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School of Biological Sciences SBS Stories

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.

Dr. Michelle McGuire Wins Excellence in Nutrition Prize

By: Sophia O’Brien

SBS professor Dr. Michelle McGuire has been named the winner of the American Society for Nutrition’s (ASN) 2018 Excellence in Nutrition Education Award.

The Excellence in Nutrition Education Award is given for outstanding contributions in teaching nutrition. The award is given to a senior investigator who demonstrated superior ability as an educator in nutrition science, as shown through acknowledged excellence in nutrition teaching or nutrition education research and original contributions to teaching and translating new discoveries into classroom or educational materials. Dr. McGuire will receive the award this coming June during ASN’s Nutrition 2018 hosted in Boston, MA. She is currently researching the variability and regulation of milk composition in humans. Dr. McGuire believes that understanding milk constituents is important for both scientific and public health purposes.

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.”

SBS’s Conner Museum of Natural History Contains Wonders

By: Sophia O’Brien

In charge of over 61,000 specimens, Dr. Kelly Cassidy is the behind-the-scenes wizard of WSU’s Conner Museum.

Asked what it’s like being the curator for the Conner Museum, her response was simple: “I have the best job in the world. I learn something new every day.”

The museum houses the largest public exhibit of mounted birds and mammals in the Pacific Northwest. 700 mounted birds and mammals are on display.

But there are often surprises – it’s not just local fauna on display. For example, the museum houses one of the largest collections of birds from Mariana Islands; the museum was able to get these birds from the other side of the world because a former graduate student worked for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The museum also has one of the largest collections of elephant teeth from Uganda because a former WSU professor, Dr. Irvin O. Buss, studied African elephants in the late 1950s and sent teeth back to Pullman just for the collections.

Cassidy has been helming the museum for a while now. When she began her work as curator 13 years ago, none of the collections were on computer file. If someone wanted to look at the rodent records from Spokane County, someone would have to go through and look at all the labels on thousands of rodent skins and skulls and write down that information. Cassidy decided that having computerized records were essential. She began with the massive bird collection, and over the course of several years, entered them in. Eventually, she received an NSF grant to hire students to help finish the computerization. Having specimens within a computer base allows researchers to find the specimens, and put in requests for them.Cassidy began her work in Pullman following a postdoc in Seattle. She came back for a temporary job, only to then have the curator job become available. Wanting to stay in Pullman, she instantly jumped on the opportunity, and has never looked back.

Cassidy received her bachelor’s degree in physics and math from the University of Texas. She began graduate school with the goal of ending it with a degree in physics, but kept finding herself drawn to biology journals in the library. Cassidy decided to earn a master’s degree in biology from the University of North Texas, having never taken a biology course before. There, her projects involved water toxicology and satellite imagery. She came to WSU for a PhD in botany under Dr. Dick Mack, focusing on invasive plants. During her post-doc at the University of Washington, she was the Washington state project leader for the Gap Analysis Project (GAP). In her time as GAP leader, she used satellite imagery to map vegetation across the state, modeled the distribution of terrestrial vertebrates and overlaid the vertebrate maps on land ownership to identify “gaps” in the protection of vertebrates in the state.

Recently, the Conner Museum was lucky enough to receive a donation of five big cat rugs. The collection includes an adult male lion, adult tiger, juvenile tiger, and two leopards. A WSU economics professor, Robert Wallace, shot them in the 1950s; he later regretted killing them and stored them away in a chest. His daughter came across these pelts when cleaning out his house. They will be used for presentations and teaching demonstrations.

The Conner Museum is located in the south end floor of Abelson Hall. It is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed major Holidays and during University Closures).
More information can be found at https://cas.wp.wsu.edu/conner-museum/.

Eric Navarro Is Named a Winner at the SACNAS Conference

By: Sophia O’Brien

A presentation by SBS undergraduate junior, Eric Navarro, was one of the 117 winners of 1000+ student research presentations at the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) National Diversity in STEM Conference on October 19-21.

SACNAS, which hosted the event, is the leading multicultural and multidisciplinary STEM diversity organization in the country. The conference included over 4000 attendees and 1000 student research presentations in multidisciplinary fields.

When Navarro walked into the convention center, he said he felt awe at the number of people from under-represented communities pursuing STEM degrees.

“There wasn’t a lack of cultural experience either,” he said. “There were many different presentations throughout the conference showcasing the beauty of a range of cultures.”

Navarro was the only winner in the animal science/zoology field with his presentation, “Retention of learning through life stages in Xenopus laevis”. Xenopus laevis is commonly known as an African clawed frog. His research hopes to find the effects of early life (pre-metamorphosis) stress have on later life (post-metamorphosis) learning. This could translate into understanding the effects of stress on human babies in the womb and learning in later human life. Metamorphosis is typically viewed as a fresh start for an animal, like hatching, but if early life stress has negative effects on cognitive function after metamorphosis, then it would confirm newer hypotheses that some effects can be retained even through metamorphosis.

Navarro grew up in the small town of Quincy, WA where, due to lack of activities, he spent a lot of his time watching the animals around him react to stimuli. Navarro has always loved animals and science, but his curiosity is what has driven him into the world of animal behavior. He is a member of the Gamma Iota Omicron, Fraternity Inc., and one of the founding members of WSU SACNAS chapter.

His parents originated from Jalisco, Mexico before moving to the United States. Being of Mexican heritage, he has found it rare to find a person of color in a high-ranking position. In STEM, he said he has often felt uneasy about the lack of people of color pursuing degrees, and the lack of faculty members who have looked like him. Navarro believes role models can be found anywhere, but it’s harder to make a connection when you don’t have someone who understands how it feels to be a Mexican-American, first-generation college student. His goal is to become an academic in STEM, so that he can show someone like him, who is on the edge of continuing, that they can be successful in the field.

One of his goals for this year was to present at a big conference, and with the help of his mentor, Dr. Erica Crespi, SACNAS was his largest conference yet. No matter how smart one may be, he said, if findings aren’t communicated to other scientists and people outside the scientific community, the true potential of one’s research won’t be fulfilled.

In the future, Navarro plans to get a Ph.D. in Animal Behavior. His interests lie in how the animal’s environment, if bad at any point in time, can have lasting impacts on the animal’s behavior. Eventually he hopes to enter academia or work as an animal behaviorist at a zoo.

Student Spotlight: Madison Armstrong

What year are you? – Junior

What is your major? – Biology – Ecology/Evolution Option

Describe your favorite experience with SBS. – Maddie does a lot of community outreach, with the SBS Biology Graduate Student Association and as part of departmental recruitment events.

“It’s fun to be able to inspire science,” she says, “I love science so I want other people to love science, too!”

What advice would you give to students considering a major in Biology or Zoology? – “It’s important to understand that yes, the classes will be difficult,” for SBS majors, she says, but points out there there’s so much more to college than just getting through classes. “It’s more about, what’s your passion; the reason you’re here in college is to follow what you would love to do for your future career. It’s going to be worth it.”

What are your post-WSU plans? – “My primary research interest is environmental epigenetics,” she says, which leads naturally to the pursuit of a PhD. Eventually, Maddie might work with conservation works or a university. “I’d be really interested to better our understanding of how humans are influencing the environment and how that in turn is affecting the physical expression of genes in species,” she says.

Madison’s taking advantage of all the opportunities available to SBS undergrads: involvement in faculty research, community outreach, and more! If you’d like to know more about how to get involved, contact us at sbs at wsu.edu today!

WSU’S Very Own Bat Woman, Kara McClanahan

By: Sophia O’Brien

Kara McClanahan saves bats in her off time. The Instructional Lab Supervisor for SBS grew up in the southwest, which is where her love for bats arose — the climate there is warm and dry making it the perfect environment for many bat species. McClanahan spent part of her childhood in the subtropics of Japan, where she first saw fruit bats. She found it fascinating that such little animals could create such a demonic ideal in people and in the media.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in zoology from WSU, she looked to WSU faculty member Mike Webster for guidance on continuing graduate studies here. Webster studied animal behavior, specifically birds, and became McClanahan’s informal “genetics advisor”; he put her in contact with Christine Portfors a WSU Vancouver professor who became McClanahan’s “bat advisor”. McClanahan’s and Portfors’ studies on foraging bats in Central Washington looked at identifying what insects bats were eating by looking at the DNA in bat feces.

Though her days of bat research are behind her, she still participates in all things bat around campus. It is not unusual for the police, animal control, or environmental health to call in need of her bat rescuing expertise. McClanahan has her rabies vaccinations, which is one of the reasons she is often called when a bat is trapped indoor. Bats that are trapped inside are typically roosting on a wall or in a doorframe. She sneaks up on them and grabs them with leather gloves before taking them home to be fed and given fluids. The bats will fly away within a couple hours. She is in the process of acquiring a license for bat rehabilitation, which will make it so she can help bats with injuries and hold them for longer rehabilitation periods if necessary.

One of her most difficult bat rescues occurred in Webster Hall. All she knew was that there was a bat in the stairway; Webster has 14 floors. After making it to the top floor, she found the bat flying around the ceiling of the stairwell. Having nothing but the plastic aquarium and towel that she uses to transport the bats home, she decided to try throwing the towel in the air in hopes of it driving the bat down. The bat swooped down to avoid the towel and landed on the floor, lucky for her she was able to grab it safely.

So, what do you do if there’s a bat in your house? According to McClanahan, if a bat is found indoors and is just resting and hanging out during the day, it means it’s just seeking warmth and safety. The bat will fly back outside at night. They are creatures of habit, and will try to return to the safety of indoors. Once the bat has flown out, cover the entryway and put a bat house outside.

If you’re interested in more information on bats and how to keep bats out of your home visit:

http://www.batcon.org/resources/for-specific-issues/bats-in-buildings/prevention

https://batconservation.org

2017 Undergraduate Research Night

By: Sophia O’Brien

School of Biological Sciences hosted a very rewarding Research Night on Thursday, October 5th. Research Night was an opportunity for faculty and undergraduate students to come together to find shared research interests. The night included five faculty presentations as well as free pizza and mingling between faculty and undergrads. The faculty who presented was Dave Evans, Erica Crespi, Joanna Kelly, Jesse Brunner, and Wes Dowd.

Undergraduate research experience is a priority at SBS as a R1 PAC 12 research school. Students were interested in learning how to get started in research labs and the first steps that need to be taken.

“Undergraduates contribute immensely to my research programs looking at how the environment affects early development. Having undergrads in my research lab benefits myself, but also the students because it helps teach them how to think critically. I have had many undergrad students as co-authors on my papers and then go off and do great things,” said Dr. Crespi.

Since the first Research Night had such a successful turnout of about 50 students, there will be another Research Night sometime in the near future. It will be bigger with more faculty lab presentations, and different research opportunities.

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.