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UMaine Today Magazine

Student Focus

Trees tell the history of one of New England's largest old-growth forests

Shawn Fraver
Shawn Fraver's work in Maine's Big Reed Forest Reserve offers a rare glimpse of tree growth and decline.

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In order to read a tree's life story, Shawn Fraver extracts a pencil-thin core from the trunk, then sands the wood to a fine sheen to expose the growth rings. Each ring reveals a year in which the tree took advantage of ideal conditions to grow rapidly, or in which the tree grew very little, saving its resources to survive drought or insect attack.

Fraver, a University of Maine Ph.D. student from Old Town, Maine, is studying tree growth in the Big Reed Forest Reserve in northern Piscataquis County. Owned by The Nature Conservancy, Big Reed constitutes one of the largest tracts of old-growth forest in New England.

With support from a nationally competitive U.S. Environmental Protection Agency STAR fellowship, Fraver is delving into the cycles of growth and disturbance at Big Reed. The goal is to describe how the forest responds to environmental changes year to year.

In the UMaine Department of Forest Ecosystem Science, Fraver is working with Associate Professor Alan White, who coordinates the research project at Big Reed.

The results will yield benefits to forest managers who increasingly look for guidance in natural patterns of forest growth, Fraver says.

Understanding the scale and frequency of natural disturbances also will contribute to future decisions about forest reserves.

Fraver has found that most of the older trees at Big Reed are around 200 years old, although he also has found quite a few that exceed 300 years.

"It seems apparent that there was a catastrophic disturbance perhaps a hurricane that wiped out many of the trees in the late 1700s and allowed a large new group of trees to become established," he says.

Changing Ice Sheets
Working for NASA on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet

Vandy Spikes
Vandy Spikes

Over the next few years, scientists will be working hard to determine conclusively if the world's ice sheets and glaciers are shrinking, growing or remaining unchanged. Their results will have significant implications for the debate over global climate change.

At the heart of that discussion will be research by Vandy Spikes, a University of Maine Ph.D. student in geological sciences.

Spikes will use a fellowship from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to establish precise elevations for points on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. His results will help to interpret data from a new ice monitoring satellite launched by NASA.

Spikes is working with Gordon Hamilton, a research assistant professor in UMaine's Institute for Quaternary and Climate Studies, and Steven Arcone of the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H.

"The Antarctic ice sheet is changing, and while it is getting thicker in some places, most evidence suggests it is generally getting thinner," Spikes says. However, the evidence collected so far comes from elevation measurements at widely scattered points on the ice, he adds. The picture that has emerged is rough.

When data start coming from ICESat, a NASA satellite launched in December, the picture will come into better focus. The raw data must be adjusted to account for a variety of factors, such as the temperature and humidity of the atmosphere, and the position of the satellite. Spikes will work with NASA to perform those calculations.

Battlefield Sensors

Wendy Kresge
Wendy Kresge


The learning environment for University of Maine physics undergraduate Wendy Kresge goes far beyond the classroom. For the past two years, she has worked at UMaine's Laboratory for Surface Science and Technology (LASST), which is nationally recognized for its research on products that are vital to the government and the industrial sector.

Kresge is helping to develop chemiresistive sensors to detect the presence of chemical and biological agents on the battlefield.

The senior from Gilbert, Pa., says she feels privileged to be contributing to the development of a technology that may one day save lives. But she knows that she wouldn't have had that opportunity without the unique learning experience that has been available to her at LASST.

"It's a fantastic working environment. LASST provides a teaching environment, so it's more than just a professional lab that develops products. It has allowed me to connect the theory I learn in class to hands-on experience," Kresge says.

Kresge fabricates sensors by using one of two processes to grow a thin film on a surface: sputtering or electron beam evaporation. These processes take place in an ultra-high vacuum and involve knocking off or evaporating individual atoms from a high purity metal source and depositing them onto the surface of a sapphire crystal to produce a pattern.

Kresge says she plans to build on the knowledge and experience she has gained at UMaine by pursuing a master's degree in physics. (Kresge also is pictured on the cover of this issue.)

Guarding the Welfare of Water

Katherine Schmitt
Catherine Schmitt


We expect the water coming out of our faucets to be clean and healthful. To help Maine water suppliers keep it that way, the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Environmental and Watershed Research at The University of Maine is working to address new federal regulations that could be a burden, especially for small, rural water systems.

Spearheading the work are Catherine Schmitt, a master's degree student in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences Program, and John Peckenham, interim director at the Mitchell Center. Nine Maine water utilities, the Maine Water Utilities Association and the Maine Drinking Water Program also are participating in the project, which focuses on protecting ponds, streams and other surface water sources.

Consulting on environmental matters is nothing new for Schmitt, a native of Glen Rock, N.J. Before coming to UMaine, she worked in Massachusetts on issues related to development around wetlands.

In her academic program, she is researching issues related to the use of chlorine to disinfect drinking water. By disinfecting water with chlorine, water suppliers create unwanted by-products harmful to health. Schmitt's research will address the possibility that, in some circumstances, drought conditions may lead to an increase in the harmful compounds generated by disinfection.

Schmitt and Peckenham plan to produce a report on watershed protection for water suppliers in 2002.


UMaine Today Magazine
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