Thursday, July 12, 2012

Coprolites, pre-modern rodents and environmental change

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 forth of eleven stories about the laboratories where this year’s SRAP students are working.

Kassidee Brown works on measuring a coprolite in Dr. Mark Clementz lab.
When Kassidee Brown enrolled in SRAP, she probably didn’t expect to be measuring coprolites. If she had known, perhaps she would have hesitated, because coprolites are, in fact, fossilized dung. Kassidee however, did not bat an eye as she sat measuring the small, pebble like fossils three weeks into the program.
Kassidee’s work is part of a collaborative project shared among the anthropology, botany and geology departments at the University of Wyoming. The project aims to understand environmental change from the Last GlacialMaximum during the Pleistocene Epoch to our current conditions.
While measuring the length, width and weight of hundreds of rodent coprolites is tedious, these measurements are an important part of detecting change in the environment because the bigger the coprolite, the bigger the rodent; the bigger the rodent, the cooler the temperatures.
By measuring the coprolites and comparing them to current rodent droppings, the research team aims to better understand the biology of the past rodent population and consequently the environment in which they lived. While Kassidee will spend more time measuring the coprolites, her mentor, Dr.Mark Clementz hopes to take her with the team to Last Canyon Cave in Montana, which dates from 50,000 years ago to modern times.
Dr. Clementz, who found out about SRAP from colleague, has been involved in the program for six years. He sees SRAP as a great way to give back to the community and introduce young students to the field of paleontology.
“It’s nice when you have a student come through and maybe you’re going to change their perspective on school and what career path they take,” he says. “It’s a really positive experience.”
A huge part of that positive experience stems from the attitude SRAP students bring with them to the lab. “The students that come through here are just so excited,” Dr. Clementz says.
For Dr. Clementz, the energy and excitement of the students are his favorite parts of being a mentor. “I like the excitement that comes from working with a student who’s never had an opportunity to work in a lab before and getting them thinking about questions from a scientific perspective,” he says.
While studying fossilized dung may not have been Kassidee’s expectation, she is gaining valuable insight into the scientific process and learning about the collaborative nature of research. This insight is precisely what Dr. Clementz hopes his SRAP students gain. “The SRAP program is a way of giving students who may or may not become scientists an appreciation for science,” he says.  
The program helps to broaden students’ perspectives, and Dr. Clementz adds, “I think it gives them a sense of confidence because now they really start to understand how we go about tackling some of the basic questions and even some of the big picture questions using the techniques we work on in the lab or in the field.”
Kassidee still isn’t sure what her college major will be, but the SRAP program has given her a valuable experience that most, if not all, of her future college classmates will not have had. She’ll be one step ahead understanding in the scientific process and one step closer to becoming a scientist, if that is where her career leads her.

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo credit: Kali S. McCrackin 

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