PITTSBURG - Student Emily Fry's original goal this school year was a big one: to find out how much carbon the trees on the Pittsburg State University campus can sequester — or clean from the atmosphere.
"But there's only one of me," she said, "and I'm racing fall."
The arrival of fall means leaves will be dropping soon, making it more difficult to identify each tree species.
So, Fry settled on 250 trees in sections on the Oval, by the University Lake, and in front of Russ Hall — a swath of campus that takes up several acres and includes both native and non-native species.
Her purpose was simple yet impactful: "There's data on how much pollution a college campus can create, and we were interested to see how much it can get rid of," said Fry, who is working closely with Assistant Professor of Biology Christine Brodsky, a specialist in urban ecology.
Fry, a senior from Paola, came to PSU to pursue a degree in a relatively new major and one that is unique to Kansas: The Sustainability, Society & Resource Management program, which is a joint initiative between the biology, geography, and communication departments.
"I transferred here from Johnson County Community College especially for this program," Fry said. "I wanted to do something in sustainability or with an environmental aspect, and then found out this was here."
Her fiancé, a track athlete, was searching for a university with an indoor facility and learned about the newly-built Plaster Center at PSU.
"We both found what we wanted," said Fry, who came here in 2014 and is now a senior.
In May, Fry received a grant from the Kansas IDeA of Biomedical Research Excellence, a program of the National Institute of Health. It helped provide funding for materials and equipment.
With each tree, she must measure the diameter, calculate the height, and enter the species name into iTree, which then uses a complex equation to report how much carbon that tree can sequester in one year.
She's tagging each tree with a small silver circle stamped with a number, and is using GPS coordinates.
"We hope by the end of the project, the campus would have an interactive map to track how much carbon is being taken out of the atmosphere, and which trees are the most important in this regard on campus," said Brodsky.
The support and encouragement Brodsky has offered, Fry said, has been invaluable.
Along the way, she's had a few challenges that even a professor can't curtail: squirrels, which are attracted to the shiny tags and end up chewing them, and other students, which also are attracted to the shiny tags but evidently take them as keepsakes or, perhaps, jewelry.
But both are proud of the results, which Fry will present at the K-INBRE Symposium in Overland Park, Kansas, in January.
Among her results: Pittsburg State's ginko tree — the only living species in the division Ginkgophyta, found in fossils dating back 270 million years — is at the top of the list for super pollution absorbers.
In addition, Fry is compiling results from her secondary study: how trees and nature impact student cognition.
"I'm hoping to see if green trees on campus have an impact on students," she said. "I'm looking at their ability to remember numbers, and at their emotions, before and after a 20-minute walk."
Fry is on track to graduate in December.
"After this, I'd like to investigate a career in the arborist industry," she said. "This has definitely helped me get experience to do that."