July 19, 2013

Perspective Shift

by Cooper Tamayo

Cooper Tamayo '14 is a Royce Fellow studying how erosion rates within tropical forests change the availability of nutrients to plants growing on those forest soils.

An expanse of green.

It is my third week on Brown’s campus this summer, and my last for the better part of a month. Six days from now I will once again be trekking through the depths of El Yunque Rainforest in Puerto Rico. Though a trip to the tropics is hardly something to complain about, I’ve been so long away from Providence that I don’t quite feel ready to depart again. Studying abroad in the spring, then beginning my project in Puerto Rico earlier this summer, has left me missing Thayer, East Side Pocket falafels, frisbee on Simmons Quad, even the Sci Li mezz. Still, returning to Puerto Rico is a prospect that is as exciting as it is necessary. Tropical soils will not sample themselves, after all, and I’m looking forward to once again adventuring up steep muddy forest slopes and sling-shotting down canopy leaves to add to our collection.

It is easy, sometimes, while trekking through dense shrubs and tall tropical grasses, to get lost in the adventure. There have been times that I’ve found myself so engrossed in climbing, traversing and exploring El Yunque’s rivers, cliffs and great boulders, that my purpose for being there is almost forgotten.

I recall one instance in particular, when I and another student spent the better part of a morning struggling up a particularly steep, tall and densely forested slope, in search of a potential site to sample. When we finally reached the top the forest opened onto a broad grassy ridge, and the sun shone brightly down onto us. In that moment I felt as though we had conquered the forest. But from the top of that ridge I could see huge stretches of forest expanding and undulating in all directions, and peaks reaching up far higher than the hill I stood on. I realized that my hill was but one feature in a vast and varied forest.  As big as I’d felt a moment before, now I felt small as I looked out over the awe-inspiring expanse of green all around me.

I’ve felt a similar perspective shift with respect to my research on several occasions. My project seeks to reveal how erosion rates within a tropical forest changes the availability of nutrients to plants growing on those forest soils. To answer this question I’ve collected soil samples from throughout the El Yunque forest and have been working to determine the concentrations of various elements within each sample, as well as the rate of erosion for each site. This has involved drying, sieving, shaking, freezing and burning my samples over the past few weeks, along with other analyses. There have been times, while working with these soils, that I’ve found it refreshing to take a step back from my project and look at the bigger picture, of which my work is but one feature. What controls the growth of tropical forests?  What will impact their growth in the future? These are vast questions, with myriad intricacies and nuances and no one answer. My project seeks to investigate one small facet of these questions: that of the link between nutrients and erosion rates. There is still much more to be answered, and much that already has been. With my research I hope to provide some small insight to these vast and expansive questions.