James F. Duffy

Field research is an invaluable tool for researchers across all disciplines at Temple University and well beyond. It provides data in real time in actual environmental conditions.

Of course, sometimes those environmental conditions don't cooperate with the needs of the experiment at hand.

"We've been involved in a multidisciplinary, 6-year-long study of stormwater management devices along I-95 in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia. We're interested in the dynamics and conditions of these very urban stormwater systems and how they affect plants and soils," said Dr. Josh Caplan, Research Associate Professor in the Tyler School of Art and Architecture Landscape Architecture and Horticulture programs. "In doing the project, we started to think about all that de-icing salt that is put out there — how does the salt affect the plants and soils?"

A winter of almost no snow or need for road salt, however, precipitated a move to the labs at Temple Ambler, Caplan said.  

"We thought, hey wait a minute, we can put salt on soils ourselves. We designed an experiment that we're conducting in the lab at Temple Ambler that mimics the kinds of conditions that soils would experience out in the field, adding a little bit of salt versus a lot of salt," he said. "We're essentially recreating real-world scenarios. With research of this type, we want to create opportunities for students; we want to be able to train people in the field and lab. We try to get students involved in all of the research that we do."

The goal of the project, Caplan said is to "understand how the soil health is affected by salt that would come into the stormwater system from the road."

"We're especially interested in the function of the soil microbes — how much does that community respire carbon dioxide, how active are they, and also who's there; what microbial types are in the soil? We're partnering with Dr. Bram Stone at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) in Washington state — he'll take all of our samples and conduct DNA sequencing to determine the actual microbes present," he said. "For this experiment, we've brought in fresh soil samples from the field — essentially soil that has never experienced a winter with salt before. We want to see the results when there is no past history of salt exposure. This was a great opportunity to take real soil from an active field site and bring it to the lab."

Salt water has been added to the soil samples in various concentrations, Caplan said.  

"We are examining what happens immediately in addition to what happens over time. We've been measuring one day, three days, seven days, 10 days after the initial salt exposure to see if the microbial community bounces back. We'll only know once the sequencing is done," he said. "We're using the equipment in the lab to set up very controlled conditions so that we can compare only the effect of the salt exposures. We'll send off the frozen samples to PNNL. They'll isolate all of the DNA and RNA and then do the bioinformatics. Now that we have all of these measurements that we've taken in the lab, we'll be able to see if we can discern patterns based on the community data set and the functional data set together."

Two students have been working closely with Caplan on the soil experiment, Horticulture junior Trinity Flores and Horticulture senior Aaron Freeman. Students also had the opportunity to work on the study with Dr. Sasha Eisenman, Associate Professor of Horticulture and Chair of Architecture and Environmental Design in the Tyler School of Art and Architecture, and Anne Brennan, who is now the Plants Curator in the Ambler Arboretum.

"I was drawn to horticulture by my desire to have a career outdoors and immersed in nature — I also wanted to have a deeper understanding of plants and how they impact our ecology," said Freeman. "I became involved in this project after a recommendation made by Dr. Eisenman to enroll in a directed study program — it has been one of the best choices I have made in my time at Temple. Hands-on learning experiences are the best way that I learn, so to me they are priceless — I think half the battle of learning is implementing the knowledge acquired through lectures and applying them in the field or lab."

Flores said she came to the project in a similar fashion.   

"I've been very interested in research, but I wasn't sure where to start so I emailed one of my teachers, Cindy Ahern (Adjunct Professor in the Tyler School of Art and Architecture Horticulture program), and I asked for some guidance. She immediately suggested talking with Dr. Eisenman who in turn connected me with Dr. Caplan," she said. "I had no idea initially how research related to horticulture. Being taught in a one-on-one atmosphere — a mentor that is there to share with me everything they know and more — has given me a better understanding of whether I want to pursue research as a career and, so far, this experience is making me think this is the right path for me."

Flores is planning to take her research experience and expand upon it.  

"I also applied for a CARAS (Creative Arts, Research and Scholarship) grant. The experiment would involve measuring soil respiration from the Temple Forest Observatory in the Temple Ambler Field Station," she said. "I knew coming into college that I didn't want an office job; I want to be outside; I want to be helping the world. What I really care about right now is our environment. The CARAS grant is focused on ecological disturbances, which is something I'm very interested in studying right now — as the weather becomes more extreme more communities will be affected by ecological disturbance."

Freeman said he has had several opportunities to be involved in hands-on research in the Horticulture program, including the green stormwater infrastructure project along I-95, disturbance ecology of the tornado-stricken forest, and a study of urban tree transpiration.

"I am also working on a manuscript with Dr. Caplan, Dr. Eisenman, and Dr. Charles Mullen (USDA) for a short paper discussing if hardy bananas would make a viable biofuel," he said. "I am thankful to have had the opportunity to do all of this as an undergraduate and I think it will prepare me well for graduate school and my career. Dr. Caplan helped me not only learn how to conduct research, but also guided me tremendously in my pursuit of graduate school and has helped me understand the culture of academia."

Caplan said the students will have the chance to present their research at the Temple Ambler Field Station Research Symposium, the Symposium for Undergraduate Research and Creativity at Main Campus and regional conferences.

"Research of this nature is an opportunity for students to think about things in a very rigorous way and to learn vigorous techniques of discerning completely new information. A lot of people have looked at microbes in soils before, but in terms of what specifically we're trying to answer, it's a novel question," he said. "There's the process of thinking about the broader questions and the broader concepts as they relate to what we are doing in the lab. The actual process of doing things in a lab setting where you have to be very careful, you have to think through things, double-check yourself, conduct thorough data analysis; it's a whole new way of thinking."

For more information about the Landscape Architecture and Horticulture programs in the Tyler School of Art and Architecture, visit https://tyler.temple.edu/programs/landscape-architecture-horticulture.