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Apply for the REU Program

Applications are no longer being accepted for this position. Information for the 2021 REU will be posted in December 2020. 

The 2020 program dates are June 8 through August 14. Successful applicants receive a stipend, housing, travel assistance, and research budget. Applications are accepted January 1 through February 14. Graduating seniors and recent graduates may not apply.

To apply, submit the following 5 items, via online application and email:

Via online application:

1. Complete the online application.

2. Attach a cover letter (one page maximum) to the first page of the online application, describing 1) why you would like to participate in the REU program, 2) your career goals and how this program will help you meet them, 3) prior research experience (if any), and 4) your preferred mentor and project.  A list of potential mentors and projects is provided at the bottom of this page.  

3. Attach your curriculum vitae or resume to the first page of the online application.

Via email to ctsreu@mortonarb.org

4. Have an instructor or advisor from your academic institution send a letter of reference to ctsreu@mortonarb.org.

5. Send your unofficial transcript from your academic institution to ctsreu@mortonarb.org.

We must receive these 5 documents in order to consider you for the program.


Applicants from colleges and universities with limited research opportunities, groups underrepresented in STEM programs, and first-year and second-year undergraduates are encouraged to apply. 

The Morton Arboretum is a champion of diversity, supporting a culture of inclusion that attracts, inspires, and engages people to achieve success.  The Arboretum is committed to hire and develop employees based on job-related qualifications irrespective of race, religion, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability, or veteran status.  To increase diversity in professions related to the public garden realm, we encourage applications from underrepresented minorities, persons with disabilities, and veterans. 

The Morton Arboretum is dedicated to complying with our obligations as an equal opportunity/affirmative action employer.  All applicants are guaranteed equal consideration for employment.

Please contact ctsreu@mortonarb.org with questions.


Potential projects and mentors for 2020 REU Program

Project Title: The Tree Observatory Research Platform

Mentors: Chuck Cannon, Sam Panock
Summary: The Tree Observatory is a research platform at the Morton Arboretum to gain a holistic understanding of tree biology by integrating phenotypic, physiological, and other data gathered simultaneously from several types of sensors, observations, and sample collecting.  We have accumulated over two years of data for a small number of trees and plan to explore the addition of new sensors.  The project could involve exploring and analyzing existing data to gain insight into tree behavior and response to the environment or the application of new technologies and techniques to compare to the base physiological measurements being gathered.  Comparisons are also possible between individual open-grown trees with closed-canopy grown trees in a forest plot setting.

Preferred qualifications: Biology, botany, environmental sciences; hopefully some experience with R
Project Setting: The Morton Arboretum

Project Title: Sampling and sensing the tree canopy using drone-based devices

Mentors: Chuck Cannon, Colby Borchetta
Summary: We are developing tools for collecting observations and samples from the tree canopy using a drone-based platform.  This ongoing project has several avenues of development, including a device suspended below a drone to collect small twigs; mechanisms for placing, leaving and later retrieving a sensor in the desired position in the tree canopy; and the creation and integration of structural and phenotypic models of the tree canopy using different imaging and sensing systems.  The student would develop an appropriate summer project on a particular element of this overall research program.

Preferred qualifications: enrolled in a mechanical engineering degree
Project Setting: The Morton Arboretum

Project Title: Can we predict species’ sensitivity to climate variability?

Mentor: Christy Rollinson
Summary: Species responses to their environment, including climate variability, are governed by anatomical and physiological traits such as leaf morphology, wood anatomy, or water use strategy. These traits are the result of species-level adaptations to their habitats but are also subject to phylogenetic constraints. The student will compare climate responses observed in tree growth and phenology, traits and phylogenetic history of oaks from around the world in The Morton Arboretum’s living collections. The student will learn a variety of ecological approaches, including measurements of traits and ecophysiology in the field, data analysis/ecological modeling, and community-driven science (citizen science).

Preferred qualifications: Must be interested in plant ecology and have completed at least one college-level course relevant to the study of plants. Students must also be willing to discuss and develop research questions, conduct fieldwork and laboratory analyses, and perform statistical analysis with data interpretation. Experience with the statistical software R or other coding is preferred.

  • Coursework/background: introductory biology; ecology or geography course preferred
  • Ability to work in both field (hot, humid, rain) and lab (standing/sitting for prolonged periods) situations
  • Bonus points: experience with biogeography, ecophysiology, and/or adaptation; exposure to coding/data analysis

Project Title: Tree species effects on soil biodiversity

Mentors: Meghan Midgley & Rob Buchkowski
Areas of Expertise: Soil ecology
Summary: A classic question in plant ecology is “why is the world green?” In other words, why don’t herbivores eat all the plants, resulting in a world without leaves? Two mechanisms - predator control and plant defenses - aid in suppressing herbivory. In this project, we flip this classic question on its head and ask: why is the ground brown? Dead plants form the base of the below ground food chain. But plant defenses against herbivory above ground results in litters that decompose more or less quickly and shape soil food webs, leading to some of that organic matter being converted into nutrients and some organic matter being stabilized in the soil - the brown ground. In this project, the fellow will use single-species tree monocultures at The Morton Arboretum to assess the effects of different tree species on soil animal biodiversity and soil organic matter pools.

Preferred qualifications: Must be interested in soil ecology and have completed at least one college-level course relevant to the study of plants. A desire to collect and identify soil insects is critical. Students must also be willing to discuss and develop research questions, conduct fieldwork and laboratory analyses, and perform statistical analysis with data interpretation. Experience with the statistical software R is preferred. 

Project Title: Safeguarding rare plants through botanic garden best practices

Mentor: Sean Hoban
Area of Expertise: Tree Conservation Biologist
Summary: Our laboratory is interested in why rare species are rare, what threatens them, and how we can conserve their evolutionary potential in the wild and in botanic gardens and seed banks. We have three projects in mind, but highly self motivated students interested in projects outside of those described below, including in other aspects of conservation (sociology, policy or law, geography, morphology, psychology or economics) are also welcome to propose ideas in their cover letter! The projects are (1) to help generate and analyze DNA data in a molecular laboratory (e.g. with PCR) for several threatened oak species, to make conclusions and recommendations for managing these species. (2) to participate in genetic or population modeling, analysis or simulations to determine how best to safeguard species in botanic gardens. This would involve management of R code and multiple datasheets, and possibly research in historical records of plant collections and survival, to test hypotheses. (3) understanding in situ threats and opportunities for rare species using GIS approaches. A tolerance for sometimes tedious laboratory work or extensive computer work is needed. We do not have any outdoor/ field projects for this year. 

Preferred qualifications: Required Coursework: 2 semesters of biology courses.  Suggested (one or more of): genetic or chemistry lab, ecology or natural resource management, introduction to programming or GIS. Beneficial: (1) prior hands-on experience in a laboratory setting (outside of classroom exercises), ideally in genetics or molecular biology, but any laboratory work experience demonstrating very strong organization skills, attention to detail, good note taking, and use of specialized equipment such as micropipettes. OR (2) Experience in or willingness to learn basic computer programming, good ability to manage multiple data files, enjoys working at a computer terminal.

Project Title: Improving tree growth in highway environments

Mentors: Allyson Salisbury, Jake Miesbauer
Area of Expertise: Environmental science, plant-soil interactions, urban ecology, arboriculture
Summary: Highway corridors are difficult environments for trees to grow, however these areas provide important opportunities for communities to increase forest cover. In partnership with the Illinois Tollway Authority, we are studying how to improve tree growth and survival alongside highways. This project will examine the relationship between soil conditions and plant growth in the highway environment. The research will be conducted outside at tree planting sites as well as inside in a laboratory and on the computer. We will be assessing indicators of plant growth and stress such as leaf chlorophyll content as well as measuring soil physical and chemical properties. Prior experience working with this type of research is not necessary, but a foundational knowledge of plant biology and/or soil science is helpful.

Preferred qualifications: The applicant should have a strong interest in soil, plants, and/or urban forestry. This project will involve both field and lab work. Applicants should be comfortable working outdoors in summer weather as well as lifting up to 30 lbs. (assisted). Attention to detail, organization, and the ability to work independently as well as part of a team are also critical for a successful project both in the field and lab. 

Project Title: Assessing the sustainability and conservation potential of wild-harvested tree species

Mentors: Jessica Turner-Skoff, Christina Carrero, Murphy Westwood
Area of Expertise: Tree Conservation/ Science Communication/ Non-timber Forest Products
Summary: Currently, 60-90% of medicinal and aromatic plants in trade are wild collected, sustainably or unsustainably. Many of these products come from trees (e.g., juniper ‘berries,’ frankincense, shea), and this collection process forms an industry worth billions of dollars. There is little information compiled about wild harvested tree species (WHTS) and what role botanical gardens could play in conservation efforts. This project will focus on using a literature review about the state of WHTS and the industries associated with the harvest, with the goal of facilitating strategic conservation actions in the future. When possible, students will use the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List as a conservation tool to gather data on species use, trade, and ex situ collection. This data will inform the severity of harvest threat to each tree species and their conservation needs. Students will then complete a gap analysis, write a technical report, and assess the feasibility of potential conservation activities. If time permits, students will gain skills in design software or mapping software.

Preferred qualifications: Students should have a passion for conservation and sustainability. This project will be primarily computer based, focusing on improving skills in literature reviews and information synthesis. Student should be proficient in the Microsoft Office Suite. Applicants need to be organized, have a strong attention to detail, and be interested in working both independently and with a team.

Project Title: Ecology and conservation of a Mexican endangered oak

Mentors: Silvia Alvarez-Clare, Meghan Midgley
Summary: Quercus brandegeei or the Arroyo Oak is a beautiful and charismatic tree that only occurs in the very tip of the Baja California Peninsula, in Los Cabos Area of Mexico. Although this species has occurred here for millennia, there have been no new trees established in the last 100 years. In order to save this species from extinction, we are trying to figure out why. One of our hypotheses is that changes in climate have made the site too dry. Another one is that nutrients in the soil are too low. In this project the REU student will travel to Mexico to collect Q. brandegeei leaves in three sites varying in annual rainfall and soil nutrients to explore if leaf traits, such as leaf shape, nutrient concentrations, or chlorophyll content, provide clues on the effects that climate has on tree physiology and survival. After the one-week trip the student will spend the rest of the time processing the leaves and conducting chemical analysis in the soils lab. The student will learn about tree conservation research and be part of an international group of scientists working to save this tree from extinction.

Preferred qualifications: The student must be interested in ecosystems ecology and conservation biology. Should have completed at least one college-level course relevant to the study of plants and one chemistry class. The student must have a valid passport, be willing to travel to Mexico for a week where we will sleep in precarious field conditions, eat foreign foods, endure hot climates, and spend long hours in the field. Student must also enjoy laboratory work, have attention to detail, and be willing to learn new chemical analysis, such as how to measure leaf Carbon and Nitrogen content. Knowledge of Spanish is a plus.
Project Setting: One week trip to Baja California Sur, Mexico followed with laboratory analyses, data processing, and computer work.

Project Title: Impact of Soil Amendments on Tree Physiology and Soil Microbial Activity (updated)

Mentors: Chad Rigsby, Andrew Loyd
Area of Expertise: Tree Physiology, Microbiology, Soil Science, and Applied Arboriculture
Summary: Researchers have been study the effect of soil amendments on tree health for many years. The urban environment is a notoriously poor one for trees as planting sites typically have little soil volume, soil compaction issues, and low amount of microbial activity. This REU will spearhead one of a few projects in the Rigsby laboratory centered on how soil amendments impact tree physiology and response to stress and/or the impact of soil remediation techniques on soil microbiota. Examples of these projects include the impact of silica (Si) amendment on tree stress physiology. For many years, Si has been used successfully in agricultural systems as a general stress-relief amendment as well as to enhance disease resistance, and has been considered a pseudo-essential element of plant nutrition. This greenhouse-based project will explore the use of soil Si amendments to enhance stress responses. Various responses will be measured using various laboratory equipment, such as an HPLC and a spectrophotometer. Another example project will explore how soil remediation techniques impact soil microbiota. In these experiments, compacted, nutrient-, and organic-poor soils will be remediated and various soil microbial abundance and activity parameters will be quantified.

Preferred qualifications: Student should have an interest in the intersection of tree physiology and biochemistry, soil science, and soil microbial communities. Experience working in a greenhouse, laboratory, and in the field is preferred. Additionally, the student must be willing to learn laboratory techniques and instrumentation such as HPLC. This research may also require occasional travel with overnight stays out of town.
Project Setting:The Morton Arboretum, greenhouse and field components