Growing up on a farm in the tobacco country of rural North Carolina, Susannah Tysor took an early interest in her grandmother's flower gardens. It was a hobby that steadily grew into a passion for plants and eventually into a full-blown pursuit of a career in ecology.
Despite her obvious affinity for plants, Tysor, now a senior botany major at Northern Arizona University, didn't always know exactly which direction to go in order to incorporate her studies in chemistry and mathematics. She credits her college professors, Amy Whipple and George Koch, with providing viable options.
"I wouldn't have discovered how to combine my interests if I didn't come here," she says. "I know that I'm making a difference—in a sense, ecology is everything."
Flagstaff's climate is one factor that actually led Tysor to NAU. Battling chronic migraine headaches caused by weather and changes in barometric pressure, she searched out a college that not only provided a solid educational foundation for her interests, but offered an environment where her health problems wouldn't be a distraction.
As a scholar in the competitive Undergraduate Mentoring in Environmental Biology program, designed to offer mentorships to exceptional undergraduates and increase their exposure to the scientific methods of environmental biology, Tysor has taken full advantage of the opportunity to do graduate-level research focused on the Piñon Pine. One of the most common trees in the Southwest, the iconic tree provides a habitat to many species, yet is facing widespread mortality because of climate change. Tysor's research is focused on how increasing levels of carbon dioxide may be influencing growth and survival. This could lead to a better understanding of how soil types affect the drought response of the pines, as well as predictions of the trees' reproduction and migration.
"There is speculation that in eighty years our Piñions will be gone. It is not unthinkable that Flagstaff could eventually look a lot like Sedona," she says, meaning that the notorious mountain forest landscape of Flagstaff might well resemble the more barren, rocky terrain of Sedona one day. "It's depressing on one level, but incredibly exciting to look at things like species succession and how ecosystems change through time."
Tysor's work significantly contributes to the body of knowledge needed for others—like land managers or city planners—to understand where a tree, like the Piñon Pine, can survive in 100 years. For example, if a housing development is planned for an area where the last of the pines can survive, it's that research that will provide land managers with the knowledge to make informed decisions and help sustain a particular species.
Tysor was invited to present her research at the Ecological Society of America's 2009 Millennium Conference, sharing what she's discovered so far with other scientists and policymakers. She's hoping to take a year off in between graduation and graduate school, continuing her project at NAU in the meantime, as well as the close-knit mentoring relationships with her professors.
"I've found that at NAU, if you are interested and curious about your work, the professors will go the extra mile to help you pursue whatever you want," Tysor says. "They helped me to gradually build a skill set, encouraged me to apply for funding, and guided me in finding the right path to do what I want to do."