For the past few weeks, I have been busy with data collection. I have been working in both the field and the lab. Half of the day is spent in the forest, where gas samples and soil cores are taken; and the afternoon is spent analyzing soil in the lab.
Conducting fieldwork in the tropics has been an amazing experience. The day begins by locating trees on a ridge, slope, or valley that we had previously identified. Once found, leaf litter is cleared away from the base of the tree so the soil is exposed. We then place an airtight gas chamber on the soil. Every ten minutes, gas is extracted from the chamber using a needle and syringe before it is transferred to a vacuum-sealed glass vial. These vials will be brought back to the lab for analysis. After fifty minutes of extracting gas, the chambers are removed and soil moisture is measured. Additionally, we take soil samples back with us to the lab.
Being able to personally extract samples - to later analyze - is a very rewarding process. I have enjoyed spending everyday out in the forest because there is so much to observe, whether it be a lizard or an exotic plant. I have learned that fieldwork is a long process and requires many specific steps. For example, before taking gas samples, the syringes must be cleared three times away from human breath to ensure they do not contain any unwanted gases. Small details like this are very important to make sure the soil samples are as pure as possible. It can be difficult to keep all materials sterile, while in the field, because it is usually raining or tools get easily covered in soil.
In addition to learning new techniques in the field, I have also acquired new skills in the lab. Once the soil samples are brought back, roots are separated and the soil is sieved. This process can be a bit tedious because the soil has a clay consistency and must be manually pushed through. After sieving, both the roots and the soil are weighed before placed in the drying room. We obtain measurements, when the roots and soil are wet; and then, when they are dry. This process has taught me the importance of precision. The roots especially, are very small; and it is vital that all are soaked in water and included in the weighing process. The weight of the soil and roots will help provide information about the properties of the soil.
Being involved in a long-term project has allowed me to understand how the research process works. I have learned that it is a long procedure and requires many specific steps along the way. Over the next couple of weeks, we will continue to collect soil samples and analyze them in the lab. I am excited to continue the process and to keep practicing the new skills I have acquired.