Students Go Hands-On in Allegheny National Forest

For Brandi Hake, a student member of Biology professor Tim Nuttle’s research team, working and living two months out of a cabin in the Allegheny National Forest was no hardship.

“I do a lot of camping and backpacking,” she said. “I learned about field research and techniques and theories. And the people were great.”

Inspecting leaves for insect damage

Inspecting leaves for insect damage were students Rebekah Keating, left, and Ashley Joa. (Keith Boyer)

Hake, of Allegheny County, graduated from IUP in May with a bachelor’s degree in Biology. She plans to attend graduate school and eventually become a professor of biology. Her experiences as a field assistant should be helpful in reaching those next goals, she said.

Becki Beadling, an IUP junior from Bucks County majoring in Biology and Chemistry, also worked two months during the summer as a field technician on the project. “I liked it a lot. I liked the remoteness,” she said.

A typical workday for the student researchers involved traveling at about 6:00 a.m. to conduct tree sampling at study sites across the Allegheny National Forest. On each of twenty-four trees on each site, they carefully examined two limbs, one an experimental limb covered with a net to keep birds off and the other a control limb exposed to all of nature, with the aim of determining bird effects on caterpillars on different tree species.

The students counted leaves on the limbs, ranked them by percentage of damage from insects, and collected caterpillars found there.

Late afternoons and evenings were spent mending nets, recording data, photographing the caterpillars they collected, and feeding the caterpillars to keep them alive to bring them back to campus.

One goal, Beadling said, is to rear as many caterpillars as possible. “The longer we have them, the better the chances of identifying them” the next time they’re encountered in the wild.

Read about how deer influence forest diversity: “The White-Tail Effect”

The students documented which caterpillars were found on which species of trees, helping to create a record of “what’s feeding on what,” she said. Other students counted birds in forests of varying tree-species composition to make the link between trees and birds.

“I think it really helped me,” Beadling said of her field research. “I plan to go to grad school, and they look at those kinds of experiences.”

Support from IUP and two grants from the Wild Resources Conservation Program of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources enabled the students to be paid for their summer work.

“It’s part of our mission to provide hands-on experience to our students, and this better prepares them for their careers, whether it’s as academics or as a state or federal agency person,” Nuttle said. “And it makes them more competitive when they’re looking for jobs after graduation.

“One of the main motivations for having an active research program is that I can provide opportunities for my students and not have to send them elsewhere.”