March 2024 Newsletter

the power of PLACE

Traverse Boards

New Insights

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new,

And God fulfils Himself in many ways,

Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?

I have lived my life, and that which I have done

May He within Himself make pure!” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson)

An unusually warm April breeze carries the echoes of pulleys, pistons, and bytes across the Elk Mountains as the mists of Brigadoon lift to reveal the wonders of Gothic.

RMBL is changing how scientists come to know ecosystems around the world by integrating engineering and computational sciences into traditional terrestrial field science. From traverse boards (pictured on e-newsletter) that helped 16th century mariners navigate the oceans to Alvin, the deep-sea submersible submarine operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, engineering and computational sciences have always been critical to discovery of the world’s oceans. However, armed with only a pen and notebook, a crafty field biologist can still conduct research worthy of the top science journals.

But the winds of change are blowing in. From using water isotopes in annual growth rings to reconstruct water budgets of trees back hundreds of years, to using spectrometers to infer genetics from patterns of absorption and reflection of light from trees, engineering is not only expanding what we can see, but also making it possible to cost effectively deploy more sensors. And with increased ability to deploy sensors on drones, planes, and satellites, we can efficiently make measurements across entire landscapes. With a dash of field biology and machine learning, we get a change not just in the quantity of data that can be collected, but a transformation in what can be done.

Ian Billick - Director RMBL

Ian Billick | PhD
Executive Director, RMBL


Jenifer Blacklock

Engineering the Future

One of the qualities that sets RMBL apart from other field stations is its knack for encouraging multidisciplinary collaborations among scientists. Think of Dr. David Inouye’s over 50-year-old flower phenology project and the research that has sprouted from it, such as Dr. Rebecca Irwin’s study of native bees and Dr. Aimee Classen’s research on root phenology and soil processes.

But why stop there? Why not explore the possibilities of mixing disciplines like computer science, mechanical engineering, and biological sciences to solve some of today’s most pressing issues? That’s the mission of Dr. Jenifer Blacklock. She’s the director of the Western Colorado University – Colorado University Boulder partnership. This summer she’ll oversee collaborative projects created by WCU/CU Boulder and RMBL in which mechanical and computer science undergraduates will design and develop tools to help researchers gather more highly detailed measurements of the area’s ecosystems.