Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Evolutionary Ecology: Snail tails

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

Courtney Gettel works in the Laramie River.
In the fall, the Zoology Department will add numerous students to its undergraduate class, but one student in particular will shine above the rest. Courtney Gettel is a newly graduated high school student, and she’ll be coming to UW with more than a high school diploma. She’ll be coming with a full research paper to her name and real life experience in the shoes of an evolutionary ecologist.
This summer, Courtney is working in Dr. Amy Krist’s lab studying snails with graduate student Brenda Hansen. The snails in question are an invasive mud snail from New Zealand. They are found in rivers all over the western states, but no one is quite sure how they got there. While this is perplexing, Courtney, Brenda and Dr. Krist are more interested in what makes them invasive and how they survive in Wyoming rivers.
Past research indicates that the snails excel because they can withstand being crowded, unlike the native snail spices. Additionally, they don’t produce tons of offspring. Rather, the individuals grow a lot, which means that they are adept at finding and utilizing phosphorous, which all organisms need to grow. Phosphorous is found on rocks in algae. The algae are high quality food sources when they contain a lot of phosphorous and low quality when they do not.
This is where Courtney’s research comes in. She is trying to find out how much variability there is in food quality in a single rock and within varying measurements in a river.
“If the snail really can choose (between high and low quality food), how relevant is that to the snail?” Dr. Krist asks.
This is what Courtney is trying to determine. If there is a high variability in food quality within a rock and within a given space in a river, then the ability to choose is very relevant.
“This variation in phosphorous content at such a small scale means that different quality food is available to snails without moving far,” Dr. Krist explains. “If snails can detect differences in food quality, they can increase their growth rates by choosing high quality food". 
To determine variability in phosphorous content, Courtney and Brenda are studying rocks in the Snake River and Laramie River in Wyoming. They scrub rocks and run tests on the algae to find out the percentage of phosphorous in the rock. Courtney is totally into it.
“She has a great attitude,” Dr. Krist says. “She is really motivated and on it.”
This is the first time Dr. Krist has done SRAP. She heard about the program from a colleague and immediately wanted to join, having been a mentor in the past to undergraduate and other high school students.
“It’s super interesting and super fun working with these students because of the outreach component, but also because you get to interact with this person,” Dr. Krist says. “You get to tell them about your work, get them involved, and get them excited about going outside and what’s going on in nature.”
Brenda was just as thrilled about SRAP as Dr. Krist. “She is really interested in outreach,” Dr. Krist says. “She really likes the idea of working with the public.”
While Courtney may have started out as a member from the community outside evolutionary ecology, she is on her way to being a future colleague of Brenda and Dr. Krist. Her research paper is off to a great start and she is making great strides into the life of a scientist.
“She’s amazing,” Dr. Krist says. 

By Kali S. McCrackin

Photo courtesy of Dr. Krist

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