Dalton has been studying antioxidants as indicators of plant health for a decade. When he posted a notice for a student intern to help in this research it took Gould a microsecond to decide to apply. It's a natural fit. Gould has been studying trees, from the mycorrhizal fungi that turn soil into plant food, clear up to the scant and battered tree tops. She's also climbed trees all her life. She's fearless, energetic, strong, and ready to learn. Dalton says that makes her ideal for canopy research. |
The study of antioxidants as indicators of plant health is new and tricky science, limited by the logistics of getting up into the trees. For eons, people have hypothesized about trees from the ground. Some have literally blasted plant material from higher branches with a shotgun or crossbow. For the past 20 years, a few maverick types, including several Reed students, have climbed their way to the top. Others rely on special construction cranes to lift them to the treetops in a handful of forest preserves in the world. Gould does them all.
Her goal is to develop baseline data to determine just how much stress these trees take. As in any aerobic organism, including humans, antioxdants are necessary for the trees' health. In plants, they help remove damaging forms of oxygen that build up under certain conditions, such as dramatic changes in heat, light, and water. Gould's work will provide baseline data other researchers will use in future studies, as did work by an earlier Dalton student, Wylie Harris '96 (featured in a recent National Geographic article), who showed that antioxidants increase in lodgepole pine trees in response to cold temperatures.
Eventually Gould's research could help plant breeders and forest managers probe deeper into forest dynamics and genetic composition. "If we can understand these processes better, including the effects of pollution and climactic extremes, we may be able to enhance the ability of trees to cope with environmental extremes," Dalton says.
Timber companies and the U.S. Forest Service already are extremely interested in creating genetically superior trees. This used to trouble Gould. "I was adamantly anti-logging but now I'm looking for a balance between the ecologists and economists," she explains. "Pacific Northwest forests tend to grow quite a bit in the winter, which partly accounts for their incredible productivity. The physiological mechanisms that make this possible (antioxidant defenses among those) should be investigated and understood. This knowledge can be applied when we consider reforestation."
For her thesis she'll study trees in Washington and central and southern Oregon with her predecessor from Reed, Steve Sillett '89. An article about emeritus professor of biology Bert Brehm in the August 1992 issue of Reed described how Sillett blazed this trail almost a decade ago. Now he's an international authority on forest canopy research. He's also one of Gould's mentors. Together they've climbed and studied the second-tallest tree in the world--a coastal redwood Sequoia sempervirens in northern California. This summer they'll scale dozens more.
Tree canopy study is sexy now, says Dalton, and his students are enthusiastic about the research. But Gould and Dalton are careful; tree ecosystems are tender and easily damaged, and climbing is dangerous. They always obtain permits, climb gently, and work with a partner.