“Tree of heaven” conjures images of a magnificent plant species reaching toward the sky as the centerpiece of a thriving, bucolic landscape. But, tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is one of the most deceptive names in all of nature. In reality, the tree is an invasive ecological nuisance, displacing a wide range of other trees and plants and wreaking havoc among both agricultural and natural environments across the United States.
One of the researchers who studied the tree of heaven in recent months is Elaine Metz ’19, who was among the first Hollins University students to take advantage of a new partnership between Hollins and the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. The affiliation offers undergraduate students at Hollins summer research experience in Virginia Tech labs and field study locations. As Vice President for Academic Affairs Trish Hammer notes, “Working with Virginia Tech in this way allows for extraordinary research and mentoring opportunities for our students in a broad range of interdisciplinary fields.”
A biology major from Staunton, Virginia, Metz spent ten weeks working in Virginia Tech’s forest entomology lab investigating an organic way to combat the tree of heaven. “A naturally occurring fungus here in Virginia appears to offer an effective way to attack the tree,” she explains. One of the benefits of such a fungus is “it’s not like a pesticide. You can insert it into the ecosystem and let it go wild.”
Metz studied the fungus in six different plots. Three are located in Virginia’s Piedmont region and three are in the more mountainous region of the state.
“It’s definitely a long-term project, but hopefully by the end we may be able to use that fungus as a control throughout the entire continental United States.”
Metz worked closely on the project with Virginia Tech graduate student Rachel Brooks, “who taught me a ton about graduate school and how I need to prepare. I liked having a single project that I could focus on and to which I could really devote myself. I think that bodes well for graduate school for me because I’m thinking that’s what it’s going to be like, focusing on a single thing for a couple of years, fleshing it out, and working with it in-depth.”
Metz believes this kind of experience balances “the broader education that you receive as an undergraduate.”
In addition to her work with the tree of heaven, Metz took part in a variety of professional development activities at Virginia Tech, including writing personal statements, presenting research, and touring other labs and research facilities.
“This has helped me think of my career in a more tangible way. It has always been in my mind that I wanted to do scientific research, and this made me realize this is something I could do as a job and enjoy it.” Metz says one the most important lessons she learned was that she could avail herself of several different options to achieve her goals. For example, “if I don’t want to go straight from Hollins into graduate school, I could potentially go out for six months to a year and study with different professors. I’d get to travel, too – a lot of lab work spaces are in interesting places in the biological sciences. I could understand more about what I might want to do with my career before I go to grad school, which is really a great opportunity for me. I’m not exactly sure what I want to do, but because of this experience I know where I might be able to go. I have more of an idea and a purpose than I would have had if I had not participated in this program.”
Her ten weeks at Virginia Tech complement what Metz has gained from her first two years at Hollins. “Because of its liberal arts environment, Hollins allows me to explore in a lot of different ways, and that exploration doesn’t hinder my ability to get a degree. I’m a biology major, but I’m taking Roman history and Spanish translation – not at all in my field, but I’m taking those courses because I can. Having a diversity of opportunity at Hollins has really made it special for me, so it’s a really good thing to get that aspect here and at Tech get specificity and the ability to go in deep.”
This academic year, Metz’s educational journeys will take her beyond the Hollins campus, Virginia Tech’s labs and field plots, and even Virginia itself: Through the School for Field Studies, she will be spending Spring Term 2018 in Peru. “I’ll be spending a lot of time in the jungle and cloud forests and experiencing a lot of different and unique ecosystems.”
Photo Credit: Cassandra Hockman, Global Change Center at Virginia Tech
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