Ashley Barto: Chicago Botanic Garden Echinacea Project

I traveled to the Chicago Botanic Garden to continue my research project I started during my summer internship with the Echinacea Project. Echinacea Project scientists study tallgrass prairie fragmentation and the consequences that deterioration has on prairie plants and insects. While working at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I was able to continue my own project, which helps explain the effects of pollen-stressed conditions on Echinacea pollination and seed development. My experience at the Chicago Botanic Garden allowed me to lean useful research techniques and network with other plant scientists.
When I worked in the field this summer, I pollinated 1980 Echinacea florets to control for floret age and position in addition to the number of florets receiving pollen on the plant that day. At the end of the field season, I collected the plants, so I could examine their seeds later. When I went to the Chicago Botanic Garden, I worked in the population and reproductive biology laboratories to identify how my treatments affected the seed set of Echinacea. On my first day at the garden, I learned the ropes of the lab, and I began dissecting my plants. At first, this task took about an hour per plant, and I had 21 plants I needed to get through while at the garden. With each plant, I worked more efficiently, and eventually, I was able to dissect a plant in just over 30 minutes. As I dissected the plants, I met graduate students and volunteers who chatted with me about their research or hobbies.
After I had dissected all of my plants, I used the garden’s seed x-ray to identify how many healthy seeds the plants produced. Learning the technique for using the x-ray was challenging, as I had to work quickly not to overexpose the x-ray film and accurately to capture all of the seeds on each x-ray sheet. Although learning the dissecting and x-raying techniques took a couple of practice rounds, I learned what I needed to do to have good, usable data, and I got it done in my few days at the Garden.
While I got a lot of work done, I also spent time with some of my friends in the Chicago area and visited some of the major attractions. During my weekend in Chicago, I rode the L to meet my friends and visit the Field Museum, the Art Institute, and Millennium Park. The Field Museum was favorite place I visited. When there, I saw exhibits on global conservation efforts, the ancient Americas, and the diversity of plants. These exhibits were captivating to me because they laid the foundation upon which my research had meaning. In particular, the global conservation exhibit highlighted many ecosystems like prairies ant the importance of prairie restoration and research.
My experience in Chicago allowed me to study my research topic and question, but even more, I learned about the importance of my questions in the context of conservation. While I learned about prairie research from working in the lab and visiting the Museums, my favorite experience was networking and visiting with my friends and mentors. I was able to talk about graduate school, environmental justice, and my other research projects, and often, I received feedback just through friendly conversation. On my last night in Chicago, my mentor at the Chicago Botanic Garden invited me, the lab intern, and his graduate students to dinner. While I spent most of my time at the garden dissecting the Echinacea plants and x-raying their seeds in the lab, I was reminded that scientists also need to be able to discuss their research ideas.