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Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Academics & Research

Roof greenhouse is on-campus space for ecological studies

Greenhouse located on the roof of the Science and Research 2 building is used for a variety of ecological studies conducted by students and faculty. | Kathryn Lenihan/The Cougar

The greenhouse on the roof of the Science and Research 2 building has been a space for students and faculty to conduct various experiments on ecological topics ranging from soil microbes to invasive plant species.

Although the greenhouse was renovated in 2016, it has been around for a while, according to associate professor Kerri Crawford. Before that, experiments had to be conducted at the UH Coastal Center or on a smaller scale in the labs.

Crawford’s research focus is currently on how native plant species may adapt in response to other plants that invade the ecosystems. If a native plant coexists with an invasive plant over several generations, specific traits and genetic codes may develop. These genetics can then be explored by scientists to help prevent further spread of the invaders.

Crawford said the greenhouse allows her research team to conduct controlled experiments that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. A recent experiment involving over 2,000 plants, all with very precise watering requirements, was made possible through the controlled greenhouse conditions.

“We were interested in how the amount of water a plant receives influenced plant-microbe interactions,” Crawford said. “We found that if soils are wetter, then microbes can disrupt coexistence among plant species — which may be a problem in areas that receive more precipitation with climate change.”

Post-Baccalaureate research fellow Jakob Joachin is running their first independent experiment on these plant-microbe relationships in different ecological contexts, such as how water availability influences the interactions between typically-pathogenic fungi and grassland plants.

Joachin joined the Crawford lab in Spring 2018 when they were a sophomore in an evolutionary biology class.

Joachin went from being unsure of what research looked like or if they could do it to being funded by the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Post-Baccalaureate Students program and planning to attend graduate school for applied restoration research.

“After my first summer of field work (where I was chasing grasshoppers and fighting off mosquitoes), I was completely hooked,” Joachin said. “Falling in love with the day-to-day tasks of ecological research, I eventually found myself asking new questions about the work and ‘thinking like a scientist.’”

Biology senior Amber Ooi has also found working in the greenhouse to be fulfilling. Ooi joined this past summer under the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, during which she worked with another student to test whether the presence of plants helps to prevent droughts from causing stress on soil microbial communities.

“We utilized the SR2 rooftop greenhouse to maintain the 180 plants (at) a constant temperature as Houston summers tend to get really hot,” Ooi said. “I learned a lot this summer about the inquiry process behind research and by making a lot of mistakes.”

Ooi hopes to publish a paper over this research in the next year and further her interests in conservation ecology in the future.

Ooi recommends undergraduate students join the student organization Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science if they are interested in research, as well as to take classes such as ecology, conservation and plant physiology if they wish to pursue ecological research specifically.

“​​Even if there aren’t currently openings for research assistants, people are usually happy to chat about their research,” Crawford said. “Through their research experiences, some students realize they want to go to graduate school for an MS or PhD.”

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