day, which saves water and cuts our work time as well!
Lesson #3: We truly are in good hands here in Boulder City, Nevada. The work down here has been extremely rewarding, but it hasn’t been without its difficulties. Keeping up with the germination of 5000 plants, and then working to transplant well over 1000 plants all while tracking every seed meticulously on a daily basis has proven difficult for a team of 4. Add on top of this consistent temperatures of 110+ Fahrenheit, and no days off for 2 weeks straight, and you might get a disgruntled group of botanical goblins! But, while I would still entertain the label of botanical goblin, I would not say we became disgruntled, and this is because our mentors, sympathetic to our struggles, ordered that we take two days off in the middle of the week and recharge. Research is difficult, and working to create the best data possible for such an incredible and important project is a stressful proposition. But we 4 interns feel confident that, when push comes to shove, our mentors, the JTGP team, and The Chicago Botanic Garden truly have our best interests in mind.