Aug 26, 2010 - Desiree Perez
Through her summer internship with the Harvard Forest, Andrea Garcia learned that computer coding can be used for more than just games or programming – it can provide key information for environmental conservation.
Garcia, a Biology major with an emphasis in Ecology, discovered the 12-week internship through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates, a program that connects students to highly competitive research opportunities. Garcia’s advisor, Erik Jules, encouraged her to pursue the internship.
“The key thing that set me apart was the level of recommendations I had,” she says.
The Harvard Forest, on over 3,000 acres in Petersham, Mass., gave Garcia access to its top-notch research facilities. During her internship, Garcia worked with two other student interns, two post-doctoral candidates and members of the Forest. The team used computer coding to track the effects of climate change on plant ecology.
The data that Garcia analyzed comes from the PhenoCam project, which has numerous digital cameras recording forest canopies throughout the U.S. and Canada. Each camera takes approximately one photo every 30 minutes. Andrea took these photographs and ran them through two environmental modeling software programs, MATLAB and R.
“Essentially, you have an image made up of three different colored pixels: red, green and blue,” Garcia says. “These programs can dissect images in a way that human eyes can’t. The code can separate out all the pixels and assign a value to each pixel.”
Looking at the data from an entire year, it’s possible to observe the life cycle of the forest canopy from leaf-out, to the onset of autumn coloration, to the winter leaf shed.
Being able to track the life cycles of these forests can lead to a better understanding of the effects of climate change on vegetation. “It’s not as though plants have internal clocks,” Garcia says. “The time that leaves change color is related to temperature.”
During her internship, Garcia also worked on another project to compare temperature to a vegetation index. The goal was to correlate the start of growing conditions noted in the index with the weather at that time. “I’ve learned that many trees are sensitive to climatic variability,” she says.
Last summer, Garcia worked as a bio-technician for the U.S. Forest Service. With the Harvard Forest internship under her belt, she hopes to pursue a career in environmental conservation with a federal agency or a non-profit organization.