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Frostburg State Student’s Work With D.C. Trees Sends Her to South Africa

Frostburg State Student’s Work With D.C. Trees Sends Her to South Africa
Laura Smith

Which tree-lined streets in our nation’s capital could be different in future generations because of research completed by Frostburg State University students? Ethnobotany graduate student Laura Smith may know. She has spent the last two years combing through and visualizing data of 157,000 trees in Washington, D.C., to evaluate pest and disease impact on the urban forest.

The Allegany County resident’s work earned her a prestigious Society of Economic Botany Travel Award that will send her to Clanwilliam, South Africa, this summer, where she will present her thesis research at SEB’s 56th annual meeting, held jointly with the Indigenous Plant Use Forum.

FSU’s involvement in the project began with ethnobotany student Mitch Hall, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from FSU. He evaluated the risk factors of each tree by obtaining a Pest Vulnerability Matrix database from California and modifying it for pests and diseases on the East Coast.

The D.C. Urban Forestry Administration, which funded the research, completed the fieldwork to gather the genus, species, diameter and health rating of its trees.

Smith then visualized the data with a grid map using layers showing the pest and disease risk in each D.C. council ward and single-member districts of the Neighborhood Advisory Commission.

“We can give the Neighborhood Advisory Commission their pest vulnerability score and what they can do to lower it,” said Smith, a graduate of Allegany High School. “That way it can actually be used on the ground.”

The study also examined how diverse D.C.’s street trees are and suggested action plans to replace trees in certain neighborhoods after the tree dies as a way to help fend off pest and disease issues.

Smith saw that problem with an abundance of American Elm trees in certain areas of D.C., which can be susceptible to Dutch Elm Disease. Urban foresters use Dr. Frank Santamour Jr.’s Rule of Thumb to determine how many and which trees should be planted to help avoid an outbreak of tree-specific diseases. That’s no more than 10 percent of a single species, 20 percent of a single genus or 30 percent of a single family.

The emerald ash borer, which attacks ash trees, is also a concern because it is starting to move to its second-best host, a white fringe tree, Smith said.

“If all of that genus is gone from an area, it will move to other trees,” Smith said.

Trees are clearly Smith’s passion. Smith’s time at Frostburg also allowed her to sit on the Campus Tree Advisory Committee, helping the campus being named a Tree Campus USA for three years in a row. Smith also interned with the City of Cumberland to study the social impact of trees to influence residents to plant trees in their own yard.

“It’s going to become more important in the future to make sure these are functional ecological systems instead of concrete deserts,” Smith said.

The Society of Economic Botany award provides Smith with $1,000 toward airfare to attend the conference, a year’s subscription to Nature Journal and other benefits. She will also volunteer at the conference.

“Laura is a local student from Allegany County, and it shows you what kind of local talent we have,” said Dr. Sunshine Brosi, associate professor of biology who advised Smith’s project. “She’s an independent learner, and she has a lot of self-motivation to go above and beyond in the classroom.”

Smith said she was excited about the trip and award and credited the intimate setting and knowledgeable faculty at FSU for help making her successful.

“I don’t know that I would have been given this opportunity at a different place because we’re such a small group of grad students,” Smith said. “We interact constantly with our advisors and committee members. We’re always being exposed to potential places to give presentations, or apply for scholarships and fellowships.”

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit or Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.

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Frostburg State University
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Frostburg, MD  21532-2303

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