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Senior Thesis: How Tropical Forests Recover

May 26th, 2016
Connor Stonesifer in Panama. Photo courtesy of Connor Stonesifer.


When Connor Stonesifer ’16 first arrived in Panama in the summer of 2015, his Spanish consisted of saying “I want” and having to point at things. When he asked the woman who ran the hostel where he was staying to turn up the air conditioning, he received a cup of pudding instead.

“It was not exactly an auspicious start to my first foray into independent field research,” said Stonesifer, an ecology and evolutionary biology major at Princeton University, who had traveled to Panama to study nutrient acquisition strategies among different tree species in recovering tropical rainforests as part of his senior thesis.

Yet, having been told by his faculty adviser Lars Hedin, chair of the ecology and evolutionary biology department, that the senior thesis project is as much about creatively working through problems as any particular research question, Stonesifer ate his pudding and decided that his foreign language skills were an obstacle and not a barrier and focused his attention on what had brought him to Panama in the first place – trees. Specifically, why trees that spend enormous amounts of energy fixing nitrogen, actually grow faster than non-fixing trees that get nitrogen for free.

For six weeks in the summer of 2015, Stonesifer’s research laboratory was a forest: the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute’s (STRI) Agua Salud Project site near El Giral, Panama. The area is a rainforest recovery study site consisting of cleared and degraded land in various stages of recovery in the Panama Canal watershed.

Read the full story in the News Archive of the Princeton Environmental Institute.

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