National Science Foundation Fellowship

Ph.D. Student Cagle Reports on Summer Research in China

By Grace Cagle, Ph.D student in ENVS

Advisor: Dr. Aixin Hou

I spent two months in China this summer doing research related to my Ph.D through a fellowship with the National Science Foundation for U.S. graduate students to do research in eastern Asian countries. The cohort of fellows in China included about 30 graduate students from the U.S. from a variety of disciplines, from paleoclimatology to psychology. The program was eight weeks, including a one-week orientation with the group together in Beijing, where we had a few Chinese lessons and did tourist activities, like visit the Forbidden City, hike the Great Wall, and eat the famous Peking duck. 


Discussing invasive Spartina alterniflora in the Yellow River Delta experimental research station with Dr. Bo Guan, former visiting scholar with CCE.

After orientation, feeling more adjusted and recovered from our jetlag, we departed for our individual research institutes around China ready to get to business. My destination was the Northeast Institute of Agroecology and Geography in Changchun. Changchun is located northeast of Beijing, due north of the Korean peninsula, at about the same latitude as Minneapolis. During my second week in China, I traveled for one week with other scientists from the Northeast Institute to the northernmost region of China to collect samples from a peatland. After returning with the samples, I spent the most of the rest of my time running experiments in the lab at the Northeast Institute. I was dying to see the Yellow River Delta, so I took a weekend trip to visit colleagues and the Yellow River Delta research station. Finally, the group of NSF fellows reunited at the end of eight weeks in Beijing to share our research and experiences in China.

Where I went and what I did there

I studied the population dynamics and activities of methane-cycling organisms in an in-situ warming experiment in a Northern permafrost peatland. The experimental site is located outside of the northern most city in China, Mohe. It took 17 hours and two trains to get there from Changchun. Mohe is about as far north as Edmonton, Canada, and a region of continuous permafrost, so I thought it would be cold. It was not. On the day we collected samples the temperature was a muggy 32° C (90° F), but the peat soil I was collecting was still frozen about 30 cm deep. Five days later, we were back at the Northeast Institute. There I conducted experiments in the laboratories of the Wetlands and Global Change group I was working with, headed by Dr. Changchun Song.


The Wetland Ecology group from the Northeast Institute in front of a garden providing vegetables to the restaurant at which we had just dined.

What surpised me

The pace and scale of development and the magnitude of the population surprised me even though I know that the population of China is 1.3 billion and that the country is currently undergoing a major urbanization. I was also impressed by the small-scale agriculture. It seemed like every square meter of suitable land was being cultivated, such as sidewalk gardens in front of homes and restaurants, or corn being grown beside the roads. Flying in to Changchun on an airplane, a city with roughly the population of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, you see small agricultural fields and not urban sprawl. Much of the urban population lives in high-rise apartment buildings, which are being rapidly constructed for the influx of people from smaller towns and the countryside.

Continuing my research

I would like to compare the communities of methane-cycling organisms in high-latitude peatlands to those in warm climates such as Louisiana. High-latitude wetlands and permafrost regions are a potential feedback for climate change as the rich organic substrate experiences warmer temperatures and spends less time frozen. This means that more of it may be respired by microbes as carbon dioxide or methane. My further studies will investigate if the populations of methane-cycling organisms are the same as those found in warm-climate regions, and how this could affect the amount of methane                                                                                                                                                                                        produced from northern permafrost regions under climate change.


  -- Doing experiments at the Northeast Institute in Dr. Song’s laboratory.