Biology students get field experience, earn honors for research

Undergraduate presentation winners from the annual Illinois State Academy of Science meeting pose with mentor Peter Minchin. From left, Noah Dell, Minchin, Aaron Alexander, and Savanna Stabenow. (Photo courtesy of Minchin)

Conducting relevant research can require great motivation and at times, students must brave the elements to complete studies. Biology majors Aaron Alexander, Noah Dell and Savanna Stabenow spent numerous hours outdoors in SIUE’s forest preserve during the changing seasons, collecting data in the winter cold and summer heat.

“Aaron was out there doing his survey in the snow. Noah was out there two summers in a row in the heat,” said Biology professor Peter Minchin, who mentored the students. “You’ve got bugs out there; poison ivy, really hot weather and thunderstorms. You just have to work through the whole thing. They’re all really tenacious –motivated.”

On April 10-11, the students showcased the results of that tenacity when they displayed their research at the 107th annual Illinois State Academy of Science meeting at Western Illinois University. Alexander, Dell and Stabenow were among 15 undergraduates who presented at the annual conference, where students are evaluated on the quality of their research and presentations. Callie Mincy also took first place for her poster presentation on an analysis of Intraspecific Morphological Variation in freshwater fish in east and central Missouri and Kristi Johnson won 2nd place for her poster presentation on her analysis of lateral jaw muscle development during the late tadpole stages of gray tree frogs.

For his oral presentation, Alexander studied the population of White Tailed deer on the SIUE campus. Controlling the deer population can be crucial to the long term sustainability of a forest, as a deer population can affect the regenerating rates of trees and vegetation, Minchin said.

“Research has shown when deer population goes above a certain density, they start to get really negative effects because they eat too many tree seedlings,” Minchin said. “And too many long woody plants so they start to make some of these species populations decline and stop the trees from regenerating because the tree seedlings are being eaten by the deer. They’re not declining now but once these trees die, there’ll be nothing to replace them.”

Under the guidance of Minchin and biology professor Richard Essner Alexander used three tracking methods to estimate the number of deer that occupy campus forests. First Alexander used a spotlight survey technique where two people drive along a predetermined route during night hours and estimate how many deer are visible. The senior then used the data to calculate the number of deer per acre of forest.  Alexander also used a straight line method, where a line is drawn on a map and the researcher records each time a deer is sited. For the third method Alexander tracked the deer’s feces and determining the defecation rate of the specimens.

Based on the results of his research, Alexander estimated 700 to 2,000 deer reside on campus. Alexander also learned that the deer population is growing at a rapid rate, because most females were giving birth to twin fawns. Deer from the local area also see the camps as a safe haven and migrate from surrounding areas, Minchin said. Alexander won first place in the zoology oral presentation category.

“The population is building up in the whole region,” said Minchin. “But they’re also moving onto campus because it’s safe. The numbers here are so high that unless we do something to reduce them it’s going to cause long term damage to the nature preserve.”

Some students work on projects anywhere from one semester to two years. Noah, a senior who also plans to attend the department’s graduate program in the fall, worked on his research for more than a year.  Noah earned first place in the Botany division for his oral presentation that discussed how forest of the SIUE Nature Preserve changed over time. Since SIUE was established in the 1950s, much of the original forest grew over former farmlands.  Minchin said Noah created 132 vegetation plots to track and sample the plant and animal community within the 380-acre preserve located on the west side of campus. For two summers, Noah worked with other students to track the forest succession, or how the different species of trees of varying age groups changed through the decades. Minchin said Noah studied how pioneer species get overtaken by newer species such as oak and maple trees. Noah found that the forest has peaked and has begun to decline. Noah’s project was among the first to use the vegetation plots.

“It’s sort of the first step,” Minchin said. “We’re basically trying to find out what we have in the nature preserve what’s actually there so that we can manage it.”

Stabenow, who plans on entering the medical field, worked on her research for a year through the Undergraduate Research Creative Activities program. The senior studied the growth of Liana — long-stemmed woody vines that grow within the oak-hickory forest of the nature preserve. Stabenow tracked how the plants overtake larger trees with overwhelming growth. She earned second place for her poster presentation in Botany poster category.

The Liana are able to use higher carbon dioxide levels more efficiently than trees and thrive on scattered areas of forest with borders. Minchin said many of the vines are invasive species that were introduced to the area by residents growing plants like Japanese Honeysuckle. Birds will gather the species’ seeds and spread them throughout the region.

“Worldwide people have noticed that vines are getting more abundant – especially in tropical forest,” Minchin said. “The vines are actually growing better than the trees. In a lot of tropical areas the vines are actually overwhelming trees and killing them in some cases.”

Stabenow studied how the vine’s variations in the forest edge and in the forest interior. She also studied the vines growing in forests of different age groups.

The senior’s research showed that vines would be more abundant in the forest edge and in young forests than the forest interior and the older forests.

In his laboratory located in the second floor of Science Building West, Minchin said he tries to create a family-like environment where he also mentors students individually. Students work with faculty and their peers on their projects. The group meets weekly and shares a meal. The professor said senior students help newer ones with their research and train them in research methods.

“That’s a really big positive thing about our department is that most of the faculty have students doing research with them,” Minchin said. “One of the really good things about our department is that it provides undergraduate students with really good research opportunities, which a lot of other students don’t do.”

Undergraduates enter the research program for different reasons. Some enroll in Biology 493 to earn one to six credit hours per semester, while others use it for their senior assignment, and enter the program for field experience.

Minchin said participating in a research program or field studies is not for everyone. It requires curiosity and dedication to gather data in the field. The program also gives the students an advantage over their peers: actual field experience which Minchin said will help biology graduates land jobs and internships. Biology graduates find careers in wildlife management and resource management. Others become botanists and wildlife biologists.

“They’re going to be ahead of the student that’s never done anything except course work,” Minchin said. “There’s a big difference between sitting in the class and someone’s telling you everything, you’re doing labs but they’re all planned as opposed to doing your own research where you have to actually think about how you’re going to do it. You’ve to actually totally do all the data collection yourself. You’ve got learn how to make sense of it. It’s a big step up.”

SIUE had 55 presentations from undergraduates, graduate students and faculty at the annual meeting. SIUE will host the 2016 Illinois Science Academy meeting next spring.

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