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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."

Making a difference

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."