Friday, June 17, 2016

SNRE Profile: Lola Oliver anchors Forest Soils Lab

Lola Oliver poses with one of the tools in her lab, an Agilent microwave
plasma atomic emission spectrometer.

Lola Oliver came to University of Alaska Fairbanks as somewhat of a lark in 1966 after studying two years at a community college in Wenatchee, Washington.

Her other college choices were Washington State University, which was too close to home, and Reed College in Oregon. Of the three, UAF sounded the most adventurous and also the most accommodating. Financial aid representatives told her, “Come on up and we’ll make it work out.”

They did. She had a work-study job while finishing off degrees in biology and English. As a graduate student, she started work in the Forest Soils Lab in 1969, becoming the supervisor two years later.

During the UAF staff longevity awards event on May 12, Interim Chancellor Mike Powers recognized Oliver for 45 years of service to the university, the longest-serving employee honored.

“The university is home,” she says, simply. She likes the work, the location and her co-workers. The university hosts what she describes as “a high percentage of thoughtful people.”

Lola Oliver poses gets congratulated by Interim Chancellor Mike Powers
during this year's staff longevity awards.
Her work goal has remained the same, to analyze the chemical and biological properties of forest soil and plant tissue. The technology has changed a lot since she started, however. “Everything was done by hand,” she said. “There was a lot of glassware and titration.” Soil analysis calculations were done on paper and the results graphed. Oversized manual calculators with cogs and wheels compiled results. The lab was located in the Forestry Building, where the State Extension Office is now.

Oliver helped acquire more sophisticated instruments for the lab, including a cavity ringdown spectrometer and an isotope ratio mass spectrometer, which are used for isotopic analyses, a different and more detailed analysis that is essential to environmental research. “You can tell a lot about what’s going on with plants by looking at analytical chemistry,” she said.

Working with other scientists, including her supervisor, silviculture Professor John Yarie, she analyzes physical, chemical and biological soil and plant properties and processes in relation to tree growth and forest development. Most of her work now relates to the Bonanza Creek Long Term Ecological Research project. She analyzes decaying trees that were cut down in 1994 to study how their chemical properties change as they decompose over a 100-year period.

Lola Oliver, left, works on soils analysis during the late 1960s.
 Those machines shown are manual  calculators.
So far, the research has been going on for 20 years. A complete soil profile is also done every 10 years in about 100 soil pits. Additionally, she analyses soils and trees that are affected by artificial drought conditions created by the use of “rainfall exclusions platforms” and reducing winter snowmelt,— experiments meant to study how forests will respond to changing climate conditions.

Over the years, Oliver has worked with lab directors and principal investigators associated with the lab, and has been involved with all aspects of that research, administering funds, supervising technicians and helping with the field work.

With the retirement of one of her co-workers, Tim Quintal, she had to learn how to repair the machines, which has been challenging. He told her, “They can be fixed. You just have to know what to do.” She has somehow mastered that, sometimes with the help of phone calls to manufacturers’ representatives.

Along the way, she studied permafrost and earned a doctorate in geology from UAF in 2012, not because she wanted a different job, but because she was interested. She also built her own home, which still provides a reliable supply of work projects. Hobbies have included sewing, her two cats, gardening and travel, although she travels less frequently now.

She has been especially interested in traveling to areas with solar eclipses. Once it’s deemed safe to look at the sun, she said, “You look up and there’s a big black hole in the sky, with a silvery corona.” Eclipse travels have taken her to Australia, Mongolia and Ghana. She has also traveled to Tanzania, Egypt and India.

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