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Budding botanist spends summer documenting flora around Campus Lake

by Luanne Williams

Take a walk around Campus Lake with biology professor Christy Carter and senior Emily Barbee and you might meet your daily step goal, but don’t expect to elevate your heart rate. The two stop frequently to pore over every blooming plant – yes, literally every plant that has a bloom.

“My family won’t walk with me anymore,” Dr. Carter quips. “When I say, ‘Let’s take a walk,’ they ask me to clarify exactly what kind of walk I’m talking about.”

Barbee admits that she finds it hard to turn off her budding botanist habits. Even when she’s walking with friends, she finds herself stopping to peer at foliage, ever aware of a plant that she hasn’t seen before.

The one-time accounting student now double-majoring in environmental biology and math spent last semester with her eye trained on mosses, identifying 21 different species in the Campus Lake/nature trail area. Funded by a Reeves Summer Research Grant, her current work with Carter has her focused on flowering plants, from the smallest on the planet – an aquatic native called duckweed – to tree-sized invaders such as Chinese privet.

A blonde college student digs up a large stalk of grass.

During twice-weekly walks with spade in hand, she digs up anything that is newly blooming and that they haven’t already collected.

“You want to get every portion of the plant, all the different structures, because that can be important when you key them out,” Barbee explains as she extracts a blue skullcap from surrounding plants. “Some are differentiated by tap root, root color. It can be small details.” Even before she starts digging, she snaps a photo with her phone and uploads it to iNaturalist, an app that helps her document where and when she found the specimen and share it with other users. It’s also a way to jumpstart the identification process via crowdsourcing. Even without help, she can often classify the plant down to family and then work on genus and species back at the lab.

“The iNaturalist app records the location all the way to latitude and longitude,” Carter says, “so if someone is looking for this plant they can see exactly where it was and come back in the future and see if it is still growing in this area.”

Barbee and Carter document, discuss, dig and bag before moving on down the trail. By summer’s end they expect to have 400 to 500 specimens and enough new knowledge about the area’s flora to give a presentation at the annual meeting of the Association of Southeastern Biologists. The dried, pressed plants will be used by students in Carter’s field botany classes and also serve as a resource for members of the public who often call to get help with an ID. Perhaps more important, Carter says the research will “provide a baseline of species present, which can be used for comparison in upcoming years.”

She noted that the Campus Lake area, now being used for recreation, cross-country practice and teaching, is changing.

“As the area becomes more disturbed, we expect to see a change in the species which inhabit the Campus Lake area,” Carter says. “To determine if any long-term change is occurring in species composition, a baseline of the flowering species that are present must be documented.”

‘The reason I came here’

A blonde college student takes a photo of a plant laid out on white paper in a lab.

In addition to identifying each plant they gather, Carter and Barbee will also note whether the plant was in an aquatic setting, an open field or the forest understory or along the trail, whether the species is native or invasive, and whether it is listed at the state or federal levels as rare, threatened or endangered. As they expand their herbarium – “Every day I think we’ll get two or three new plants and we come back with 15,” Carter says – they will create a list of all species alphabetically by plant family and begin their statistical analysis.

“We will calculate two separate diversity indices based on all species combined, which will tell us how diverse the plant community is around the Campus Lake area,” she says.

All the while, the collections will continue with each new season of blooms. Carter’s field botany class had already collected early-spring flora, but this is her first chance to delve into species that bloom in the summer and fall.

“This way, students will not only see similarities and differences of physical characteristics within a genus but will also learn the summer and fall flora of related species,” she says.

Barbee says that she’s loving the work and that Wingate has helped her discover her passion: “studying the beauty of nature as well as the ecological roles that different organisms play within it.”

She doesn’t think finding that path and shifting majors would have been as easy at a large university.

“I was able to talk with Mr. Rollins (Mark Rollins, biology lab coordinator) about what I was thinking,” Barbee says. “At a bigger school, I’m not sure I would have had a relationship with faculty at that level. At Wingate, it really is a friendship and a mentorship that I have with my professors. They are the reason I came here.”

Once she graduates in the spring of 2020, Barbee plans to pursue her master's and doctorate on the way to becoming an ecology researcher. Her professor is confident that graduate schools will look favorably on her experience in the field and in the lab.

“Given her skill set, she’ll be really competitive,” Carter says.

Carter and Barbee are among seven faculty-student teams to be awarded Reeves Summer Research grants this year.

June 3, 2019