Tiara Moore spends a lot of time playing in the dirt.
She’s not a kid, though. She’s an environmental scientist who combs the forest floor to search for traces of life. She looks deep into the unseen world as part of a project to help save the planet and its inhabitants.
Her journey to where she is today started with a roadblock.
Moore vividly recalls a teacher at Greenwood High School not letting her take an advanced-placement biology class.
That decision served as inspiration for Moore’s desire to pursue biology as a career. Moore studied biology at Winthrop, received her master’s in biology from Hampton University in Virginia and later earned a doctorate from UCLA.
The biology teacher at Greenwood High, Delaine Dimsdale, “is one of my very good friends,” Moore said. “I tell her to this day, ‘Delaine, because of you, I had to go and become a real biologist because you wouldn’t let me take your class.’ Every time I go to Greenwood, I go and visit Delaine.”
Moore is now a long way from Greenwood, but she’s involved in work that impacts the entire planet.
“As a scientist, we get caught up in the quest: How can we do this? What can we fix?” Moore said. “And I think, for me, I’ve had to take a step back because this is real life.”
Moore’s life right now involves forensic forestry.
As a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Washington and with The Nature Conservancy, she is an environmental scientist who studies the soil at Ellsworth Creek Preserve in Naselle, Washington, where years of logging gutted the forest of most of its old-growth trees.
Those trees once were excellent vessels for storing carbon, which helps eliminate some of the carbon from the atmosphere and assists in the battle against climate change. As the trees disappear, so does much of the wildlife.
“Once you take all the trees, you lose the wildlife community because they are displaced,” Moore said. “We want to bring those trees back so we can bring those animals back that we love so much. When you clear-cut a forest, you just took away a thousand homes. So many things live in trees.”
Moore’s work helps forest managers at the preserve determine which type of trees to plant, the spacing of them and what type of wildlife is returning to the forest to assist in fostering biodiversity. The forest managers have been planting a variety of trees to see which ones help promote biodiversity.
The Nature Conservancy is a charitable environmental organization that has protected more than 119 million acres of land and thousands of miles of rivers worldwide, according to its website.
Moore’s analysis of soil will help identify thousands of creatures that have returned to the forest in the 20 years since the conservancy purchased the preserve. Moore hopes the data can explain which forest-management style best promotes biodiversity.
“It’s really about seeing if this restoration effort they have been doing has actually worked,” Moore said.
Moore samples Ellsworth soil and then returns to the lab to break it down into DNA. Environmental DNA, or “forest forensics,” looks at what is living in the soil and helps forest managers know if what they are doing is working.
“As these animals are coming back to the forest, they’re shedding skin cells and hair,” Moore said. “So, basically, their DNA is being left behind and is being captured in that soil. I can go out there, collect dirt and then extract the DNA from the soil using a series of molecular laboratory methods and run their DNA against a database of known species.”
Larger trees absorb and store more carbon, but the number of old-growth trees in Ellsworth is low. Forest managers have been planting new trees for about two decades, and Moore studies soil near old-growth trees and new trees.
“We know that carbon dioxide is one of the greenhouse gasses that is leading to climate change and global warming,” Moore said.
In 2004, The Nature Conservancy asked scientists to come up with restoration strategies. They decided to experiment with forest management by creating a complex forest with a variety of species.
Moore looks at the microbial community of the soil near trees to make sure the tree is able to grow. She also looks at the top layer of soil throughout the forest to capture information about wildlife. Her work serves a dual purpose.
She said her team has talked about adding the collection of water samples to the project. That would not be unfamiliar to Moore, who studied marine environmental DNA when she was at UCLA. In fact, she was a bit hesitant, at first, when she thought about going into a forest to do research.
The conservancy’s goals and its desire to work with her and her team made for a smooth transition.
“This was different,” Moore said. “They are going to listen to you. You can make a difference in real time right now. That was so intriguing to me. I was like, ‘I’ll come out of the water for that. Why not?’”
Moore won’t be working at Ellsworth forever. She said there are other environmental DNA projects in the Seattle area.