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William Young

Undergraduate student, forestry major

William Young under a maple tree

When October leaves have ripened to the fall, who hasn't stood under a flaming maple and wondered why it goes red? As part of a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) minority scholarship he received through the Rubenstein School, each week forestry major William Young works with researchers in labs at the Forest Service and on campus as they measure sugar levels, record chlorophyll content, and search for clues about how a maple makes a living.

"Me? I just climb up and down ladders with duct tape," says Young, with a grin, as he carefully places tiny disks of chopped leaf into a test tube of methanol.

"In Natural Resources 1, my first day here, we talked about why leaves turn red," he says. "This is Vermont. Everyone cares about red leaves."

The role that red leaves play in Vermont's landscape — and economy — may be under threat from climate change. As a result, UVM researchers from the Rubenstein School to the Proctor Maple Research Center are working to answer a basic question: How will climate change impact the region's fall color displays?

Why does a maple go yellow one year and red the next? Are cold nights the trigger?

"We know the basic biochemical reasons (leaves go red)," says U.S. Forest Service researcher Paul Schaberg, "but the ecology and exact mechanisms are still unknown." Which is why he and Young, his intern, are peering up into a sugar maple outside the nearby Forest Service Research Station, searching for answers.

When maples go red ...