Monday, July 9, 2012

Bitten by the Bug: Paleoecology and the search for charcoal

 Confidence building through science: A glimpse into SRAP research life

The Student Research Apprenticeship Program (SRAP) is a paid summer research program at the University of Wyoming for high school students in tenth through twelfth grade. It is sponsored by Wyoming EPSCoR and funded by the National Science Foundation. This is the second of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working. 

A charcoal sample Luis Morillon prepared while working in Dr. Minckley's lab.
Three weeks ago, Luis Morillon was introduced to the question that Dr. Tom Minckley has spent his career working to answer: How do climate change and disturbances alter natural vegetation patterns?
Luis soon learned that this is a broad, encompassing question that paleoecologists, like Dr. Minckley, spend lifetimes working on. With this understanding, Luis was introduced to the world of scientific research. Ends are often the means to beginnings and begins often seem to have no end. That’s all part of the thrill for scientists.
While a summer is far too short a time to answer this question completely, it is the perfect amount of time for SRAP students, like Luis, to gain valuable experience in science laboratories, researching, analyzing, writing and presenting conclusions like a real scientist.
“We really want the students to get as much experience and contact with the aspects of science as they can,” Dr. Minckley says.
And students in Dr. Minckley’s lab get both experience and contact with the world of science.  “We’re doing real science,” Dr. Minckley says. “I use the data that students generate.”
Dr. Minckley’s research focuses on how environments have changed from 21,000 years ago to the present. To do this, he relies on two primary sources of information: fossilized pollen and charcoal.
Fossilized pollen is one of the most common terrestrial fossils. If found in lakes, marshes or caves, these fossils help researchers identify the vegetation community surrounding a point. Identifying past vegetation communities is key to understanding how forests have formed over thousands of years.
In addition to identifying past vegetation communities, it is important to understand disturbances in vegetation patterns. This is where charcoal comes in. Researchers, like Luis, can collect and analyze charcoal samples to determine the frequency of fire disturbance. Large amounts of charcoal indicate a fire while small amount indicate a lack of fire.
Over the past few weeks, Luis has been working in one of Dr. Minckley’s labs, processing mud and removing charcoal samples. The data he collects may eventually earn him a publication, as Dr. Minckley likes to include SRAP students’ names on his research papers if the data they generate is substantial to interpretation of the past environments.
While some professors may doubt the abilities of students below the graduate level, Dr. Minckley sees things differently. “If you let the students know you are serious about what they are doing, they come in a lot more motivated,” he says.
Dr. Minckley first became involved with SRAP seven years ago as a post-doctoral researcher. Since then he has continued to mentor and includes graduate students and undergraduate students in the mentoring process. “I’ve found that with the title of professor, we really intimidate SRAP students, so having an age bridge is super helpful,” Dr. Minckley explains. In addition, he says that mentoring and educating are as important as being a scientist. “No body was born knowing the stuff we do.”
When asked about his favorite part of the program, Dr. Minckley said, “When you have a student who gets ‘bitten by the bug’ and you see the lights go on and they see what you’ve been working towards, that’s super exciting.”
As a mentor, Dr. Minckley works to ensure that students have a positive experience in the lab and that they finish their research with a sense of achievement. “I want students to have the tools that will make them succeed in college,” he says. “My goal for SRAP students is that they feel that they succeeded.” This success will carry them on in the rest of their high school careers and into college.
With samples in check and a research paper in progress, Luis is clearly on a path to success.  He will present his research at the end of July and, with a little extra hard work and dedication, he may be a published author before he even graduates from high school.  His research isn’t over yet, but perhaps, like past SRAP students, he too will be bitten by the bug, and become a scientist in the future.

~by Kali S. McCrackin

Photo credit: Kali S. McCrackin

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