Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hosting friends from abroad at HBR

A few weeks ago, I hosted Dr. Zhiqun Huang and his forest ecosystem and soil science research group from Fujian Normal University in China, for a visit to the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest (HBR).  It was a great opportunity to meet with Dr. Huang and his colleagues again, after visiting their lab and research sites in Fujian last year.  The experience was a good deal of fun, and I hope the group learned a lot about the way we approach ecology and research at HBR, some of which might be helpful as they invest in building long-term research facilities and projects in Fujian province.  I was lucky, despite the visit happening in the “quiet season”, to be able to include meetings and meals with many people at HBR and UNH, including David Sleeper and Geoff Wilson from the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, Ian Halm and Amey Bailey from the US Forest Service Northern Research Station, Pam Templer from Boston University, and several members of the Terrestrial Ecosystem Analysis group who met with us at UNH.

Photo 1:  Huang lab group at HBR in November 2012, Photo by Pam Templer

One of the valuable aspects of this experience is that it required me to step back and look at my research and the other work done at HBR, the institutional structure and culture, facilities, long-term methods and future directions, and try to figure out how to present it to someone with the necessary background but no specific knowledge of the place.  What can be learned and widely applied from the 50 years of the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study, and how much is site-specific, idiosyncratic, or the result of historical accident?  Reading Effective Ecological Monitoring by Lindenmayer and Likens was helpful towards this end.

Photo 2:  USFS Headquarters at HBR

One of the themes that emerged as Geoff, Amey, Ian, and I presented information on the climate, vegetation, biogeochemistry, history and future of large and small scale research at HBR, was the power of the small-watershed experimental approach combined with intensive long-term monitoring and a diverse group of researchers sharing different kinds of observations of a single site.  For example, the 1999 calcium fertilization of watershed 1 unexpectedly led to a transient change in water yield (evapotranspiration) following the application.  There were no specific hypotheses about this when the experiment was designed, but the effect was quite clear in long-term data when examined by the right people.  Of course, the results of unreplicated experiments must always be validated elsewhere, especially where the effect was unexpected and therefore not measured in all the ideal ways, so currently Mark Green (Plymouth State University) is working with the MELNHE group to validate the result in 5 additional stands at HBR and elsewhere in the region.  This story seems to exemplify the potential of the scientific process at a site where intensive monitoring, large-scale experiments, and an open culture of data sharing and collaboration come together, as they do at HBR and many other LTER sites.

Photo 3:  Plot-scale Ca fertilization at HBR in 2011

When we make connections across geographical, ecosystem, political, and cultural boundaries, we not only learn about other places and people, but we are forced to view the systems we study and the ways we approach them in a different light.  It’s similar to the difference in understanding material well enough to pass a course, versus knowing it well enough to teach the course.  Much the same could be said for making connections across disciplinary boundaries within a university or field site.  Looking back at my years as a grad student, many of the most memorable experiences, not to mention publications on my CV, have come from meeting new people across the LTER network and across the ecological community.  To grad students just starting, I recommend always being aware of such opportunities and not always letting lab or teaching duties get in the way of taking them.

Photo 4:  Dr. Huang, Dr. Lin, and I, visiting a research plot in Fujian Province, China.

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