Of all the milestones Matthew Cashman hoped to achieve during his career at Fordham, traveling to Europe seemed the most unlikely. After all, the course load for an honors student majoring in biology and minoring in environmental science is nothing short of rigorous.
Then an honors-program peer told Cashman, 20, about an opportunity that would allow him to conduct environmental research abroad. He applied to the DAAD RISE summer program run by the German government, and is now studying plant ecology and ecosystems at Georg-August University in Göttingen.
“It worked out great,” said Cashman, a Fordham College at Rose Hill junior. “They offered me an opportunity to visit another country for several months and do high-quality research at the same time.”
Cashman is part of a team that is studying forest function in Hainich National Park in Thuringia. This forest, which Cashman said has been relatively undisturbed since before World War II, was chosen because man-made disturbances can alter forest function in important ways.
The team of doctoral students from Germany and Finland (Cashman is the sole undergraduate) is analyzing select areas of the forest to determine how tree diversity affects the forest ecosystem generally and beech trees in particular. Another part of the project will examine the economic value of ecosystem services in forests with high biodiversity.
“Gottingen was a big draw because of its cutting-edge research and methods,” he said. “I’ve been learning a lot since I’ve been walking around in the shoes of a Ph.D. student, even if they’re a little big.”
Cashman is using three-dimensional laser-light modeling to examine the canopies of several tree clusters and the amount of light that penetrates to the forest floor.
“By taking multiple scans around a cluster, we can combine them into a 3-D representation of the area,” he explained.
“This simulates hemispherical photography, which we are also taking to compare and validate the scans. In hemispherical photography, a fisheye lens is attached to a camera that allows for a 180-degree picture. These images, in both their virtual and standard representations, allow us to examine light and radiation penetration at any time during the day.”
Both techniques are at the leading edge of forest inventory methods. “3-D imaging is constantly being refined; its full potential has still yet to be seen,” Cashman said.
He added that he is enjoying the challenge, and is quite aware of what it could mean for the field, as well as his career.
“There is little published literature and no standard way to go about this data collection, so we are mostly paving our own way,” he said. “It’s interesting. I’m being exposed to the forefront of the academic field and I’m learning and creating state-of-the-art techniques that will see extensive field use in the future. A lot of these forest inventory methods are being revolutionized, and I’m here to witness it.”
Cashman expects to graduate in 2010 and go on to graduate school.
“I’m thinking of focusing on man’s interaction with the environment,” Cashman said. “I’m leaning a little more toward
anthropogenic disturbances on ecological systems, such as in urban or suburban ecology, or maybe I might take it toward effective management systems of the natural environment.”