Into the Woods

A group of Randolph students, led by Alyssa Umberger '17 and Ryan McDonald '17, volunteer at Natural Bridge State Park.

A group of Randolph students, led by Alyssa Umberger ’17 and Ryan McDonald ’17, volunteer at Natural Bridge State Park.

Now one of the oldest tourist destinations in the United States, Natural Bridge was once purchased from King George III in 1774 by Thomas Jefferson for 20 shillings. The property was passed from private owner to private owner until recently, when it became Virginia’s newest state park.

Despite its rich history, Natural Bridge had virtually no records about wildlife and plant life in the area.

Alyssa Umberger '17

Alyssa Umberger ’17

Two Randolph students are leading an effort to change that. Ryan McDonald ’17 and Alyssa Umberger ’17, along with dozens of other volunteers from the College, spent four weekends this spring in the new Natural Bridge State Park identifying and collecting data on the native tree population. The project covered more than 5,000 meters of forest in the northwestern end of the park.

Each weekend, Umberger and a small group of volunteers used GIS technology to mark off with flags the 25 x 25-meter plots being researched. Meanwhile, McDonald and the other volunteers worked to identify each tree and color code them with tape. In addition to sharing their data with park officials, they presented their project at the Symposium of Artists and Scholars at Randolph in April.

“It was really a growing experience,” McDonald said. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a chance to be in such a leadership role as I was with this because it went from being just the two of us to having 40 to 50 volunteers. And people never got bored because there was always something to do.”

Umberger and McDonald decided to take on the project after an environmental studies course they took together last fall. During the class, they visited the park and connected with park rangers who seemed to welcome the help. They were even more inspired after a spring break trip to Puerto Rico, where they spent the week in a rainforest as volunteers for the Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experiment.

“What was really cool for me was that it was a female-led project—all female Ph.D.’s leading the effort. It’s mostly a male-dominated field, so it was awesome to see a lab dominated by women,” Umberger said. “We watched them manage their project on warming soil in the rainforest, seeing how plants, different roots and soil, and nutrients react to warming temperatures.”

Ryan McDonald '17

Ryan McDonald ’17

“It was well worth it,” McDonald added. “It really helped us shape how we wanted to do our own project.” The project was ideal for McDonald, who, in addition to his biology major, has worked to digitize the herbarium samples in Randolph’s Natural History Collection and served as a teaching assistant for botany courses. He plans to enroll in Randolph’s Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program this fall. For Umberger, the project was about getting more experience in the field, since she hopes to become an environmental scientist.

Sarah Sojka, physics and environmental studies professor, advised the students during the project this spring.

“They truly took ownership of it, designing the research plan, organizing volunteers, and analyzing the data,” Sojka said. “They created a project that we will be able to continue for years to come, and I have continually been impressed with them both. This project will give us a much better picture of the starting forest community in Natural Bridge State Park, and we will be able to monitor how the forest community changes over time.”