The rooftop greenhouse is a space on campus for ecological studies
the tight on the roof of the Science and Research 2 building was a space for students and faculty to conduct various experiments on ecological topics ranging from soil microbes to invasive plant species.
Although the greenhouse was renovated in 2016, it has been around for some time, according to associate professor Kerri Crawford. Before that, experiments had to be carried out at UH Coastal Center or on a smaller scale in laboratories.
Crawford’s research is currently focusing on how native plant species can adapt in response to other plants that invade ecosystems. If a native plant coexists with an invasive plant over several generations, specific traits and genetic codes can develop. These genetics can then be explored by scientists to help prevent the spread of invaders.
Crawford said the greenhouse allows him Research Team to conduct controlled experiments that they would not be able to do otherwise. A recent experiment involving over 2,000 plants, all with very specific watering needs, was made possible by the controlled conditions of the greenhouse.
“We were interested in how the amount of water a plant receives influences plant-microbe interactions,” Crawford said. “We found that if soils are wetter, microbes can disrupt the coexistence between plant species, which can be a problem in areas that receive more rainfall with climate change. “
Post-baccalaureate researcher Jakob Joachin is conducting his first independent experiment on these plant-microbe relationships in different ecological contexts, such as how water availability influences interactions between typically pathogenic fungi and grassland plants.
Joachin joined the Crawford Lab in the spring of 2018 when they were in their second year in an evolutionary biology course.
Joachin wasn’t sure what the research looked like or if they could do it to be funded by the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Post-Baccalaureate Students program and the intention to attend a graduate school for applied research in restoration.
“After my first summer of fieldwork (hunting grasshoppers and fighting mosquitoes), I was completely hooked,” Joachin said. “Falling in love with the day-to-day tasks of ecological research, I finally found myself asking new questions about work and ‘thinking like a scientist’. “
Amber Ooi, senior in biology, also found it rewarding to work in the greenhouse. Ooi joined the undergraduate research experiments program last summer, where she worked with another student to test whether the presence of plants helps prevent droughts from causing stress on soil microbial communities.
“We used the SR2 rooftop greenhouse to keep the 180 plants (at) a constant temperature as the Houston summers tend to get very hot,” Ooi said. “I learned a lot this summer about the investigative process behind research and making a lot of mistakes.”
Ooi hopes to publish a paper on this research next year and expand his interests in conservation ecology in the future.
Ooi recommends that undergraduates join the student organization Society for Advancement of Chicanos / Hispanics and Native Americans in Science if they are interested in research, as well as taking courses such as ecology, conservation, and plant physiology if they wish to specifically pursue ecological research.
“While there are currently no vacancies for research assistants, people are generally happy to discuss their research,” Crawford said. “Through their research experiences, some students are realizing that they want to go on to graduate school to earn a master’s or doctorate.”