Babson’s Professor Rodgers Examines Impact of Human Actions On Natural Ecosystems Of New England

Babson’s Vikki L. Rodgers, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science within the Math and Science Division, is interested in all aspects of global environmental change.

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Babson’s Vikki L. Rodgers, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science within the Math and Science Division, is interested in all aspects of global environmental change, including the effects of climate change, land use shifts, nitrogen deposition, and the spread of invasive species. 
She is currently performing some primary research at the Boston Area Climate Experiment (BACE) in Waltham, MA. This field site is designed to expose a plant community to different levels of temperature and precipitation, thereby simulating a variety of possible future climate change conditions. 
“It is imperative to understand how our plant and soil communities will be affected12.jpgby climate change since they influence our food production capabilities, our natural resource availability, and can even contribute to large-scale ecosystem feedback effects (with plant death leading to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and thereby accelerated climate change). Unlike research at a number of other field experiments, the BACE site is unique because it is designed to address a range of changes in both temperature and precipitation simultaneously, which allows scientists to observe shifts along a range of conditions. 
 
From afar the BACE site looks like three skeletons of greenhouses placed over a large old-field. Within each “skeleton” there are twelve experimentally manipulated plots. The plots experience one of four different warming conditions (ambient, low, medium, high), along with one of three different precipitation manipulations (ambient, drought, wet). The warming is accomplished by the permanently installed infrared heaters that elevate the air temperature by 1.0 °C (low), 2.7 °C (med), or 4 °C (high) above the ambient conditions. The rainfall is altered using plastic slats that collect 50% of the ambient rainfall over the drought plots and then immediately delivered it to the wet treatments via an overhead sprinkler system. 
 
 
The BACE site was built in 2007 and I began my work there in 2008. The first project I worked on was investigating how different plants would shift their rates of photosynthesis in response to varied climate conditions. For this research I used a piece of equipment that clips onto a leaf and instantly measures the flux of carbon dioxide into the leaf. I was able to determine the important role of warming-induced soil moisture stress in declining photosynthetic rates. Interestingly the plant responses to the warming and precipitation treatments were not found to be synergistic or ameliorative. This work has recently been accepted for publication in the International Journal of Plant Sciences. In my second project I am examining the six different species of tree seedlings that were planted into each plot. These tree species are native to New England’s forest and represent the natural successional shift of our old-fields into forest communities. I am researching how the different species change their leaf production (size, number, density, chemistry) in response to the different climate conditions. It currently appears that some species will be able to take advantage of the altered climate conditions, while others will not, which may represent a large shift in the composition of our future forests. I will be presenting these results at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in August in Portland, OR. 

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The BACE site is an exciting and unique place to perform research. It is designed and coordinated by Professor Jeff Dukes at Purdue University, funding is provided by the National Science Foundation, and there are scientists from at least 10 different colleges/universities working there to measure various different aspects of ecological change. I have been able to hire Babson undergraduate students to work with me at the BACE site for the past three summers, which has been a fantastic opportunity both for them and for me. Getting students to be excited about how science works and engaging them to play a significant role in designing and measuring an ecological study has been immensely rewarding.
This summer I started a new project, collaborating with Professor Alden Griffith from Wellesley College. We had our students working together to investigate how precipitation shifts can influence the germination and growth of a common, weedy plant species. This project will continue next summer and I hope to be able to include other students in this future work. If anyone is ever interested in touring the BACE site or collaborating on research projects there, please don’t hesitate to ask me."
Rodgers joined Babson in September 2007 and teaches courses on Environmental Technology, Economic Botany, Climate Change, Biodiversity and the Environment, and Ecotourism in Costa Rica. Her research focuses on understanding how human actions are changing the natural ecosystems of New England. She has a background in forest ecology and biogeochemistry and received the Ph.D. in 2007 from Boston University, studying the effects of an invasive plant species.

Additional information and pictures about Vikki’s research is available at: http://faculty.babson.edu/vrodgers/ 

Professor Rodgers discusses her work in this video conversation with President Schlesinger and colleagues: http://youtu.be/9Qw2qKK4XD8
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By Hilary Katulak, 781-239-4623, hkatulak@babson.edu  | 7/31/2012 12:31 PM