Environmental Biology Student Explores Local Ecological Issue
Western red cedars are dying throughout the Pacific Northwest, and we don’t know why.
The native species — which is not a “true” cedar but one of several Northwest trees called a cedar — is iconic to the Pacific Northwest as part of the ecological habit and as a “cultural keystone species” due to its long-time use by Indigenous peoples.
In recent years, however, countless specimens have been showing signs of “die back,” with no apparent cause.
Faculty and student researchers at Pacific University are looking for an explanation.
Some theories for the root of die back include climate change and drought. Taylor Warnick ’23 is an environmental biology major who has been working with faculty member Kara Lanning to study soil around the dying trees in search of a possible microbial culprit.
“The die-back eventually spreads throughout the tree and affects the entire tree, but it starts at the crown, which is different from other plant pathogens,” Warnick said. “So we are looking at the soil microbes and seeing if a plant pathogen in those soils are causing the symptoms we call die back.”
They take soil samples from around symptomatic and asymptomatic trees in the Pacific-owned John B. Blodgett Arboretum in the Oregon Coast range, then bring the samples back to the lab to isolate DNA and look for specific pathogens.
The project is not only tackling an important ecological issue — it’s also giving Warnick a glimpse at her future.
“Originally, I wasn’t planning on being a science major,” she said. But a biology class with outdoor labs gave her a different perspective. “I realized I could do the lab work but also have a mixture of being outside.”
As the No. 1 private research university in the Pacific Northwest — with a foundational liberal arts and sciences undergraduate program — Pacific University offers undergraduate students rare opportunities for hands-on research alongside their faculty members.
It’s what students like Warnick say sets Pacific apart and gives them a leg up on the next stage of their education and career.
“This field work has really helped me decide what I want to do after graduation,” she said. “It’s given me the experiences that I can take into my future and go into grad school and get my master’s in an environmental science-based program.”
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