Sweet Briar’s research tower thrives with Virginia Tech collaboration

Posted on October 28, 2015 by Jennifer McManamay

Emily Dallas Calibrating Light Sensors Emily Dallas ’16 calibrates an array of light sensors for her senior research project. Photo by Tom O’Halloran.

The tower soars above a pine plantation on Sweet Briar’s campus, an array of instruments still sending information collected from the atmosphere to computers in a shed 120 feet below the apex. The College’s Land-Atmosphere Research Station, known as LARS, hums along — now with expanded capabilities and purpose thanks to a collaboration with Virginia Tech, according to a news release issued by the university.

Verena Joerger and Tom O'Halloran Verena Joerger ’15 and Tom O’Halloran adjust instruments at the top of the tower. Aerial photography by Rob Alexander.

Thomas O’Halloran, a former assistant professor of environmental science at Sweet Briar, founded the station in the summer of 2014 with Verena Joerger ’15 and Kiera Cavalleri ’15. Joerger presented her tower research at the national meeting of the American Geophysical Union in December 2014, which helped her secure a place in graduate school at Cornell University. She is pursing her master’s in the earth and atmospheric sciences department.

This year, Emily Dallas ’16 is conducting her senior research at the tower under O’Halloran’s supervision. The project involves quantifying the temporal evolution of light transmission through different forest types and ages to learn how they harvest light for photosynthesis.

O’Halloran is now an assistant research professor in the forest resources and environmental conservation department in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech.

He is working with Quinn Thomas, assistant professor of forest dynamics and ecosystem modeling, with whom he began collaborating in February.

O’Halloran originally designed LARS to facilitate his ongoing research on what creates the Blue Ridge haze – to quantify the role of forests in regulating climate, particularly trees’ production of aerosols, which contribute to haze and interact with clouds.

The station also presents a tremendous opportunity for undergraduate research in environmental science for Sweet Briar students in areas related to climate and forestry. He thinks those opportunities will continue to grow.

Emily Dallas Climbing Tower Emily Dallas ’16 climbed the LARS tower in recent weeks as part of her senior research project. Photo by Tom O’Halloran.

“This new collaboration with Quinn Thomas and Virginia Tech has significantly increased the scope and impact of the processes we can study at the site,” says O’Halloran, who made the move to Virginia Tech before it was known that Sweet Briar would remain open.

“Everything is still moving forward as it was,” Thomas said, in the university’s news release. “And Virginia Tech has strengthened its role at this exciting research site that combines forestry with micrometeorology.”

Now that Sweet Briar will be open in perpetuity, work at the site continues as a collaboration between the two schools.

“The site is busier than ever. It makes me pleased to see undergraduate and graduate students from both schools working together,” O’Halloran said.

Read the full Virginia Tech News release here: Land-atmosphere research station helps Virginia Tech expand capacity to study forests.

If you are participating in Families’ Day on Nov. 7 and are curious about the research station, O’Halloran will lead a tour of the facility at 2:30 p.m. Seating on the shuttle is limited and you must reserve your free tickets when you register for Families’ Day. You can collect your tickets and shuttle details at check-in in the Prothro atrium.

For more information on Families’ Day, please visit web.sbc.edu/families-day.