Backyard dueling plant experiment sparks hope for future remote field opportunities at SERC in Edgewater

As field scientists, Senior Scientist Kim Komatsu and Postdoctoral Assistant Amy Hruska understand the need to be flexible and open to new solutions, so when COVID-19 derailed their lab’s plans for the summer they found a way to bring the field work experience to interns.

Skye Austin, Rachael Brenneman and Julia Smith would have spent the summer in Edgewater looking into how 40 years of changing land use affects a forest through the Ecosystem Conservation Lab at Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. Instead, the three students spent the summer at home monitoring 60 buckets planted with every possible combination of Joe-Pye weed, Virginia wild rye and sensitive partridge pea in their backyards in Virginia.


Hruska spent 10 hours driving to deliver materials to each intern’s home, then the students met virtually to discuss how to set up the experiment uniformly across three sites, including factors like how far apart to place each plant in each pot.

Austin looked at how plant diversity effects how much nitrogen is absorbed by plants commonly used in stream restoration projects. Brenneman looked at how diversity affects a plant’s microbial community. Smith looked at how the amount of nitrogen a plant absorbs can effect how much light it is able to absorb by driving growth.


The work could inform what kind of plants are put in the buffers of stream restoration projects, by illuminating the role systems of light, nutrients and microbes play along the shore.

The interns grew the plants in their backyards for five weeks, and plants were exposed to levels of fertilizer similar to runoff from a residential yard for four weeks, according to Hruska and Komatsu.

Family members ended up chipping in to care for the plants as well.

Komatsu said she hopes the success of this summer’s program will provide opportunities for people who would like to learn from SERC, but can’t come in person.

“We know it works now,” she said.

Komatsu said the lab’s internships are paid, and because of cost-savings from not needing to pay travel expenses, they have been able to extend Austin and Brenneman’s internships into the fall. Smith won’t continue because she is starting a PhD program at University of Washington, Seattle. Samples from this summer’s experiment still need to be processed at SERC when students can return to the campus.