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The Dirt on Undergraduate Research

By: Sophia O’Brien

Senior Claire Popke, doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty, especially if there are earthworms involved.

A few semesters ago, Popke decided she wanted to get involved in research as an undergraduate at WSU. Now she works closely with University of Idaho professor, Dr. Jodi Johnson-Maynard, analyzing soil samples’ isotopic C:N values in hopes of finding a relationship between earthworms and soil quality. This tells them how healthy the soil is by comparing the amount of carbon to the amount of nitrogen. They are looking into how the soil microbiology is affected by invasive and noninvasive earthworm species. Studying earthworms becomes challenging because, according to Popke, most earthworms are invasive species from Europe.

Because invasive species typically carry the connotation of being bad for a native area, Dr. Johnson-Maynard wanted to look into that relationship with earthworms. Invasive earthworms can damage the organic earth matter that sits on the forest floor. This could cause a transformation between of the relationships between plants and animals and the soil. Dr. Johnson-Maynard, her team of graduate students, and Popke are researching how these invasive earthworms could be affecting the Palouse environment.

According to Popke’s preliminary findings, there might not be a huge difference between native and invasive earthworms.

“Earthworms just seem to help the soil, whether they’re invasive or not,” she said. “This is different from most invasive species which are shown to be harmful.”

Popke grew up outside of Seattle in Edmonds, WA and has always been fascinated by earthworms. When she decided she wanted to get involved in undergraduate research, she looked to one of her favorite professors, Dr. Dave Evans. After class one day she asked if she could work in his lab, and soon began work with one of his graduate students. Popke began with helping the graduate student analyze her soil samples until Dr. Evans asked how she felt about earthworms; once he learned of her unique love for earthworms, he put her in contact with Dr. Johnson-Maynard at U of I.

Popke graduates this May from WSU and will head to Thailand the following month for a veterinary service. She plans on having that be a deciding factor in whether to pursue veterinary school or not. Popke feels she made find the conservation part of the project more exciting than the veterinary studies.

Undergraduate research has been a staple in Popke’s experience here. Not only did she feel more prepared for her microbiology classes because of it, but she feels more prepared for graduation in general.

SBS Students Become SBS Teachers

By: Sophia O’Brien

“A carnivore is a bat because they eat blood!” one MacDonald Elementary School student exclaimed.

Last November, my Biology 321 class presented developmental biology to elementary school students during Adventure Club, an after school program for elementary school students, mainly catering toward kindergarteners through third-graders. Though that first-grade student didn’t quite accurately guess what a carnivore was, he was on the right track for such a young kid.

When we walked into the elementary cafeteria where we’d be hosting the event, we were met with screams of excitement from the 70 kids running around.

As college students in biology 321, also known as Principles of Animal Development, we don’t have much contact with young children and had forgotten what elementary school was like. What we did know was that young children have short attention spans and like to participate in activities. Dr. Erica Crespi had invited us to show off what we had been learning in class at Adventure Club, and so we tried to come up with examples of the coolest stuff we could. We set up stations: one with skulls to look at teeth, one with bird specimens to look at feeding, a coloring sheet with information about morphology on it, and an interactive activity to learn about cells.

As we set up the different specimens we brought, the students clamored around excited about what we had to show. The beginning of every presentation began, “please don’t touch” and “you’ll get to touch it in a little”. The students were eager to begin learning.

The students loved the hands-on nature of all of our activities. My group taught students the correlation between teeth and eating habits, and how teeth develop throughout animals lives. We used baby and adult skulls from a dog, deer, and bear. All of the kids wanted to have their hand “bitten” by the bear skull. Using teeth to show development worked well with young kids because many of them are in the process of losing their own baby teeth. When one second grader was asked what he thought the bear skull was, he was convinced that it was a vampire. It took a lot of explanation for him to understand that the large “vampire” teeth he was seeing were actually canines.

Within our class, other groups did similar outreach projects with groups like Palouse Science Discovery Center, Bishop Center, Friends of Clearwater, and other Palouse organizations. Working with a community partner is an important process in science. It taught us to tailor what we were learning to different audiences with varying levels of scientific knowledge.

Dr. Crespi believes that “It is critical that our majors students learn how to communicate science to any audience that is interested through a variety of means—whether it be written, oral, visual, or in the case of children, with their hands–and this was a way to give them practice in doing just that. This skill is something all students can use no matter which profession or career they go into.”

Cousins Lab Collaborates on $16 million DOE Grant

By: Sophia O’Brien

A School of Biological Sciences research lab, the Cousins Lab, was part of a multi-institutional team awarded a $16 million, five-year grant from The U.S. Department of Energy. The grant was lead by PIs in the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center with the aim to enhance sorghum for bioenergy.

The research teams are hoping to answer if sorghum (a drought and heat resistant grass) that can be further enhanced to increase photosynthesis and water use efficiency. The project aims to deliver stress-tolerant sorghum lines, addressing the DOE’s mission of renewable energy sources.

Dr. Asaph Cousins’ team will be focusing on biochemistry and detailed leaf level physiology. The team’s research will begin with screening for natural diversity in photosynthetic water use efficiency using stable carbon isotopes. They are trying to identify genetic controls of water use efficiency by screening populations of sorghum and mapping these traits to identify their genetic control. They are also taking a focused look on how enzyme activity and kinetics control rates and efficiencies of photosynthesis, and how they may be influencing differences in photosynthetic water use.

Dr. Cousins and his team at WSU are one of six multi-disciplinary teams. The other teams are from the Donald Danforth Center, the Carnegie Institution of Science, University of Rhode Island, University of Illinois, University of Minnesota, and the United States Department of Agriculture. The teams bring together a range of specialties from plant physiology, genetics, molecular biology, informatics, computational biology, and genetic engineering. The WSU includes one graduate student and one postgraduate student, and they are looking to add one more graduate student.

“It’s exciting to have five years of funding and to be able to pursue questions that we might not be able to otherwise in a short time frame. It also provides opportunities to collaborate with other areas of plant sciences and address these research questions from multiple perspectives and angles. This is a very interdisciplinary project”, said Dr. Cousins.

Large research grants like these are furthering WSU’s goal of drive to 25, to become one of the top research institutes in the nation by 2030.