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CELEBRATE! profile: Patrick Ma '12

A biology major on his way to graduate school to study forestry has spent nearly two years researching the Elon University Forest.

“Elon definitely prepares its students really well for conducting and presenting research,” said Elon senior biology major Patrick Ma.


There was a time when the land north of Elon University’s campus gave local farmers a place to graze livestock. Animals roamed beneath the canopy of ancient oak and hickory trees to forage the nuts that fell from overhead.

Foliage that farmers preserved by not clear-cutting the land for other crops in some ways provides a peek into the past. Many of the trees in what is today the Elon University Forest represent - albeit imperfectly - how parts of North America may have appeared prior to European settlers colonizing the continent.

It also gives researchers like Patrick Ma ‘12 a fertile outdoor laboratory by which to measure the way land adapts and recovers from agricultural practices once farmers leave an area. Ma’s project, “Land-use history and the composition and structure of Elon University Forest, a successional hardwood forest in the North Carolina Piedmont,” will be shared at the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum and is the latest to be profiled on E-net this week during CELEBRATE! 2012.

“It’s unique biological feature in that trees there are very old,” said the biology major and GIS minor from Silver Spring, Md. “Some trees in the forest are in excess of 200 years old.”

Working with Associate Professor David Vandermast in the Department of Biology and Assistant Professor Ryan Kirk in the Department of History and Geography, Ma and other students established small spaces throughout the forest where they would catalog and measure every plant within each plot.

His measurements confirmed that parts of the Elon University Forest are, in fact, a “forest of continuity.” Such forests are what Vandermast described as “under-appreciated” yet an important resource for ecologists. He also characterizes Ma’s measurements as baseline readings for Elon University Forest research in the decades ahead.

“During Patrick's time as a biology major at Elon I think he discovered that he really liked learning about nature and the sense of adventure that comes with spending time in the forest studying plant communities,” Vandermast said. “It has been great to watch him pursue his research with such enthusiasm. This work is the foundational data for future studies of Elon University Forest and, for that reason alone, it is important.”

Ma knew when he arrived at Elon that he wanted to study biology. It wasn’t until a biodiversity course with Vandermast his sophomore year, however, that he realized a career could be made in biology outside of the medical sciences. For a student who grew up catching frogs and exploring the creek behind his Maryland home, working outside felt natural.

As for working with trees? “They’re easy to measure, they’re big, and they’re not going anywhere for a while,” Ma said with a laugh during a recent interview.

When not in class or the forest, Ma this year has captained Elon University’s ballroom dance club. Six members traveled to the national tournament in March, though Ma was unable to represent the university as he was sharing his research in Utah at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

This fall he heads to Clemson University for graduate school. Ma plans to earn a Master of Forest Resources and as part of his studies will monitor growth rates of genetically enhanced sweet gum and loblolly pine trees, both of which are among the first types of trees to grow in abandoned farmlands.

“A lot of people think research is an un-fun beast of a thing, but it’s a blast,” Ma said. “Elon definitely prepares its students really well for conducting and presenting research.”

CELEBRATE! is Elon University's annual, weeklong celebration of student achievements in academics and the arts. It runs this year from April 22-28.

Eric Townsend,
4/22/2012 12:35 PM