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Patrick Ma ’12 measures land adaptations of a post-agrarian forest

Foliage that farmers preserve by not clear-cutting the land for other crops in some ways provides a peek into the past. 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.

He did so in his project titled “Land-use history and the composition and structure of Elon University Forest, a successional hardwood forest in the North Carolina Piedmont.”

“It has a unique biological feature in that trees there are very old,” the biology major and GIS minor says of the Elon Forest. “Some trees in the forest are in excess of 200 years old.”

Ma and other students established small spaces throughout the forest where they cataloged and measured every plant within each plot. They discovered that parts of the Elon Forest are, in fact, a “forest of continuity.”
Such forests are what Associate Professor of Biology David Vandermast described as “under-appreciated,” yet an important resource for ecologists. He also characterizes Ma’s measurements as baseline readings for Elon Forest research in the decades ahead.

“It has been great to watch him pursue his research with such enthusiasm,” Vandermast says. “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.

Ma will be attending Clemson University for graduate school and plans to earn a Master of Forest Resources. As part of his studies, he 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 says. “Elon definitely prepares its students really well for conducting and presenting research.”