A Conversation with Forest Ecophysiologist Sybil Gotsch: Exploring Climate Change and Forest Productivity.

Hunter Weber

April 20, 2023 at 3:37 pm | Updated April 24, 2023 at 3:49 pm | 4 min read

sybil gotsch

In this conversation between Galen George and Sybil Gotsch, a forest ecophysiologist based at the University of Kentucky, we gain insight into Gotsch’s research on how plants respond to stress and how different communities of plants are impacted by climate change. Gotsch shares her experiences leading fieldwork in Costa Rica and Georgia and her plans for a new project exploring how valley fog influences forest productivity and function in Kentucky. We learn about data collection challenges, the instrumentation used, and Gotsch’s passion for climbing trees and studying epiphytes.

Galen George: Can you introduce yourself and briefly explain your background before we dive into your research?

Sybil Gotsch: Sure, I’m Sybil Goetsch, a forest ecophysiologist now based at the University of Kentucky. My research focuses on understanding how plants respond to stress and how different communities of plants are impacted by climate change. My main research project is in Costa Rica, where we study forest productivity and water cycling in the cloud forest. I also have a project in Georgia where we’re studying similar questions in maritime forests. I’m starting a new project in Kentucky to explore how valley fog influences forest productivity and function.

Galen George: That’s interesting. With such large-scale problems, how do you collect data on a micro level and apply it to the macro level?

Sybil Gotsch: I collaborate with modeling, remote sensing, and landscape ecology experts. I focus on the individual tree and stand-level work, while my collaborators scale up and work with large datasets, satellite imagery, and drones.

Galen George: How large is your team for the Costa Rica project, and how do you manage the data collection?

Sybil Gotsch: We have four PIs, one postdoc, two full-time technicians, and one part-time technician. I lead the field effort, while my collaborators are responsible for modeling, remote sensing, and broader impact education programs. We collect continuous microclimate and sap flow data every half hour or 10 minutes, troubleshoot sensors, and repair any damage. We also do traditional water potential measurements in the field and collect functional traits of leaves for stable isotopes. We’re also conducting drone flights this dry season to estimate leaf water content while calibrating with direct measurements.

Galen: What instrumentation are you using for stomatal conductance, photosynthetic chlorophyll fluorescence, and photosynthetic curves?

Sybil: I have a CI-340 Photosynthesis System, but I also have three brands with different parameters for stomatal conductance, depending on what we’re doing. We use small, portable ones for climbing trees and more expensive ones for groundwork. Additionally, we’ll be doing some microscopy work with ImageJ for smaller counts.

Galen: Climbing trees presents a challenge for bringing up heavy equipment. Do you have any shade house or greenhouse experiments to avoid that?

Sybil: Yes, we often have experiments with the same species as the tree we work on up in the tree so we can do intensive physiological work. However, I’m scared to bring up expensive equipment high up.

Galen: Can you tell me more about your project in Kentucky on fog levels and how they affect trees in the region?

Sybil: There’s a lot of variability in moisture content, temperature, and elevation change in Central Appalachia. We’re particularly interested in morning valley fog and how it potentially helps trees offset high evapotranspiration during the summer months. The morning valley fog could influence the trees’ ability to withstand stressful periods due to evaporative demand. We plan to explore these questions in Robinson Forest with the same approach and instrumentation we used in Costa Rica.

Galen: This type of research seems to me that it involves a lot of climbing. Do you climb a lot?

Sybil: Yes, I do climb a lot. It started when I was a volunteer field assistant for Courtney Moran’s Ph.D. on orchids in Gatun Lake, Panama. I had to climb trees to help her take little snippets of leaves for her genetic research, and I got hooked.

Galen: So climbing came with the science. And now you’ve just transitioned into an area with more mountains and trees to climb.

Sybil: Yes, I have found my niche. Our Forestry Department has a bunch of tree lovers, and we just hired a new technician who was an arborist for a while and now wants to do research.

Galen: That’s awesome. If there are any other research projects you’re working on or initiatives you want people to know about, you can plug them now, or you can let us know, and we’ll plug them for you on our website and our blog.

Sybil: We are updating my project website, sybilgotsch.com. And I will mention the project in Georgia that we’re working on because it features the leaf spectrophotometer we got from you guys. We’re doing drought experiments on epiphytes to see how it influences their ability to intercept water, and the leaf spectrophotometer plays a large role in that study.

Galen: That’s great to hear. The instrument seems to be used for something unique and new, and it’s exciting to see. If there’s anything else you want to discuss, feel free to let me know; otherwise, we can connect again in the future when you start getting more data in.

Sybil: Thank you for having me. It’s been a fun conversation.

Overall, Gotsch’s work demonstrates the importance of understanding how our natural world is impacted by climate change and how we can best protect and preserve it. Through her research, Gotsch is helping to understand better the complex interplay between plants, the environment, and climate change. Her innovative approaches to data collection, use of cutting-edge instrumentation, and passion for studying plants and climbing trees are truly inspiring. We look forward to seeing the results of her future projects.