Andrew Pericak’s summer research in an Oregon forest may not have yielded the scientific results he was hoping for, but the project did help focus his academic pursuits.

Pericak, ’13, won a grant from the Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges to conduct a summer research project in Oregon State University’s H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest as part of his major in environmental studies. The ecology project compared data on the migration of native plants to different elevations within the forest, based on climates.

Researchers have found, Pericak said, that as climates warm and plants spread their seeds, the plant seeds move to higher, cooler elevations. But a recent study found the opposite was the case—plants were moving downhill for more rainfall, despite warmer climates.

“The desire of plants to have more moisture was outweighing the desire for cooler temperatures,” Pericak said of the study.

He was intrigued. With the help of his research adviser, Dr. Todd Lookingbill, Pericak conducted his research in the same forest where Lookingbill did elevation research in 2001. Using Lookingbill’s earlier data, Pericak compared the movement of 10 plant species by taking a census of two-by-two meter plots at different elevations.

Five of the 10 plants had a low drought tolerance, Pericak said, leading him to believe they would be the ones more likely to move downhill toward higher precipitation. The other five with a high drought tolerance were more likely to move uphill.

But by the end of his research, he found that only one out of 10 plants showed statistically significant movement. He will present his findings to the VFIC this fall.

“It didn’t play out but it was a good idea,” said Pericak, who chose to double major in environmental studies and geography as a way to combine his interests in politics and ecology. He also plans to minor in music.

“One of the nice things about the smaller school here at Richmond is I have these opportunities as an undergraduate that I wouldn’t have at a bigger school,” he said. “Things like conducting undergraduate research, going somewhere I’d never been before and setting my own self-directed schedule.”

Although his Pericak’s research did not support his hypothesis — he said he would have liked to link his findings to global warming — the experience did help him narrow his career focus. For now, Pericak thinks he’ll concentrate on the economics, rather than the science, behind environmental studies.

“I realized that there’s this divide between science and politics in studying the environment,” he said. “Scientists can say, ‘based on our data, here’s what’s happening,’ but it’s much more difficult to tie those findings to human activity. There’s this divide between facts and people’s opinions.”