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Innovative study of aspen decline led by University of Wyoming student

May 12, 2014 - The Associated Press

LARAMIE -- Northern Idaho native Emily Richardson is using remote sensing to better understand how environmental factors, such as precipitation and elevation, affect plant growth.

She's spent the past semester working under her academic adviser Ramesh Sivanpillai, a remote sensing scientist at the University of Wyoming, as part of the WyomingView internship program. She and Ryan Lermon were the only interns in the program. Both graduate this weekend.

"I'm interested in the sustainability side of it," Richardson said. "I had no clue remote sensing could be so applicable to everything, from forest ecosystems to pine beetles."

Richardson said she used satellites to track multiple seasons of aspen growth in the mountains and observed their phenology -- the study of recurring phenomena -- and aspen decline. She tracked the timing of systems from satellite images to compare the amount of growth between wet, dry and normal seasons.

Richardson also included varying elevations, the highest at 2,600 meters, or about 8,530 feet.

"We train undergrads in doing research and how to define questions," Sivanpillai said. "Even in one semester, you can collect really good data."

After growing up in heavily forested Northern Idaho, and with aspirations of returning someday, Richardson went into botany with an eye on earning her master's in forestry. She said Sivanpillai recruited her into the internship program because of its direct connection to a possible career.

"I felt like I was doing important work," Richardson said. "Sometimes when you're in school you wonder if you're ever going to use certain information, and I felt like this directly related to what I want to do."

Lermon and Richardson presented their findings at Undergraduate Research Day on April 26, which was founded in 2000 with 80 participants. Beth Cable -- project coordinator for EPSCOR, a National Science Foundation-funded research program at the University of Wyoming -- said 365 students presented that day. Cable said UW's undergraduate research program is robust, but not many universities offer similar programs.

"I'm sure not everyone who is doing undergraduate research at UW presented that day, either," Cable said.

"It's such a good experience and it seems fairly common here."

Along with starting her graduate studies in the fall or next spring, Richardson plans to head back out into the mountains this summer to continue her research. She said she's looking forward to comparing the images to what she and her team finds on the ground.

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