The first grant season of the year is over. I got a couple grants and did not get a few others. It always feels like a mixed bag of “that’s so exciting, I can now do ALL the research mwahahahaha” to “it’s ok, I can work around the lack of funding by [insert: collaboration, reduce sample size, get rid of some questions, discard extra experiments, apply again and wait until next year].” Either way, I am glad that this part of the year is mostly over, as I am ready to start working with bugs and plants again!
This summer, I will be working on a common garden experiment based at one of the local field sites at Cornell University. For this type of experiment, I collect milkweed seeds from multiple locations and grow them in a common environment. By removing the variation caused by developing under different environments, I am mostly observing plant variation caused by genetic factors. There are many applications for this type of experiments from developing new plant varieties in agriculture to determining evolutionary and ecological processes, such as local adaptation and range expansions.
Growing the plants is one of my favorite parts of my work! It starts early –almost a whole year earlier–, in August I visit all the locations that I am interested in and collect the seeds from the different milkweed plants. All the seeds in a milkweed seed pod come from the same mother and father, making it a great system if you are interested in setting an experiment with genetic lines.
Around mid-March, I take all the seeds out of the fridge to prepare them for germination. I am always amazed at how much care you need to put at this stage: bleach the seeds to remove any harmful bacteria or fungi, cut the seed’s coat off to allow water to get into the seed, put the seeds back into the fridge to make sure that they are going through winter-like temperatures, make them warm in the dark to start germination, and once planted make sure that they are growing well and help any struggling seedling to get out of the seed coats. After all of this care and time, I usually get below a 50% germination rate. It is amazing to me that they can actually germinate in the wild without any help!
I now have all the plants in a growth chamber waiting for the spring to arrive so I can move them to their final destination, a common garden that will be full of weevils.