4/16/2020 Peter Durantine

Research Amid the Campus Trees

In reconstructing the ecological landscape of a site in Virginia that dates to approximately 18,000 years ago, a professor has engaged students in the project by collecting and analyzing stems from the many trees across Franklin & Marshall College’s verdant campus.

Cactus Hill, Va., is one of the earliest pre-Clovis sites in the Americas, and many of the species of old trees on F&M’s campus also may have grown at Cactus Hill, said Tom Hart, visiting assistant professor of anthropology. 

“I am examining the phytoliths from soils on and off the site to both reconstruct the environment and test whether or not humans were there,” Hart said. “Before I do that, though, I need a reference collection to identify these remains and, fortunately, F&M is also an arboretum.”

  • The researchers select trees from across campus for samples. The researchers select trees from across campus for samples. Image Credit: Deb Grove
  • Professor Hart with junior Zulahat Hussein and sophomore Joy Sun on the campus arboretum collecting samples for their research. Professor Hart with junior Zulahat Hussein and sophomore Joy Sun on the campus arboretum collecting samples for their research. Image Credit: Deb Grove
  • Senior Sara Vitelli washes the branches to prepare them for burning in an Earth & Environment laboratory. Senior Sara Vitelli washes the branches to prepare them for burning in an Earth & Environment laboratory. Image Credit: Deb Grove
  • Hussein weighs the samples. Hussein weighs the samples. Image Credit: Deb Grove
  • Sophomore Joy Sun and junior Zulahat Hussein record the samples and wrap them in foil. Sophomore Joy Sun and junior Zulahat Hussein record the samples and wrap them in foil. Image Credit: Deb Grove
  • Hussein places the samples in an Earth & Environment furnace for burning. Hussein places the samples in an Earth & Environment furnace for burning. Image Credit: Deb Grove

In their research efforts, F&M’s grounds supervisor, Rick Anderer, has helped the professor and his students navigate the campus trees and the College’s newly built Caroline Steinman Nunan Arboretum database.

“The students have a great time participating in cutting-edge research while learning about the different trees on campus,” Hart said. “Rick thinks one of the trees next to Shadek-Fackenthal Library is probably 150 years old.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, senior Sara Vitelli, a joint studies major, and junior Zulahat Hussein and sophomore Joy Sun, both anthropology majors, collected branch stems weekly last fall. They started to process them this year in the Department of Earth & Environment laboratory.

“I separated, labeled, and packaged samples of bark we collected from the trees to be baked in the furnace multiple times. I also gathered, labeled, and weighed portions of the now baked bark so they could be burned into ash,” Hussein said. “Joy was in charge of recording the positions of the bark in the furnace and of our methodology in a notebook.”

Hart said burning the stems and bark converts them into phytoliths.

“We put the samples into a muffle furnace and cook them at 500 degrees Celsius,” he said. “This removes all the organic materials, leaving behind the phytoliths and other minerals that were deposited in the plant tissues. These will then be mounted onto microscope slides and used for comparisons with the phytoliths contained in the Cactus Hill soils.” 

Vitelli, who also collected, recorded and processed tree samples, plans to pursue a graduate degree in classical archaeology this fall.

“I enjoyed becoming more proficient at identifying tree species and using the giant loppers to cut down tree limbs,” Vitelli said. “Professor Hart creates a laid-back working environment while still educating his research team about the importance of the work they are doing.”

Hussein and Sun enjoyed the teamwork aspect of their research, which also included junior Adri Macrina and senior Emily O'Hara along with Emily Wilson, Earth & Environment research lab manager and technician. Hussein, who is considering medical school as an option, liked the “extra knowledge” she gained working with Hart on the project. 

“It's one thing to know about flowering plants and soil from small sections of biology class, but it's another thing to actually apply said knowledge to recognize flowering trees and soil types through touch and sight,” Hussein said. “Every aspect of the project was engaging.” 

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