SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Sarah Boon

Science For Six-Year-Olds (SFSYO for this school year) is a recurring segment on Science Decoded for Mrs. Podolak’s first grade class at Lincoln-Hubbard elementary school. This year the posts are inspired by #iamscience (also a Tumblr) and #realwomenofscience two hashtags on Twitter that drove home for me the importance of teaching people who scientists are and what they really do.

Hello first graders. I cannot believe that is it June already! This school year I’ve loved introducing you to our scientists of the month, PennyPhilippAnne-MarikePete, BeckyMichael, Jenny and David. We have one more scientist to meet before school’s out for the year – I’m happy to introduce you to Dr. Sarah Boon, a hydroecologist. I asked her questions about her job as a scientist to learn more about what she does. I hope you enjoy learning about her work! Below you can read our interview, and if you’d like to ask her any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments.

At HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Courtesy of Sarah Boon.

At HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. Courtesy of Sarah Boon.

Erin: What type of scientist are you?

Sarah: I’m a hydroecologist, which means I study where water comes from, where it goes, and how it interacts with living things. I’m particularly interested in how snow interacts with trees, and what happens to streams – and the fish in them – when snow melts. I study how healthy trees catch snow compared to trees killed by mountain pine beetle or wildfire. I also look at how melting snow changes the temperature of mountain streams, and what affect that has on at-risk salmonids like bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

Erin: Where did you go to school, and what did you study?
Sarah: I did an undergraduate degree in Physical Geography with a minor in Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria, on Canada’s Vancouver Island. I took a lot of courses about landscapes and how to measure and observe them. I wish I’d taken some biology courses – but I didn’t realize at the time that I’d get into that kind of work. I did the co-operative education program, which means you work for 4 or 8 months and then go to school for 4 months. This was really helpful in getting great job experience, meeting new people, and paying for my tuition. After five years in Victoria I moved to Edmonton, Alberta to do my PhD in Earth & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Alberta. I finished in 2003 and now live in Lethbridge, Alberta (after 2 years in Prince George, British Columbia as a ‘substitute’ professor).

Erin: Where do you work, and what does a typical day at work entail?
Sarah: I work as a university professor, so I do research, teach classes, and supervise grad students. This means I spend part of my time in the office and part in the field.
When I’m in the office, I stare at the computer screen a lot more than I’d like. I write research grant applications, send emails, write lectures for each of my classes, and much more. When I’m not at my computer, I’m either in a meeting or in front of a class, teaching. Most of my office days zip by really quickly, and I wonder where the day went and why I didn’t get more done.
I’m in the field once every two weeks during between late fall, just before the snow comes, to late spring when the last of the snow has melted. These are the days I enjoy the most about my job. I stay in a cabin near the field site with my research assistants and/or grad students, and am up early making plans for the day, including what kind of work needs to be done, what kind of gear is required, and how to access the site with all that gear. Once that’s all worked out (and breakfast has been eaten and a good lunch packed up), we either hike, ATV and/or snowmobile to the field site.
Once we get to the site, we take a lot of different measurements. We download the our automated stations, which are recording temperature, rainfall, stream water level, and more. We also collect snow cores, measure tree height and diameter, take photographs of the forest canopy, dig snow pits, and measure how fast the stream is moving. The best part is that you get to spend the days outside in the woods, enjoying the outdoors.
At the end of the day, back in the cabin, we go over our notes and the files we downloaded. We talk about what seems to be going on based on our measurements, and about what we need to do the next day. Then we play cards or go to the pub.

Erin: Why did you decide to become a scientist?
Sarah: I became a scientist because, at the time, I thought it was the one thing that I needed someone else to teach me. We can all read history books, novels, poetry, and political theory, then discuss these books with friends and colleagues to figure out what they mean to us and how they’re important to our lives. But the scientific mindset is something you have to train your brain in. I also felt science was more credible than humanities.
Having spent 18 years in science, I now realize that humanities and science can be equally credible. Also – while you do need to train your brain to think scientifically – it needs to be trained to work in the humanities, as well. And finally, you likely won’t get far in understanding certain books and theories if you don’t have someone to work with who can guide your inquiry. So the main reasons I became a scientist – which made sense at the time – actually aren’t entirely true. 
Erin: What is your favorite thing about your job?
Sarah: Being outdoors, observing the landscape and trying to understand how it works.

Erin: What is something about your job that would surprise us?
Sarah: I actually don’t get summers off. A lot of people think that professors only work from September to May, and have holidays from June to August. Since I’m so busy with office work and field work during the school term, the summer is my time to catch up on writing research papers, spend time with my grad students in the field, and prepare some of my classes for the fall.

Erin: What are some of the things you like to do for fun?
Sarah: I like most things outdoors as long as they’re not extreme – for example, I prefer cross-country skiing over downhill skiing, and hiking over trail running. I enjoy nature photography, and am a science writer in my spare time. As a writer, I also love to read: novels, mysteries, memoirs, non-fiction – if it’s good, I’ll read it. I do a lot of gardening, and get a kick out of eating food that I’ve grown myself. I also have hunting dogs (flat-coated retrievers) that I enjoy training and working with.
What do you think first graders? Do you have any questions for Sarah about her work as a scientist? Like always, be sure to leave them in the comments!
Now that we’ve come to the end of the school year, I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who volunteered to participate in the Scientist of the Month segment. Everyone who participated did so with their own personal time, and was incredibly thoughtful and dedicated to answering the kids’ questions and finding ways to explain their work. I enjoyed working with everyone and learning about all of your research myself! Doing these interviews was so much fun that I’ve decided to make the Scientist of the Month a regular segment next school year too, so it will be back in the fall with a new batch of students and scientists!

2 thoughts on “SFSYO: Scientist of the Month Sarah Boon

  1. Hi Dr. Boon! We are studying trees in science class and we have some questions about how trees absorb water that we hope you can answer for us!

    Does snow effect burnt trees that have been in a forest fire differently than healthy trees?

    Do different types of snow absorb differently(we have studied types of snow crystals dendrites, graupel and needles)?

    Is water from snow better for a tree than rain water? We watered seeds with lemonade, vinegar, tea, soda and salt water but only tea made the plants grow.

    Have you ever put coloring in the snow to see where it goes in the tree? We put food coloring in water and placed celery, carrots and napa cabbage in the water.

    How do you develop your experiments to prove your hypothesis? What hypothesis are you working on now?

    Thank you for being our scientist of the month!

    1. Hello students! Sorry for being so late with my response – I suspect you may already be out for the summer. In case you’re not, here are my answers.

      1. Snow has no effect on burned trees (at least ones that have been killed by fire) because they don’t use water at all. So whether there’s snow or not, and how much there is, has no impact on dead burned trees. If the tree is burned but still living, then snow has no different effect on that tree than a healthy one.

      2. Different types of snow are not absorbed differently by trees, because trees only absorb the snow once it has melted and turned into water. The different types of snow crystals are pretty cool, and they can have an impact on how much water there is once the snow melts. Bigger crystals like dendrites don’t pack together as well as needles, so if a 5cm deep snowfall made up of dendrites melts, it likely makes less water than a 5m deep snowfall made up of needles. Also some crystals are more dense than others – graupel, for example, is denser than dendrites. So when 5cm of graupel melts, it creates more water than 5 cm of dendrites.

      3. Your experiment watering plants with different liquids sounds really neat. Why do you think that only the tea made the plants grow? What was wrong with the other liquids? Trees don’t mind if they get snowmelt water or rain water – it’s all the same to them. The only difference is when they get it – snowmelt comes in the spring when the tree is usually not growing a lot yet, while rainfall comes during the growing season when the tree can use it right away. Scientists have measured the chemistry of snowmelt and found that – right at the beginning of snowmelt – the snow water has a different chemistry than later in the snowmelt. This is because the snow has dust and other particles in it that dissolve into the meltwater. It doesn’t seem to have an effect on trees, though.

      4. When I was a kid I also enjoyed the food colouring experiments with celery. Did the Napa cabbage suck up coloured water, too? We have put colouring on the snow to see where it goes when it melts – farther into the snowpack or into the soil. We can’t use food colouring to trace where water goes in a tree, but scientists can use other tracers, like isotopes. One of the guys I work with measures isotopes in water that’s in the soil and underground. They have a unique label, like a barcode, which means he can collect water from inside the tree and figure out where it came from based on its isotopic ‘barcode’. One barcode tells him the water came from the soil, and a different barcode tells him the water came from ground.

      5. I develop my experiments using techniques from other scientists and some I develop myself. Right now I’m working on an experiment to see how much heat a burned tree trunk transfers to the snow, versus how much heat a healthy tree trunk transfers. This experiment involves thermometers inside the tree and weather sensors.

      Hope this answers your questions – have a good summer!

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