Preserving Piñon Pines
Growing up on a farm in the tobacco country of rural
North Carolina, Susannah Tysor took an early interest in her grandmother's
flower gardens. This hobby steadily grew into a passion for plants, and
eventually into the pursuit of an ecology career.
Despite her affinity for plants, Tysor didn't always know
exactly how to incorporate her studies in chemistry and mathematics. She
credits her professors, Amy
Whipple and George
Koch, with providing viable options.
"I wouldn't have discovered how to combine
my interests if I didn't come here," she says. "I know that I'm
making a difference—in a sense, ecology is everything."
The right elements
Flagstaff's climate is one factor that led Tysor to Northern
Arizona University. Battling chronic migraines caused by weather and changes in
barometric pressure, she searched for a university that not only provided a
solid educational foundation for her interests, but offered an environment
where her health problems wouldn't be a distraction.
Tysor was a scholar in the competitive Undergraduate
Mentoring in Environmental Biology program, which is designed to offer
mentorships to exceptional undergraduates and increase their exposure to the
scientific methods of environmental biology. She took full advantage of the
opportunity to do graduate-level research, and focused her work on the Piñon
Pine. One of the most common trees in the Southwest, the Piñon provides a
habitat to many species, yet is facing widespread mortality because of climate
change. Tysor's research focused on how increasing levels of carbon dioxide may
be influencing growth and survival. This could lead to a better understanding
of how soil types affect the drought response of the pines, as well as
predictions of the trees' reproduction and migration.
"There is speculation that in eighty years our
Piñons will be gone. It is not unthinkable that Flagstaff could eventually look
a lot like Sedona," she says, meaning that the mountain forest landscape
of Flagstaff could one day resemble the more barren, rocky terrain of Sedona.
"It's depressing on one level, but incredibly exciting to look at things
like species succession and how ecosystems change through time."
Tysor's work significantly contributes to the body of
knowledge needed for others—like land managers or city planners—to understand
where a tree, like the Piñon Pine, can survive in 100 years. For example, if a
housing development is planned for an area where the last of the pines can
survive, research will provide land managers with the information to make responsible
decisions that will help sustain a particular species.
Tysor’s undergraduate research on the Piñon pine and its
relationship to climate change was a good primer for her current work as a PhD
student at the University of British Columbia, where she is participating in
the AdapTree project to examine how the trees found in British Columbia and
Alberta adapt to climate change. Tysor’s research focuses on the lodgepole
pine, and how far its pollen—and the alleles that produce different genetic
traits—can travel under certain conditions.
Tysor says the close-knit mentoring relationships with
her professors have contributed to her success.
"I've found that at NAU, if you are
interested and curious about your work, the professors will go the extra mile
to help you pursue whatever you want," Tysor says. "They helped me to
gradually build a skill set, encouraged me to apply for funding, and guided me
in finding the right path to do what I want to do."