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October 2008
 
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Anika Bratt '10 (left) and Professor Jill Welter conducted stream research at the Angelo Reserve in California last summer.
Testing the Waters

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.

"The students are working hard and loving it. They're doing more than they thought they could do in terms of becoming relatively mature scientists as undergraduates."

– Mary E. Power, professor of integrative biology, UC–Berkeley
For these St. Catherine biology majors – at the research station under the direction of Jill Welter, assistant professor of biology at St. Kate's – the summer is an opportunity to immerse themselves in science. It's a chance to learn firsthand the challenges and successes that come with field research, to learn what it means to live and work in a community of scientists and to collaborate on projects that could have a far-reaching effect on our environment. It's a learning experience they likely will remember forever.


St. Catherine Profesor Jill Welter in the field.
They're working hard and loving it and wanting to continue to do that with their lives – or at least explore it as a possibility," says Mary E. Power, professor of integrative biology at UC–Berkeley and faculty director at the Angelo Coast Range Reserve. Power, president-elect of the Ecological Society of America, is well known for the research she has conducted at Angelo since the late 1980s. "The students gain a sense of doing something extremely worthwhile and doing more than they thought they could do in terms of becoming relatively mature scientists as undergraduates."

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.

"These research experiences are invaluable for our students because of the problem-solving skills they obtain. That ability to be critical thinkers and think from many different perspectives and disciplines is something employers really like about St. Kate's graduates."

– Jill Welter, assistant professor of biology, St. Kate's
Because the NSF grant funds only one undergraduate position, Welter has applied for and received 3M large-scale grants to bring more undergraduates to Angelo each summer. "In order to provide these experiences for students, we need to be able to fund them," she says. The funding from 3M also enables Welter to pay student researchers a decent wage, which is critical given that most St. Kate's students work several jobs to meet their college expenses. "If we can't do that then we eliminate this research opportunity for many of our students," Welter explains.

Studying ecosystems

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.


From left: Maria Moenkedick carries samples to the lab; Anika Bratt and Moenkedick check an experiment; Welter and Moenkedick discuss analysis procedures; Bratt holds up algal samples from the "stoplight project."

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.


Carrie Booth (above) works in one of the labs at Angelo.
In general biology, for example, students conduct original research projects – an unusual practice in first-year science courses. They work in teams and learn how to write proposals, design and conduct their experiments, and collect and analyze data. At first, students are surprised to discover their professors can't tell them how their experiments will play out. But they soon realize that by learning the scientific process, they can discover answers themselves.

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.


Maria Moenkedick removes water from algae samples; the St. Kate's team carries equipment to a research site; Booth works on her master's research with the help of University of Minnesota undergradate Hannah Grun; Anika Bratt records data.

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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Maria Moenkedick '10

A Community of Scholars

Maria Moenkedick '10 is learning firsthand the value of working in a community of scientists. While she was at the Angelo reserve in California in summer 2007, some articles she was reading and a casual conversation with a doctoral student from UC-Berkeley encouraged her to look at DNA in algal samples to hunt for a gene specific to nitrogen fixers.

That led Moenkedick to contact the professor and graduate student at Wichita State who had done the work and who shared their procedure with her. When St. Kate's Assistant Professor of Biology Jill Welter gave her the go-ahead to pursue the experiment, Moenkedick extracted DNA from algae in five different streams and brought the samples back to Minnesota for analysis.

Back at St. Kate's she worked with Biology Professor Kay Tweeten to learn more about how to process the samples. Then, alumna Carly Miyamoto '07 presented a seminar on campus and put Moenkedick in touch with Dr. Deb Samac, a professor at the University of Minnesota who had the equipment Moenkedick needed to process the samples and who later served as an informal mentor and made her lab available to Moenkedick.

This past summer Moenkedick completed more DNA extractions in conjunction with nitrogen fixation work completed by the St. Kate's team. "My hope is to quantify the abundance of the gene across the different watershed sizes at Angelo," she says. "It will be interesting to piece it all together."


Carrie Booth '06

On to Graduate School

Carrie Booth '06 majored in biology at St. Kate's and now is conducting research for her master's degree in water resources science at the University of Minnesota. She first came to the Angelo reserve in California to work as a lab technician the summer after she graduated; she returned the following summer to manage the lab.

"You hit the ground running and learn as you go," she says, recalling her first day on the reserve, when she found herself hiking out to a stream to take samples. "Everyone is really happy to teach you what you need to know."

One day last summer she consulted with Paula Furey, a postdoctoral fellow at UC-Berkeley, to determine the best way to eliminate unwanted bugs (midges) from her sample. "It's like that a lot here," Booth says. "You can bounce ideas off each other and usually come up with a pretty good solution to any sort of problem."

Booth may go on to complete a Ph.D., something she never expected to do. "But once I was surrounded by all these intellectual people who are excited about science, it helped me think about the bigger picture and the bigger questions."


Anika Bratt '10

Combining Spanish and Biology

Anika Bratt '10 came to St. Kate's planning to study pre-med. But after her first year of biology courses – and conducting original research to examine the effects of the new retention basin for the new residence halls near the St. Kate's woods – she began to think more about environmental science. "The class and our discussions really resonated with me," says Bratt.

A summer of stream research taught Bratt even more about science – including the need to be flexible. "It's a fluid process," she says. "You have to be ready to let your questions and your processes evolve."

When the team took on some new research, Bratt assumed a leading role. Dubbed the "stoplight project," because it involved measuring nitrogen fixation in red, yellow and green algae, it already is producing exciting results.

Bratt's experience this past summer has given her confidence and helped solidify her dreams to pursue a Ph.D. in ecology. "I really understand everything we're doing," says Bratt, who hopes to join a stream research effort in a Spanish-speaking country. "There's nothing I'm doing just because Professor Welter (above, left) is saying to do it, and that makes me feel valued."