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Laura Smith
Laura Smith works inside her lab in the Burchfiel Geography Building on January 18, 2018. Photo by Steven Bridges

Laura Smith, a UT geography PhD candidate, discusses how she uses data collected 80 years ago by dendrochronology pioneer Florence Hawley to better understand today’s correlation between tree growth and precipitation in eastern Tennessee.



ANDREA SCHNEIBEL: Welcome to Science Minute, a research audiocast by the University of Tennessee. I’m Andrea Schneibel.

In the 1930s, an anthropologist named Florence Hawley conducted extensive research in dendrochronology, a science that studies the information contained in tree rings.

LAURA SMITH: With that work she collected samples of various species from both living trees in the region and from archeological sites that would have been associated with Native American mounds, and all of that would be inundated by the Norris Reservoir in eastern Tennessee. She was trying to find a correlation between precipitation and annual tree growth.

SCHNEIBEL: Now, 80 years later, updated technologies are giving geography PhD candidate Laura Smith a chance to continue Hawley’s work.

SMITH: So we can now measure tree rings very, very precisely. So my research aims to combine modern red cedar samples that we’ll be taking from Tennessee cedar glades in central and eastern Tennessee with the historical samples from Dr. Hawley’s collection to develop long-running chronologies that will be used to create records of stream flow and precipitation in the Tennessee River Valley over several hundred years.

SCHNEIBEL: But Smith has an additional goal with her research: she wants to tell the world about a woman who was a trailblazer in science.

SMITH: Dr. Hawley was one of the very first women to enter the field of dendrochronology, and her contributions were extremely significant. She had to fight a lot of prejudices and her correspondences with her colleagues really show that. I think there’s a lot that we can learn from her experiences.

SCHNEIBEL: For the University of Tennessee, I’m Andrea Schneibel with Science Minute.

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Media coverage: Times Free Press, Mark Pace, May 15; WDEF, May 15; WUTC, Will Davis, May 24; WRCB (Associated Press), May 25; ClimateWire, May 29 (TFP story)