The College of St. Catherine became St. Catherine University on June 1, 2009.
National Science Foundation and 3M grants allow St. Catherine biology majors to test their analytical and problem-solving skills doing watershed research in California.
BY TRACY BAUMANN
PHOTOS BY JOHN BIRCHARD
Additional photos by Tracy Baumann
BY LATE AFTERNOON most days, researchers at the Heath and Marjorie Angelo Coast Range Reserve start to trickle back to the laboratories located on the outer edge of this 4,320-acre research station about four hours north of San Francisco.
Backpacks, stream shoes, waders, coolers filled with samples, and various other pieces of equipment pile up on the covered semicircular walkway that connects the station's labs and meeting spaces as researchers from St. Kate's, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Minnesota and elsewhere begin to process samples gathered from the reserve's rivers and streams.
In one lab, Anika Bratt '10 runs samples on a gas chromatograph to determine the amount of nitrogen fixation occurring in algae and bacteria gathered by the St. Kate's team earlier that day. In another lab, Maria Moenkedick '10 removes moisture from other algal samples before weighing and drying them for analysis.
Welter, an ecosystem ecologist who joined the St. Kate's faculty in 2005, has brought students to the reserve for the past three summers. She is one of five principle investigators on the three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that funds this watershed/food web research at Angelo. Welter collaborates with faculty from four other schools – John Schade from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, Jacques Finlay from the University of Minnesota, Steve Thomas from the University of Nebraska and Power from UC–Berkeley.
Researchers from those institutions, ranging from undergraduate and graduate students to postdoctoral fellows and professors, are working together on different types of research related to the grant. Angelo, with its network of streams and rivers, includes an entire ecosystem, making it an excellent site for their work. It is part of the University of California Natural Reserve System, which includes 36 research reserves protected for university- or college-level stream research and is unique in the world.
The St. Kate's team arrived in early June with plans to continue studying how nutrients cycle in the stream in response to light availability – work that Welter had been conducting with students for the past two summers.
Understanding how environmental and biological factors affect the rates of nutrients in streams and rivers may someday help in controlling environmental problems such as the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, an immense area of oxygen-depleted water where fish cannot survive.
This year, the group also measured rates of nitrogen fixation, a valuable analysis tool that hasn't been used before at the reserve. That experiment involved developing new methods to obtain samples and also meant having a gas chromatograph on site to analyze samples.
Welter and her students spent the early part of the summer prepping for fieldwork and exploring the best way to capture the necessary samples, often engineering the equipment they needed out of everyday materials. A six-inch O-ring meant for large machinery and a lavender child's balloon became key components of equipment used to measure nitrogen fixation.
Throughout the research, Welter asks her students, "What are we trying to learn?" She urges them to think like the organisms they are studying. The result is intense discussions about desired outcomes and how the students might achieve those outcomes at every step in the process: as they prepare for the experiment, streamside as they get ready to collect samples and back in the lab as they process what they've collected.
In each case, the students voice their opinions and ideas. Welter encourages the practice. "There's a lot of creativity in science," she says, "coming up with a way to design an experiment that tests what you want to test. The more the students learn and participate, the more they feel confident in saying, 'I think I can come up with a better way of doing this.'"
She also helps them question the commonly held assumption that science is a fact-based discipline best practiced by people with a quick aptitude for memorization. "Science is a way of thinking. Science is a process," Welter explains. "It's a particular way of knowing based on observation, repeatable results and inference that we can see from the world around us."
Learning to do science
St. Kate's sets the stage for students to learn that process in many ways. From employing creative pedagogy and making science relevant to students' lives to providing access to undergraduate research opportunities and encouraging students to work closely with faculty advisors, the College helps women engage fully in the scientific process.
A focus on campus ecology in the second semester of general biology further engages students in the process and demonstrates its relevance to everyday life. General chemistry students have the option of taking the "Synthesis Lab," a course where they pull together everything learned during the semester to analyze and identify a mystery compound. St. Kate's science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) minor offers education majors and other nonscience majors an engaging way to learn about these subject areas.
St. Kate's science faculty members also work closely with students to help them determine their education and career goals.
Undergraduates are urged to pursue internships and research opportunities, such as the one at Angelo, that allow them to collaborate with a professor much as they would in graduate school. "I am involving them in my research, and they make contributions that help shape it," says Welter, who also encourages returning students to take leadership roles in teaching new students. "That influences where we take the research in the future. It really is a two-way flow of ideas."
"Jill does a great job understanding where the students are coming from and how to empower them. She gives them confidence but also discipline," says Power of UC-Berkeley. "They are getting hooked on field biology, and that's great to see."
Learning life skills
Ecosystem ecology requires researchers to understand and utilize skills from a variety of scientific disciplines, including biology, hydrology, chemistry and math. "And, you have to be able to use all these tools to understand how the system works," Welter says. Engineering skills also are necessary to devise the equipment needed to conduct the research.
In the process of doing field research, students build on the skills they developed in their course work at St. Kate's – how to think critically, solve problems and be flexible, adapting to the unexpected. They learn to embrace the process rather than the outcome, to ask questions, pursue answers, take on new responsibilities and meet challenges head on. In short, they don't just learn to do science. They learn about life. "When something doesn't go right, you have to step back and think, 'What might be a better way to do this? What are we trying to do here?'" Bratt says.
Bratt took on running and troubleshooting the gas chromatograph this past summer. She remembers the day she stayed at the lab to run some samples while the others went to town to get supplies. The machine wasn't working and she had to call the company for advice. "I didn't feel like I was qualified enough," she says. "But when I was talking to them, I thought, 'I know what I'm talking about. I can do this.'"
Maria Moenkedick, back for a second summer, focused on method development work that helped the team function well. She also did DNA research – looking for the genes that regulate nitrogen fixation. "She is really learning this analysis and doing things you don't see a lot of undergraduates doing," Welter says.
The days can be long, the prep work and setup times intense, and the results long in coming. But when results come back as expected, the joy on the researchers' faces is hard to miss. The team let out a cheer while looking at the rates of nitrogen fixation in samples Carrie Booth '06 had collected for her master's thesis research. Booth, a St. Kate's biology graduate, worked as the reserve's lab tech and manager the past two summers. She is now pursuing a master's degree in water resources science at the University of Minnesota.
"Who would have guessed when you took my ecology class that we might publish a paper together some day," says Welter, anticipating what could come of this work in progress.
The team faced an unanticipated delay starting their fieldwork when heavy smoke from the California wildfires forced Welter and the students to leave the reserve for a week and modify their goals for the summer.
And they face tough decisions. When they used a sample of algae collected by Mary Power to test their equipment and process, the results suggested significant levels of nitrogen fixation in that type of algae – something they wanted to pursue this summer, even though it meant scaling back on other experiments.
Welter anticipates publishable results from this new path and notes that both of the St. Kate's students – Bratt and Moenkedick – will have the opportunity to help write up the team's results for publication and share authorship.
A day in the field
About an hour from the coast and the closest town, Angelo Reserve is located in northern California's Coast Range. Beyond the lab on the outer edge of the property, the reserve is off the grid and uses only propane and solar power.
A one-lane unpaved road at times hugs the edge of a steep embankment as it winds through the forested reserve, passing through meadows and crossing a series of streams that bear evidence of ongoing research projects.
With multiple teams of researchers working on a variety of projects, no day is typical. For the St. Kate's team, a day in the field generally starts around 8 a.m. when the team travels to one of the reserve's streams or rivers, sets up and begins their experiment. Generally, Welter takes Bratt back to the lab after the second set of samples is collected so she can begin processing them. Then, Welter and Moenkedick finish in the field and gather the equipment before joining Bratt back at the lab.
The lab work often takes these researchers late into the night. Other research teams follow similar schedules, so the labs often are busy in the evenings. When the work is done for the day, the team packs equipment for the next day into the truck and heads back to the living quarters.
A spirit of collaboration is evident among the researchers. As they move around the busy labs, they share equipment, stories of the day and advice when requested. They converse in the easy way scientists often talk to one another – in short snippets of speech that refer to a wealth of shared knowledge.
Each summer, the new undergraduates quickly join in the conversation. "One of the most valuable things I've gotten out of this summer is learning all the streamecology terms and methods," Bratt says. "There are a lot of them, and now they are just general vocabulary to me. People throw around terms like 'ash-free dry mass' and 'SRP analysis,' and I know what they are talking about. And, I can read a scientific paper about stream ecology and know exactly what they are doing and why. I don't think I'd ever get that just being in the classroom."
The sense of being in a community of scholars extends well beyond the lab. Many students and faculty share living quarters – undergraduates in bunkhouse cabins at the edge of Fox Creek with a communal kitchen and living area and doctoral students and faculty in a nearby cabin. Many also spend days off together in the coastal towns of Fort Bragg or Mendocino.
When people gather around a picnic table for morning coffee or around the campfire for a night of music, the talk almost always turns to science. "There is a real social aspect to being out here," Welter says. "The students make a lot of good friends and have a community of peers with whom they can discuss graduate school, research and what's possible in this area of science."
It's a model they'll continue to encounter. "More and more today science is done as part of a team – and often as part of an interdisciplinary team as we try to solve big problems like some of our environmental issues," says Welter. "We need to bring together lots of areas of expertise, and that requires teamwork and communication across very different disciplines of science. It's a very social process.
"At St. Kate's, we model that both in and out of the classroom in how we train our students to do science."
Tracy Baumann is editor of SCAN.
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