Zoe Simms ’17


Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Project Title

Leafing Through Rainforest Tree Competitive Strategies in Nutrient Limited Ecosystems

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Tropical rainforests are among the earth’s most productive and diverse ecosystems. Yet, while they have potential to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, perhaps mitigating climate change, their growth is limited by low soil nutrient levels. How do the dynamics of nutrient limitation vary across tree species and functional types? How are they affected by light availability? This summer, I approached these questions as part of an ongoing fertilization study in the lush lowland tropical rainforest of Costa Rica. Working with Cleo Chou, a PhD student in Princeton’s Department Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), I measured, fertilized, photographed, and collected leaf samples from the project’s study trees. I also designed and conducted an independent study to examine how leaf traits – size and mass per area – interact with nutrient limitation. This knowledge contributes our understanding of forest dynamics and applications such as climate modeling. In the process, I learned the essentials of fieldwork, particularly perseverance in the face of challenge and unpredictability. The experience reinvigorated my passion for ecology and the critical, big-picture questions it allows us to pose. It opened my eyes to the career possibilities within ecology and academia, and reinforced my awe for the science and mystery of the natural world.

Internship Year


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Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, Costa Rica


Stephen Pacala, Professor, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Cleo Chou, Ph.D. Candidate, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology