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Sound Science


August 2016

Managing forests in the face of climate change, spread of invasive species, catastrophic wildfires, and destructive storms requires resource managers to have a wide array of tools in their toolbox, including a sound scientific basis for their decisions and actions. Employing top notch scientists, using the most cutting-edge technologies—from Smart Forests to gene sequencing—and creating innovative ways to share information on forests with a broader audience, Forest Service Research and Development is stepping up in support of sustaining the Nation’s forests and grasslands on people’s behalf. This month we feature a scientist, a product, research, and a partnership all related to sound science.

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Sound science starts with scientists. Explore science careers with our FREE scientist cards, available in 30-packs by theme (wildlife, women in science or classroom sets) or as a full set of 100 cards.

Featured Scientist

Dave Hollinger

Dave Hollinger

Soft-spoken, unassuming and approachable, a person would be hard pressed to guess that plant physiologist David Hollinger is one of the most influential scientists, not only in the Forest Service, but across the entire field of agricultural sciences.  In early 2016, Hollinger was named as one of Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researchers and one of the organization’s “2015 World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.”  This recognition acknowledges his rank within the top 1 percent of most cited scientists in his field.  This is the second year in a row that Hollinger has achieved this recognition. The Web of Science, a comprehensive citation search, lists 128 publications for Hollinger (around 4 per year), that have been cited over 13,000 times. 

“I was among an early group of researchers that measured carbon uptake by forests using meteorological methods (flux towers),” said Hollinger.  “With concerns about climate change and carbon sequestration increasing, this field has really taken off.  Some of the earlier work has remained important and frequently cited, so part of it was being in the right place at the right time.” 

Hollinger began his scientific career with the New Zealand Forest Service as a scientist working at the Forest Research Institute in Christchurch. After 10 years, he and his family returned to the U.S. to be closer to family and to work at the Forest Service’s Northern Research Station. He was later named project leader of the “Climate, Fire and Carbon Cycle Sciences” research unit.

In 2014, with encouragement from station leadership, he led an effort with several scientists from the Northern Research Station and other parts of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a proposal to host a Climate Hub.  “We were successful and now I find myself thinking about cows and corn as well as trees, and working with capable, fun people from across the Department of Agriculture” says Hollinger.  The Northeast Climate Hub is one of seven regional hubs around the country formed to address the increasing risks to forests and agriculture from climate and weather related events such as floods, droughts, extreme storms, invasive insect outbreaks, and catastrophic fires

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Featured Product

Forest Inventory and Analysis Engagement Portfolio

Screenshot from FIA Engagement Portfolio

The Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis (FIA) program has been collecting information on the nation’s forests and delivering it to traditional partners such as resource managers and scientists for almost 90 years.  Today, measurements on 19 million trees are stored in FIA’s data “warehouse.”  A new FIA engagement portfolio is designed to share this wealth of information about conservation and natural resources management with an even broader audience. 

Charles “Hobie” Perry, research soil scientist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and team lead for the engagement portfolio, has always been fascinated by maps.  He learned from watching effective communicators that sharing stories facilitates a connection with people.  And he has become enthralled by the new approaches being used by media outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post to tell compelling stories.  Together these added up to a new idea about sharing FIA data with a wider spectrum of users.

In the early development stages, Perry and collaborators across the Forest Service decided to use the structure and basic nature of a Forestry 101 course—simple language and generous use of illustrations, maps and graphs—as a model for the engagement portfolio.  “We brainstormed ideas about what basic information we wanted to convey to people and then pared the list down to a manageable number,” said Perry.  Realizing that scientists are not the best natural story tellers, especially to the lay person, Perry employed graphic artists and an editor to help shape a more accessible and compelling message. “It is this collaboration between scientists and artists that is yielding the strongest, clearest stories,” he said.

As a showcase of stories important to the Forest Service mission, Perry and his colleague Chris Oswalt (Southern Research Station) shared the engagement portfolio at the plenary session of the annual Esri User Conference , which this year attracted over 16,000 attendees. 

“We in the FIA program will certainly maintain our focus on our traditional power users, but the tools housed in the engagement portfolio allow us to make the data intriguing and useful to decisionmakers, educators, land owners, and others. We can't wait to see how the community grows, explores, and uses this data,” said Perry.

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Featured Research

Genome Sequencing for White-nose Syndrome

Big brown batSince the winter of 2007-2008, millions of bats in the U.S. and Canada have been killed by the pathogenic fungus Pseudogymnoascus destructans, which causes the disease commonly known as white-nose syndrome. Scientists are taking a multi-pronged approach to tackling this problem with some scientists studying the host bat, some examining the pathogenic fungus, and others exploring the environment in which the fungus thrives. U.S. Forest Service mycologist Dan Lindner is using cutting-edge technology to unlock the pathogen’s genetic code to learn more about where the fungus originated and how it is related to other fungal strains as an initial step in efforts to stop the carnage.    

Decoding fungal DNA, or sequencing of genes and other regions of DNA, begins with grinding the fungus up and using a variety of chemicals and enzymes to isolate the DNA with the goal of getting “high quality” gene fragments with which to work.  “Once you have done this, you need to start assembling the fragments – lining them up to complete a microscopic, but highly complex jigsaw puzzle,” says Lindner.  “We use computer software to stitch all the small fragments together into the full picture of the larger genome.”

By comparing gene sequences of different strains of fungi, scientists can determine how closely (or distantly) related they are.  Ultimately scientists may be able to identify the specific genes causing the white-nose syndrome fungus to be lethal (the virulence genes) and find a way to “turn off” these genes.

Lindner gained most of his knowledge about DNA sequencing while employed as a post-doctoral student in Uppsala, Sweden, where there were many people who knew how to work with DNA.  Bringing his expertise back to the U.S. Forest Service lab in Madison, Wisconsin, he began implementing what he had learned in Sweden.  This line of research experienced a giant leap forward with the purchase in 2010 of a next-generation DNA sequencer, an Ion Torrent PGM™ (PGM stands for personal genome machine). 

“Next-generation sequencing has not only greatly enhanced our lab’s ability to conduct specific work on white-nose syndrome,” says Lindner.  “This technology has revolutionized biology, and in a matter of a few short years, biology is on track to become one of the most data-rich fields in all of science and technology.” 

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Featured Partnership

Smart Forests

Setting up scientific measuring instruments in Fernow Experimental forest.

Twenty-first century technology meets forest science at U.S. Forest Service Smart Forest research sites. At Experimental Forests and Ranges (EFRs) around the country, scientists are replacing twentieth-century analogue and mechanical environmental monitoring devices with twenty-first century sophisticated digital and wireless environmental collection systems. A leader in these technological advancements and the architect of the new Smart Forest Network is the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest. “Smart Forest technology provides the cyber infrastructure for us to build new ‘windows’ on our watersheds, allowing us to measure the physical, chemical, and biological pulse of our forests in near real time,” said research ecologist Lindsey Rustad.

Today at Hubbard Brook, scientists collect real time data on wireless devices on a 5 minute to 1 hour basis from nine gauged watersheds, six meteorological stations, six soil climate analysis stations, six phenocams, and three major climate change experiments.  The Smart Forest Network currently consists of 10 sites in the Northeast that share data on line and in real time.  “Our vision is to collaborate with partners on experimental forests across the country to build a national observation network,” said Rustad.  “This would allow us to see storm events evolving across the landscape and see the progression of leaf out, spring soil warming, senescence, and fall and winter soil cooling and freezing.”

In another innovative venture, scientists at Hubbard Brook have recently partnered with an art-science team to create WaterViz, which transforms the enormous amount of hydrological data gathered from the Hubbard Brook Smart Forest into sound (sonification) and images (visualization).  “These art-science sonifications and visualizations simultaneously engage the reasoning, visual, and auditory processing centers in our brain,” said Rustad. “This makes the understanding of real time environmental data a more complete sensory experience, and provides opportunities for new insights and discoveries.”

WaterViz is opening doors into the scientific world for people with visual impairments and those who are turned off by math and science but love art and music. Hubbard Brook scientists are now working with neuroscientists and social scientists to better understand how effective this mode of learning is. They are also working with teachers who are excited about incorporating WaterViz into their classroom curricula. 

“Scientific breakthroughs in the twenty-first century will be increasingly powered by cyber tools that help researchers collect and manipulate massive datasets, visualize that data, and offer new ways to understand the drivers of ecosystem change,” said Rustad. 

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