This spring the biology department arranged some amazing opportunities for Principia students. The department enabled students to put into practice what they have learned in the classroom.
The first opportunity was a trip to Trinidad led by Professor Scott Eckert. Eckert, along with Howard House Resident Counselor Heather Barron, took 20 students to volunteer with Nature Seekers, an organization that strives to protect nesting sea turtles and promotes turtle conservation. The group of Principians was able to collect data about these incredible creatures and become familiar with the local culture.
While in Trinidad, the students were broken into research teams to study different aspects of the sea turtles. These small groups analyzed everything from heart rate response, egg mass to turtle mass, yokeless eggs, preferred nesting location, and internal body temperature.
Senior environmental studies major Steve Bailey said, “Every night for five days we went out [on the beach] from about 7 [p.m] to 12 a.m., and together with the Nature Seekers patrolled the beaches.” He added: “If and when we found turtles, we broke off into different groups and studied different things about those turtles.”
But conducting research was not the only thing these budding scientists had the chance to do. For instance, hikes through the jungle were a common activity on this mini-abroad. Junior Katie Stewart remembers one hike in particular. “We hiked to a waterfall. It was really pretty, the water was really clear, and I jumped in off a 20-foot Ledge … that was really cool.”
Sophomore Brent Bennett also recalls an unexpected adventure. “I remember walking with some people on our patrol and wondering when I would have some [adventures] of my own. Just then, Anna Glotzbach pointed out that we were about to step on a jellyfish inches in front of us.” Bennett added: “With all of our wisdom we decided to catch it and bring it to Scott [Eckert]. We picked up a plastic bottle we found on the ground, filled it with sea water and had Matt Orlando pick it up by its top and place it into the bottle. We returned to Scott triumphant[ly], and were promptly told we had caught a Portuguese Man-of-War, one of the more dangerous types of jellyfish in the area. Lucky us.”
In addition to the trip to Trinidad, Bennett and Glotzbach took part in a week-long trip to Guelph, Canada, to assist biology professor Chrissy McAllister with her graduate research.
McAllister is researching patterns of genetic diversity in Big Bluestem, the dominant native grass of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem. The group traveled to Canada in order to use the flow cytometer at the University of Guelph. The flow cytometer estimates the amount of DNA content in individual plant cell nuclei. McAllister said, “Brent, Anna, and I spent the week chopping and prepping plant samples, being trained on the use of the flow cytometer, and actually running our samples in the machine. The machine costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and it’s rare that outside researchers get a chance to be trained in how to use one.”
Not only is it rare for outsiders to use this kind of equipment, it is even more unusual for undergraduates to have this kind of privilege. Glotzbach said, “It’s really unique for undergraduates to get a lot of hands-on experience. In many cases undergraduates aren’t allowed in the same room as this type of equipment, so I feel really lucky to be a part of this kind of research.”
These unique experiences are part of what makes the liberal arts school experience so valuable. Bennett said, “What other undergrads can say that they have experience doing flow cytometery on dried plant material, have been to Trinidad to lead their own study on the exchange of heat on nesting leatherbacks, performed PCR to find microsatellite primers that work for Andropogon gerardii, worked [in] and managed a totally student run greenhouse, gone to Iceland to study sustainability, and more. Prin has many opportunities for bio majors to get amazing experience and hands-on knowledge – you just have to be proactive enough to take advantage of them all.”
Having had this level of experience may prove extremely helpful when these students begin to apply for jobs after graduation. Glotzbach said: “As a senior, it’s nice to be graduating with some relevant experience to put on my resume and I’m hoping it will cause me to stand out from the deep pool of applicants.”