Research Roundup: How one undergraduate student’s research seeks to improve our state’s natural resources

by Patsy McKee, Correspondent Sep 7, 2021 in Technician, the official student newspaper of NC State University. (Reprinted with permission) 

“Here's to the land of the long leaf pine,

The summer land where the sun doth shine,

Where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great,

Here's to ‘Down Home,’ the Old North State!”

So begins the first verse of the North Carolina State Toast. This tribute to North Carolina opens with a nod to one of our most valuable natural resources: timber. Nowhere on NC State’s campus is this sentiment better embodied than in the research of Sam Blumenfeld, a fourth-year studying natural resources.

Blumenfeld serves as a technician at the NCSU Tree Improvement Cooperative. He learned about the position by word-of-mouth from other student workers at NC State. According to Blumenfeld, this internship opportunity gave him valuable insight into the field of forest management, which is now one of his minors.

“It was an obvious decision for me,” Blumenfeld said. “I’m going to school with these particular interests, so why don’t I start working toward my career now and building my resume and getting experience now?”

Blumenfeld also said he enjoys collaborating with his fellow student workers as well as the forestry professionals at the cooperative. He credits it for being accommodating.

“They have been really understanding,” Blumenfeld said. “Some weeks, if I’m really slammed, I don’t go in at all. Or, if I have a really chill week, I’ll be there for 20 hours.”

In his current position, Blumenfeld assists with the application of genetic enhancements to loblolly pine seedlings. He spends his workdays monitoring those seedlings at various research sites and greenhouses operated by the cooperative.

“The way that I describe tree improvement is that if you think about how corn, tomatoes or any other kind of agricultural crop is bred for specific tradeoffs — flavor or disease resistance — we do the exact same thing but with pine trees,” Blumenfeld said.

The project for the improvement of loblolly pines is expected to last three years, and Blumenfeld has been on the job for the past year, with the reducing the time horizon for those who plant the trees.

“Say you’re with the [U.S.] Forest Service or a private landowner and you’re growing pine trees for commercial harvest in 30 years.” Blumenfeld said. “Our trees take less time to grow to the exact same size and monetary value than non-improved trees.”

Blumenfeld describes the cooperative’s tree improvement practices as meeting a national and state need for sustainable forestry practices.

“There are a lot more benefits than just commercial benefits,” Blumenfeld said. “Now you get the same amount of lumber but you can use ten acres less. Say you were planting 100 acres, you only need to plant 90 now to get the same value. So those 10 acres can be used for other things.”

Typically, student workers at the cooperative carpool to off-campus research sites. However, COVID-19 made this impossible. Blumenfeld cited transportation issues as having the greatest adverse effect on his ability to conduct research.

“You know, when people think of research they think of data that you’re analyzing.” Blumenfeld said. “A lot of what I’ve been doing is not what you would assume when you think about ‘research.’ … I am more the technician that does the fieldwork that other people then do research for.”

The pandemic did not harm the trees’ growth. Rather, the cooperative had about 97% seedling survival.

“We have 67 families of pines,” Blumenfeld said. “Each family is a specific lineage of pine that we know the genetics for. As we do our progeny tests, we want to know the genetics of each family.”

The third line of the first verse of the North Carolina State Toast lauds our state for being “where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great.” As Blumenfeld said, the purpose of the Tree Improvement Cooperative is to selectively breed pine trees to be their strongest.

“Say we have family one and family eight and we want to crossbreed them to get family one through eight.” Blumenfeld said. “If family one through eight has better genetics than family one or family eight by themselves, then that’s the family that we would continue with in our next breeding set.”

In the future, Blumenfeld hopes to explore the policy implications of sustainable forestry and to possibly continue his research beyond his current position with data analysis. No matter where Blumenfeld chooses to go next, his contributions to the Tree Improvement Cooperative will continue to be incorporated into each successive family tree.