Q: Can you briefly introduce yourself?
A: My name is Renee. I’m a senior biology major. I’m from New York City, and I’m interested in plant ecology and insect ecology. I’m currently working on a thesis based off of a two-semester research [project] with another senior student. Now, we have to collect all the data before winter comes and then we’re going to spend winter in the spring writing [the thesis] and everything.
Q: What is your thesis about?
A: My thesis is looking at character displacement in [two] species of flowers that grow in western Massachusetts and in this general area. It’s about two species that coincide with each other. They’re both native species and are pollinated by other local organisms like hummingbirds and bumblebees. We’re looking at how the presence of one is going to influence the traits that we see in the other … if they look different when they’re apart versus when they’re together.
Q: Where does your source of inspiration for this topic come from?
A: I reached out to different professors whose work I liked and whose field I gravitated towards. When I talked to my advisor … he was telling me about this plant system that he worked on 15 years ago. He was telling me [this plant] is pollinated by hummingbirds, it grows everywhere around here, [and that we’d] get to look at cool things like character displacement, potentially. I was just really interested in it based on that. I thought this could be a really cool project.
Q: What is innovative about your research?
A: I would say that invasive species are a problem everywhere in the world now. With globalization, although I’m just looking at two plant species in western Massachusetts, I think that there are principles that could be taken from that. Understanding how that system works can help understand the ways that character displacement functions and looks in plants, which is the divergence of traits that we’re seeing, and which is something that occurs when native plants are in the presence of invasive ones.
The research is also important locally because there’s been a decline in the number of species of bees. We noticed that, when we go out into the field, there’s usually only one species, like Bombus vagans — [half-black] bumblebees. There are not really honey bees anymore. The plant is supposed to have a lot of pollinators and it really doesn’t anymore.
Q: What is your workflow like with your thesis advisor? How do you two work with each other?
A: We have in-person meetings once every week or couple of weeks or so. Most of the time, it’s me and my research partner Ella Rose, who is also doing a thesis under the same advisor. [We go] outside on the bike path in parts of [the town of] Amherst and measure floral traits and plant traits, like height. Most of the workload right now is outside before winter comes, because we have to collect all of our data now. The other part of the time that we spend is in our rooms entering this data that we found, and playing around with it in spreadsheets a little bit.
Q: How has the process of researching and writing the thesis been for you? What are the ‘roses’ and what are the ‘thorns?’
A: I’ll start with thorns because I want to end up getting everything. Definitely working in bio — working in nature and climate change — is a really big thorn in my side. I came in the middle of the summer to start research, and there was a drought for like a month. It didn’t rain for a few weeks and a bunch of our populations literally burned to a crisp, it was crazy. That, and also the weather — it’s getting cold now so the flowers are starting to fall off. We’ve had to switch gears a little bit and focus less on the flowers because they’re all dying, and focus more on things like the stems and the leaves. But that kind of goes into the rose[s], because that’s the thing about bio research and about field research, is that things will go wrong. You have to learn to accommodate that and to grow from that. I would say that the rule is that it’s a learning experience. It’s not just doing research — like, working for a professor — because you actually have to generate so many of the methods from start to finish. My advisor obviously has such an influential role in mentoring, but [it’s also about] just being able to do this on my own with my partner, then learning from it, growing from it, seeing what I can create, and being proud of what I create.
Q: What advice would you share with students who are interested in writing a thesis?
A: I guess a piece of advice is to have an open mind. Talk to your professors. Talk to your advisors. They’re really knowledgeable people who have been in situations where things go wrong, and they’ve had to switch gears. Just be open to other routes and other ideas that they might have, or that you might get from reading the literature. Keep an open mind, and circle back to the very beginning point.
Q: Why did you decide to write a thesis in the first place?
A: I decided to write a thesis because I really like the idea of working in the field and the idea of doing research. I haven’t had a ton of experience with it like other students have — I know students who’ve been working for the same professor doing research for three years now, and I haven’t had that same experience. [That’s why] I wanted to try it: to be able to put my name on something and to be more involved than just doing research under somebody — to actually make something and see if this is something I want to do with my life.
Q: How has writing this thesis impacted your thoughts about your career choice?
A: I think I definitely still want to do field work. I still want to do research. Because I’m working with plants that get pollinated by insects, I’m working with both plants and insects, [and through that I’ve figured out] I’m [not as interested in] insects at this point. It definitely is a learning experience, but I do know that generally this ecology and this research is something that I really want to do with my life.
Q: This is such a special thesis because you are collaborating with someone else in your research. What is that like?
A: I think we’re both really lucky that we’re interested in the same kind of research, and the same field of research and doing similar things with our lives. We’re super lucky in that sense. But I think it is really nice to have somebody that you can shoot ideas off of when things go wrong, to have somebody with you in the decision making process of everything, like ‘Which sites are we going to use?’ or ‘What are we going to do now that a bunch of these plants have burned up?’ All of that.
Q: What are some of the similarities and differences between your thesis and Ella’s thesis?
A: Because we were just collecting general data together for a long time, we kind of decided recently on how we’re breaking it up into what we’re doing. [Ella is] looking at character displacement in the floral traits, which is something that has to do more with pollinators and how to attract pollinators, whereas mine is more about resource-based competition, since I’m looking at vegetative traits and how the two plants or the two species are affecting each other on a resource level, like fighting for light and for space. Her work looking at the flowers is more like reproductive competition — how the two species fight with each other to attract pollinators.
Q: Where are your different sites?
A: We spent the first couple of weeks just walking around all over the bike trail, all over Book & Plow [Farm], in town, looking for sites. We actually didn’t find too many of them [at Book & Plow] but we’re working behind the faculty apartments by the tennis courts. That’s one site. We’re also looking at the entrance to the bike trail, and we’re looking at a section that’s growing on Amity Street by University Drive, [about] a mile away from here.
Q: Can you describe a day into your life as a senior writing your thesis while having to manage classes and having your own social life?
A: A day in the life ... I get up super early at 7-ish. Eat breakfast, probably do some homework that I haven’t done already at breakfast. Go to class — I’m doing well in my classes. And then after class I’ll probably eat something quickly and run back to my room to change clothes, like cargo pants and hiking boots. And then meet my partner at one of our sites, and then take measurements for probably like three hours or something like that. Go get dinner with her. [Go] back to my room, put all the data, do homework. Go to meetings for other things if I have to. The only nice thing about my schedule this semester is that for bio, they let you take two thesis credits. [So] I have a little bit of extra free time, but [the thesis] is what the free time is for.
Q: What do you do on your free days to recharge your energy?
A: It’s going to sound sad — I’m going to lay in bed all day. If I can hang out with my friends, then I lay in their beds. Something that is nice that I actually do: I like going out into nature, like going out on the bike trail or on any of the loops on the campus. I actually like going and seeing my plants, but at places where we’re not doing research, because when we do research on them, we have to tag them and mark them up a bunch and tread through [them]. So it’s really nice to just go on a walk and see a natural population and there’s a bunch of spiders and undisturbed things living in it. It’s just so beautiful.