NAU biologists granted renewal funding for undergraduate research program focused on the Colorado Plateau

Lichen REU team does research

Whether they explore how fungi help native grasses become established in salty soil, study how mice communicate across the high desert or monitor the health of toads in forest wetlands, students in Northern Arizona University’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program Ecology, Genetics, and Adaptation on the Colorado Plateau learn what it’s like to be a scientist.

Liza Holeski, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, is the principal investigator for the program, working with co-PI Ted Martinez, a senior lecturer in the Honors College. Holeski and Martinez recently received $314,400 in renewal funding from the National Science Foundation for the next three years, beginning in 2021. Concerns regarding student and faculty safety during the COVID-19 pandemic caused NAU to cancel the long-running program this summer, but Holeski says she and other researchers are preparing for next year.

Typically, about nine undergraduates—most with no prior research experience—enroll in the 10-week summer program, which is designed to offer them research opportunities they don’t have access to at their home institutions. Throughout the program, the students live on the NAU campus in Flagstaff and conduct research focused on the Colorado Plateau in laboratories and in the field.

Although it is open to all qualified undergraduates, the program focuses on recruiting first-generation students and members of groups that are underrepresented in the sciences, such as Native American, Hispanic, African American, Native Alaskan, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander and students with disabilities.

“The REU gives them experience in all the different aspects of research,” Holeski said. “They learn how to design a project, conduct hands-on research, analyze data, write scientific papers and give a presentation.

“The program is only possible because we have research mentors across campus in biology, forestry, chemistry and in the School of Earth and Sustainability. Each faculty member hosts one student in his or her research lab, providing hands-on, one-on-one mentoring on a specific project for 10 weeks. It’s a big commitment.”

Catherine (Kitty) Gehring, the Lucking Family Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, has participated for 12 years.

“We’ve had REU students working where we are restoring native cottonwoods along the Little Colorado River on Babbitt Ranches land that had been taken over by non-native tamarisk,” she said. “In the past year, we’ve been trying to plant native grasses to see how important beneficial fungi are to get these grasses to establish in this hot, dry site.”

Gehring said the graduate students in her lab enjoy working with the REU students.

“They are enthusiastic and we can help them learn about science. Often, they come from tribal colleges and we learn a lot more about their traditional ecological or cultural knowledge. We get to learn more about their world because they are in the lab all the time, working with us.”

Bret Pasch, assistant professor of biology, studies acoustic communication in rodents to better understand when, where and how they use their voices.

“REU students assist by conducting radiotelemetry in the field and vocal recording in the laboratory. Students place radiocollars on live-captured animals and track their movements at night to determine how far they travel and where they hang out.”

Last summer, Illinois Valley Community College student Emerson Roden tracked the movements of pinyon mice on Deadman Flat north of Flagstaff. Later, Roden documented the experience in an article published in Herpetological Review, noting the first observation of a prairie rattlesnake eating a pinyon mouse: “No signal from the mouse’s radio collar was detected on the nights of 23–27 July 2019. On 29 July 2019 at 2043 h, ER tracked the mouse’s radiocollar signal to the stomach of a C. viridis [prairie rattlesnake] within the home range of the focal mouse.”

“The REU is a wonderful program and great opportunity for underrepresented students to experience hands-on research and share their discoveries with the larger community,” Pasch said.

Pablo Rocha is a student at the University of Arizona majoring in wildlife conservation and management. Previously, he was studying to be a nurse at Phoenix College. “A couple of my biology professors were impressed by my work and interested me in grad school and wildlife research. Then I found NAU was offering research experiences.”

Through the REU, Rocha was teamed up with Coconino National Forest fish biologist Matt O’Neill. Rocha said the program encouraged him to continue on his new path. “He let me fully design the project myself. He gave guidance and smoothed out the edges of my data collection process. He let me make mistakes and I learned a lot.”

Martinez conducts a five-day research boot camp with the REU students at Merriam Powell Research Station before they move into their individual research projects. “They learn very quickly that science helps them come to conclusions about the world,” he said. “The boot camp gives them confidence in their ability to do research that they take with them into the lab.”

Martinez also conducts weekly seminars with the students on science communication and research, as the REU participants are required to create a poster and present findings about their project at the end of the course.

For Rocha, this was one of the most valuable aspects of the program. “I assumed the weekly cohort that Ted Martinez led would be all about best research practices and methodology, but it ended up being more focused on how to navigate the research world and graduate school, and it was especially geared toward those underrepresented in the field. The wildlife field was extremely white male-dominated, which I had difficulties with. I realized I had imposter syndrome, thinking I shouldn’t be there and that I wasn’t as good as the people around me. He gave me some tools to get through that. It was also great to realize other students were going through that and we had each other, as a support system, to talk with about our struggles.”

Amy Whipple, associate professor of biology and associate chair for undergraduate affairs, has been involved in the REU since 2002 and led the program for many years. “To me, one of the big outcomes of the program for individual students is figuring out their place in the sciences and how that fits into their lives. It’s also about NAU faculty and students connecting to other populations of educators and learners, developing a partnership with them and using these experiences to build other research programs and activities.”

Dalyna Hannah is a former REU student who continues to work with Whipple and Gehring on pinyon pine restoration on the Navajo Nation. “This program helped me to understand more in detail about the processes to conduct science research,” she reported back in an email to Martinez. “It was a great opportunity!”

Hannah recently graduated from Navajo Technical University with an associate’s degree in environmental science and natural resources. She plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree.