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Graduate STEM Fellow Profile

Caroline Polgar

Project Title: GLobAl Change Initiative: Education and Research (GLACIER)
Thesis: Examining the effect of climate change on phenology of plants and butterflies in Massachusetts
College/University: Boston University
Research Advisor: Richard B. Primack
Degree Sought: Ph.D., Biology
Department: Biology
Research Focus: The impact of climate change on the leaf out dates of plants and the emergence and flight dates of butterflies in Massachusetts
Teaching Partner(s):

Description of Research

As a scientific community we are just beginning to understand the countless ways in which climate change is altering the natural world and the species that inhabit it. Because of their responsiveness to environmental conditions, plants are excellent organisms for researching the effects of climate change. In the first few years of my graduate study, I have been using the plant community of Concord, MA to investigate whether leaf-out dates of trees and shrubs have shifted in response to climate change over the past 150 years. Concord is an ideal location for phenological research because of the existence of unique, unanalyzed records of phenological observations collected by Henry David Thoreau from 1852 to 1860. Additionally, I am working at a local climate change experimental facility, the Boston Area Climate Experiment, to see if warming small plots above ambient temperatures will cause seedlings to leaf out earlier than those grown in control plots. More recently I am shifting my focus to include research on butterflies as well as plants. Research to date on the biological effects of climate change on plants and animals in New England has focused almost exclusively on plant flowering times and bird arrivals in the spring. Insects play a prominent role in ecological food webs, yet are underrepresented in phenological research. This crucial missing link has limited the understanding of the complete set of community level effects that climate change has caused. It is extremely important to examine the impact of climate change on insects in order to determine whether phenological mismatches are occurring, or are likely to occur, in plant-pollinator and/or plant-herbivore interactions. In this study, I will be working with several collaborators to examine the impact of temperature on spring emergence dates of several species of butterflies common in Massachusetts.

Example of how my research is integrated into my GK-12 experience

In my fifth grade classroom, we spent the fall learning about animal behavior, focusing on birds specifically. I was able to use my training in plant taxonomy to help the students learn how to use dichotomous keys and a field guide to identify birds and other animals they saw on our many field trips to local parks. We are now focusing on pollution and global warming and because my research is done locally, I think explaining it to my students and having them graph some of the data I have collected on their own will really give them a good sense of how climate change is affecting us right here in Massachusetts.

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