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Studying the tree of life: WHS graduate participates in ecology research at U of M-Morris

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For as long as she can remember Caitlyn Horsch, a 2012 Woodbury High School graduate, has been fascinated by ecology and the environment. 

“Things you wouldn’t think are connected are connected,” she said. “I like getting a better understanding of the world around us while getting a better understanding of ourselves.” 

Horsch, who is currently a senior at the University of Minnesota-Morris, had the opportunity to truly get up close with nature recently when she participated in a summer research program with one of her professors. 

“It was a chance to study life,” she said, “and the interactions of living organisms and the nonliving environment around them.” 

This is Horsch’s second year participating in the research project. 

The research 

The Undergraduate Summer Research Program at the University of Minnesota-Morris is possible through a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program. 

Funding also is provided by the National Science Foundation.

For the program Horsch, along with three other undergraduates, teamed up with Peter Wyckoff, a biology professor, to study the impacts that various factors have on Minnesota’s forest, such as soil nutrients, temperature, light, water, deer, invasive earthworms and invasive buckthorn. 

“We’re hoping to get a better understanding of Minnesota and the actual ecosystems,” Horsch said. 

The forests that the team looked at were located primarily in west central Minnesota, from south of Marshall to north of Moorhead. 

The team began its research in May and will continue through September. 

Wyckoff intends to publish his and his students’ findings. 

A typical day for Horsch would begin around 9:30 a.m. and consist of monitoring the trees in the area, measuring seedlings while looking for traces of deer and worms. 

Most days were about three to four hours, Horsch said, but some days could be as long as 11 hours depending on how far they had to travel and how much research they were doing. 

“On good days we were out in the forest and it was beautiful and the sun was shining,” Horsch said. “On the not-so-good days we were dodging the thorn bushes and the mosquitos were swarming.

“It was really nice to be outside, though.” 

Horsch said the team’s research revealed that the deer overpopulation has a negative effect on the forest since they are eating the tree seedlings before they have a chance to grow. 

Also, the deer tend to avoid eating the buckthorn, except as a last resort, Horsch said. 

“It’s like if you went into the refrigerator for something to eat,” she said, “you’d eat the liver last.” 

A new way to learn

Horsch said she really enjoyed participating in the summer research program because it provided a unique learning opportunity. 

“It’s a less stressful way of learning I think,” she said. “Plus you’re not just learning things that other people had discovered, you’re discovering your own new things.

“It’s really cool to discover things that nobody else knows.”

After she graduates this year, Horsch, who is majoring in biology and environmental science, said she plans to go to graduate school to study ecology. 

Horsch said she would like to have a career in ecology whether that means in government, the private sector or even academia. 

“I want to gain a better understanding of the world,” she said. “I’ve realized just how complex the things are out there and how they’re affecting you and the world around you.”

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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