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Students become scientists through research projects

Through faculty-led research projects, students become scientists. Here are summaries of 10 of the scientific projects currently being investigated by faculty-student research teams in the Department of Biology at Fort Lewis College.

Forensic entomology: effects of habitat, cover, chemical treatment, and other factors on the necrophagous insect community in Southwest Colorado

Faculty mentor: Deb Kendall

We will focus on effects of various factors on the species diversity, abundance and ecological succession of necrophagous insects in Southwest Colorado. Each student within the group will be responsible for choosing a factor, such as habitat, cover, or chemical treatment, and investigating how these factors affect the community structure and ecological succession of necrophagous insects.  

Julie Korb with students near the Colorado Trail.

Ecological responses to Sudden Aspen Decline in Southwest Colorado

Faculty mentor: Julie Korb

Students in this Senior Seminar section will research ecological questions related to the relatively recent phenomenon of Sudden Aspen Decline occurring in southwestern Colorado.  Aspen (Populus tremuloides) is crucial for landscape and plant species diversity, wildlife habitat, and ecosystem processes such as biogeochemical cycling in southwestern Colorado forests.  Some of the possible questions students will be asking include how do different levels of SAD influence understory plant and shrub diversity, plant-mycorrhizae relationships, forest fuel loading, aspen tree regeneration, forest stand structure, plant phenology, dendrochronology, plant and soil transpiration, aspen leaf litter decomposition, and/or microclimate.

Erin Lehmer shows students proper methodology in working with deer mice.

Dynamics of hantavirus transmission in natural host population

Faculty mentor: Erin Lehmer

In recent years, the growing incidence of human infection with animal-borne diseases, like West Nile virus and avian influenza, has focused attention on factors that could be responsible. Disturbance of wildlife habitat has been cited as one of the primary mechanisms that has lead to this increased prevalence of zoonotic disease, as animals that have been displaced from their native habitats are more likely to interact with humans, thus increasing the likelihood of human infection.  As part of this research, we are focused on both immunological and ecological questions related to the transmission of Sin Nombre virus in wild deer mouse populations. Currently, we have three ongoing research projects:  

    1.    How does reproductive behavior influence immune system function in SNV infected mice?
    2.    How does habitat disturbance alter small mammal community composition?
    3.    How do changes in SNV prevalence in deer mice alter rates of human infection in southwestern Colorado?

Chromatin remodeling during development

Faculty mentors: John Condie

Gene regulation is a complex process involving every aspect of gene expression, from transcription to protein activation and localization.  There are literally hundreds of genes for which control mechanisms have been worked out to a greater or lesser extent.  An area which has been more difficult to explore is the role that large scale restructuring of chromatin plays in coordinate regulation of groups of genes. The histones are a class of proteins that play a central role in chromatin structure by organizing the nucleosome.  Most histones have different isoforms, and all are subject to chemical modifications.  The structure and stability of the nucleosome is dependent on the exact histone isoforms that are contained within it, and the specific modifications that are present.  I am interested in examining the restructuring of chromatin by histones and their variants during early development.

Ross McCauley works with a student in the Fort Lewis Herbarium.

Evolutionary ecology of ecotypic differentiation in the Viola adunca (Violaceae) complex in the San Juan Mountains

Faculty mentor: Ross McCauley

Ecotypes are discrete genetic forms of species which generally correlate to specific environmental variables.  In an evolutionary context these ecotypes can represent an early stage in the process of speciation as populations differentiate along environmental gradients. Viola adunca is a widespread purple-blooming violet extending across much of western North America. In the Southern Rockies it can occur in one of two forms depending upon elevation.  We will be utilizing a variety of different tools to look at both the genotypic and phenotypic divergence of these populations.  Using population genetics we will be able to see if gene flow occurs in a stratified sense only among populations of similar environments or if gene flow is still occurring among adjacent but different ecotype populations.

Changes in cell signaling with cigarette smoke

Faculty mentor: David Blake

Pulmonary inflammation is the major protective response by an organism to remove the injurious stimuli from the lungs. This research project will focus on the cellular responses that influence pulmonary inflammation to pathogens and particulate matter.   

Shere Byrd assists students in testing blood sugar for diabetes research.

Incidence of pre-diabetes markers in Native American college students

Faculty mentor: Shere Byrd

Many factors predispose individuals to developing type II diabetes. Some of these include stress, chronic inflammation, body shape, and diet. This study will examine the differences and similarities between Native American and Caucasian college students who have been matched on body mass index. After a blood sample is taken, we will determine differences in inflammatory indicators, stress hormones, and other cellular factors related to pre-diabetes. Students will recruit subjects, process samples and perform lab work to analyze the samples. We also will look at white blood cell responses to a high fat diet.

Approximately 33% of clinical breast carcinomas require estrogens to proliferate

Faculty Mentor: Ginny Hutchins

Epidemiological data show that insulin resistance and diabetes mellitus is 2-3 times more prevalent in women with breast cancer than those with benign breast lesions, suggesting a clinical link between insulin and estradiol.  Insulin and estradiol have a synergistic effect on the growth of MCF7 breast cancer cells, and long-term estradiol treatment upregulates the expression of the key insulin signaling protein IRS-1.  This may have important clinical implications for women with high risk for breast cancer and/or diabetes mellitus.  Students in this Senior Seminar group will design and carry out additional experiments to further determine the extent and functional consequence of insulin and estradiol cross-talk in breast cancer cells. 

Heidi Steltzer stands adjacent to an early snowmelt plot in the Alaskan Arctic.

Signs of climate change from the Colorado alpine to the Alaskan arctic

Faculty mentor: Heidi Steltzer

From the Colorado alpine to the Alaskan arctic, signs of climate change are everywhere.  Spring arrives 3 days earlier per decade, yet the benefits of an earlier spring are not clear.  Marmots in subalpine areas of the Rocky Mountains are increasing in abundance.  However, subalpine wildflowers that bloom early are damaged by frost.  Data from satellites suggests that the growing season may be getting longer as climate has been warming, but individual species often shorten their life history in response to climate warming. Arctic landscapes are getting greener, because shrubs are expanding into the tundra.  In the alpine tundra in Europe, species richness is increasing, but we are not yet sure how it is changing in the Rocky Mountains.  The cycling of carbon and nitrogen in natural ecosystems is changing – more of the nutrients are being lost to the atmosphere and to streams.  In this section of senior seminar, you will have the opportunity to work with me to design a senior thesis project that characterizes plant, animal, or nutrient responses to climate change and other global environmental changes.  

Riparian ecology and vegetation dynamics on the Dolores River, Southwest Colorado

Faculty mentor: Cynthia Dott

Riparian habitats in the southwest face many threats to their integrity, from regulated flows as a result of damming, to invasion by exotic species like tamarisk and Russian olive. Students involved in this research project are exploring issues related to the impacts of these changes on both woody and herbaceous vegetation now and in the past, and their implications for the future of these important ecosystems. Student projects have the opportunity to build on existing data sets from the Dolores River. Students participating in this research read pertinent scientific literature and conduct field studies under the guidance of the faculty mentor, and then work independently or in teams to develop research projects which may include:

    •    Reconstructing vegetation history at a long-term study site on the Dolores River.

    •    Investigating the links between geomorphology, stream hydrology and vegetation on the Dolores River.

    •    Analysis of a long-term data set of fish populations in the Dolores River below McPhee Dam.

    •    Determining the composition of the soil seed bank under different canopy types (native vs. non-native), and its implications for restoration of disturbed sites to more natural conditions.

    •    Measuring the input of seeds onto riparian sites in the form of “seed rain” at different times of year, to assess the potential for native species to re-invade as tamarisk is removed, and/or to determine the timing of seed drop for dominant canopy species, relative to timing of peak flow events.

    •    Assessing cottonwood or tamarisk size/age structure in stands at different locations in the watershed, by collecting tree core data (dendrochronology).

    •    Monitoring the relationship between groundwater hydrology (depth to groundwater in shallow wells) and vegetation composition in different floodplain settings.

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