Initial Publication Date: April 28, 2017

Part 2 - The Life of a Tree-Ring Scientist

Each scientist working today was influenced and inspired in some way to enter their profession and commit to a life-long quest to advance our knowledge of the universe. Some had a parent or relative, teacher, or other mentor start them on this path. Some grew up loving to discover how things work or enjoyed solving puzzles. Others were simply awed by nature and were drawn in by an impulse to understand its workings. Whatever the reason, it takes a curious and creative mind, and scientific training, to conduct meaningful research.

Every research effort begins in the mind of a scientist who asks a simple question, or a series of questions which they are driven to answer. How do these questions arise? What drives them to travel across the globe in search of answers to their questions? How do they choose these sites and what types of trees do they use for their research? In this activity, you will hear two accomplished dendrochronologists describe their career path, the best and most challenging aspects of being a scientist. Then you will explore four important tree-ring research sites around the world, and consider what characteristics these sites have that make them useful to scientists to learn about how our climate has changed in the past.


1. First, listen to Dr. Ed Cook talk about what it means to be a scientist.

2. Next, Dr. Roseanne D'Arrigo describes her journey to becoming a researcher.

Stop and Think

2.1 What are the best parts of being a scientist as described by Dr. Cook and Dr. D'Arrigo?

2.2 What are some of the challenging aspects of being a scientist as described by Dr. Cook and Dr. D'Arrigo?

2.3 What advice do Dr. D'Arrigo and Dr. Cook have for students who are thinking about a career in science?

Explore research sites.

3. One aspect of doing tree-ring science that appeals to many is the fact that your workplace is out in nature, among the trees, at sites all over the world. Exploring a prospective site is always a critical early step to determine whether it is suitable for answering the research questions that interest you. This involves traveling to sites located in rugged terrain, in far flung regions across the globe, and that often have harsh climates.

Explore four different important tree-ring research sites by "right clicking" the buttons below and open them in a new window. Zoom in and look at the sites carefully. These images are 360°, so you can look around and zoom in and out.

Humpty Dumpty talus slope, Mohnonk, NY

Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska

Schulman Grove, CA

J9- San Juan River site, AZ

Stop and Think

2.4 Give a brief description of each of the four sites.

2.5 What difficulties might you encounter at each site assuming you would need to spend two full weeks in the field?

4. Funding your research.

As you heard from Dr. D'Arrigo and Dr. Cook above, getting funded can be a challenge for scientists. The expeditions represented in the TREX labs are based on major field campaigns, most of which were funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), or other federal agencies. To apply for a grant to fund your research, the NSF requires that you submit your team's ideas in response to one of its request for proposals, or RFPs. In fifteen pages of text, you must make your case: Why is your research an important step forward? How does it build on previous work in your field? How will the results of your study be of value to the larger scientific community? How will your research findings be disseminated? How much will it cost to do the work? Are your goals attainable? Are you qualified to do what you are proposing to do and do you have a strong team assembled to work with you?

Creativity matters! Most people don't think of the sciences as a creative field, but the ability to be creative when thinking about how to approach and solve problems is often what results in big gains in knowledge, and this is often what funding agencies, like NSF, are looking for.

Once you submit your proposal, you often wait up to six months to see if your proposal has been selected for funding by a jury of your peers. Keep in mind that perhaps hundreds of other scientists are vying for that same limited amount of money. Funding rates for some of these competitive funding programs can be in the 10 to 20% range, so scientists proposals often get rejected. Successful scientists learn from their rejected proposals. They have to be tenacious, adaptable, and willing to keep refining and improving their ideas.

Take a look at National Science Foundation's major research areas called divisions here.

5. Click on one of the research areas that is of interest to you. Then click on the "About" tab in the left hand side menu and read about the kinds of research is done within the division.

6. Now go back to the homepage of that research area and look at their news feed (right-hand side). These news articles describe projects that have been funded by the division you chose. Scroll through the news feed, select and article that interests you, and read it.

Stop and Think

2.6 Briefly describe some of the major goals of the NSF research division that you selected.

2.7 Briefly describe the project in the news article you selected.