Harvard Forest Offers Research Experience

Courtesy of Dave A. Orwig

Like so many Harvard undergraduates, when Jennifer L. Levye ’11 arrived at Harvard almost four years ago, she was initially set on being pre-med. But her longtime interest in the environment lingered, and after discovering the Harvard Forest Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program later that year, she became interested in gaining research experience through the ecology program.

Although Levye was too late to apply, she followed her passion and took an ecology course and an introductory Organismic and Evolutionary Biology course her sophomore year and finally applied for the REU program. Her interests began to wander away from pre-med and toward ecology. After spending the next summer at Harvard Forest, she abandoned her pre-med requirements to focus solely on ecology research.

Harvard Forest’s REU program gives students from universities across the country, sometimes with little to no ecology research experience, the opportunity to conduct projects for 12 weeks during the summer.

Through independent research, which results in a final paper and presentation, the 20 to 35 students in the program gain skills and scientific knowledge and are supported by a network of mentors and their fellow students, resulting in what many say is a life-changing experience.

“I started out pre-med. After Harvard Forest, I realized I liked trees more than I liked studying people,” Levye says.

In addition to her passion for trees, Levye discovered a small, tight-knit academic community. In the Forest—70 miles away from Harvard’s campus—the former pre-med found her academic calling and a group to support her.


Harvard Forest, located in Petersham, Mass., was established in 1907 as a self-sustaining laboratory for Harvard’s Forestry Department and has since expanded to 3500 acres of land with research facilities. In 1998, it became part of the Long Term Ecological Research Network, a group of 26 research sites that share data and mainly receives its funding from the National Science Foundation.

“Being a part of the network gives us funding, infrastructure, and community. We also get to have projects that run for multiple decades looking at the Forest,” says Clarisse M. Hart, outreach and development manager for education and research programs at Harvard Forest.

Although students have been involved with the Forest since its foundation, David R. Foster, Harvard Forest’s director, started the REU program in 1985. Since then, student researchers have become a cornerstone of the Forest.

“We’re working on projects in the fall and the spring, but during the summer, the Forest becomes more of a hustling and bustling place,” says Edythe Ellin, Harvard Forest’s director of administration.


As a first step in the process, students apply for a particular project which has been developed by a REU mentor. If admitted, students work with the mentor for the duration of the summer. Students develop close relationships with their mentors, which often extend beyond the REU program.

Levye was unsure of which project to apply for, so she went to OEB Professor Noel “Missy” Holbrook, who was leading a project, to ask for advice. Ultimately, Holbrook became Levye’s mentor for the summer and for the rest of her college career.

Levye continued to work in Holbrook’s lab and Holbrook has since become her thesis advisor.