Summer Programs Offer Extraordinary Research Opportunities to Undergraduates
November 15, 2012
The quantity and scope of research opportunities for undergraduates are greater than ever before, due largely to the efforts of the Division of Undergraduate Education. The Scieneering program in the division’s Office of Undergraduate Research and the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program in the Fralin Life Science Institute offered paid research fellowships to an unprecedented number of students — 82 — this past summer.
Nine students in the college, most of them majoring in fisheries or wildlife science, took advantage of this unique opportunity to advance their education outside the classroom and work directly with faculty members and researchers. The students — whose work reflects the range of research being conducted across the college — also showcased their projects at the Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium held at the Inn at Virginia Tech in August.
Junior Katy Battle of Richmond, Va., conducted antibiotic testing for E. coli isolates from wildlife fecal samples to evaluate levels of antibiotic resistance among wildlife species found along the Chobe River in northern Botswana. “My work will help researchers identify those wildlife more likely to harbor antibiotic resistance so that management strategies aimed to reduce both environmental accumulation of resistance and its transmission may be enacted,” Battle said.
Senior John Woodward of Richmond, Va., examined how elevation affects the growth rates of brook trout and blacknose dace. “The hypothesis is that specimens from higher elevations will naturally experience lower temperatures throughout the year and thus higher growth rates are expected as an evolutionary adaptation to high over-winter mortality of slower growing individuals,” Woodward stated.
Senior Roxzanna Dalton of Barren Springs, Va., studied prey selection strategies of coyotes in Bath and Rockingham counties as part of the interagency Virginia Appalachian Coyote study. “By better understanding the way coyotes select their prey, we may be able to manage coyote populations more effectively,” Dalton remarked.
Junior Alex Garretson of Rockville, Md., studied one of North America’s few captive populations of loggerhead shrike, a bird that feasts on large insects and lizards, while he was stationed at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va. “A theory for the decline is the replacement of warm season grass fields with cold season grass fields in the eastern U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s for cattle feeding purposes,” Garretson said. “It doesn’t bode well for the birds because they need high nutrient levels in mid-summer.”
Senior Kara Kosarski of Cloverdale, Va., studied the connection between social behavior and disease in eastern house finches. “My work is primarily focused on dominance, an important aspect of social behavior, and the role it plays in the way house finches display sickness behaviors,” Kosarski explained.
Senior Jeronimo Silva of São Paulo, Brazil, evaluated the population trends of Florida bog frogs, a species that is believed to exist only in western Florida. “Florida bog frogs are considered a vulnerable species because they are so endemic,” Silva said. “They were discovered in the 1980s and no one knows much about the population, such as whether it is increasing or decreasing.”
Senior Tyler Williams of Wirtz, Va., tested the addition of mineral oil to the fluorescent powder used to track reticulated flatwood salamanders, which are federally endangered in part due to a decline in the habitat where they lay their eggs. “Mineral oil may offer several advantages, like longer powder retention and increased resistance to moisture, specifically rain,” Williams remarked. “This is important because reticulated flatwood salamanders are commonly active on rainy or moist nights, and that moisture can decrease fluorescent powder tracking abilities.”
Senior Jacob Estienne of Suffolk, Va., developed a snare to collect hair samples from coyotes. He also set up baited snares to attract the predators and used cameras to observe how they interact with the equipment. “We will be able to take the combined information from the hair samples and the camera photos and see how effective these snares would be at successfully gathering genetic material from this elusive species,” Estienne said.
Cole Burch of Christiansburg, Va., a senior majoring in wood science and forest products, presented his independent research project on the residential fall arrest system (RFAS) at the summer symposium. He worked with professors and graduate students from the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials and the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering to determine roofers’ perceived usability of the RFAS, which is used to protect them from falls at residential construction sites. “In order to determine roofers’ usability opinions of the RFAS, a study was developed that allowed roofers to perform a series of roofing tasks while wearing a personal fall arrest system,” Burch explained. The results of the study will be incorporated into a redesign of the system.
“Leading undergraduate programs are increasing their emphasis on experiential learning,” said Eric Hallerman, head of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “Participation in undergraduate research allows a student to focus on an area of interest, develop the ability to frame hypotheses, collect data, make inferences, and report the results, which sharpens their readiness for graduate school or a career in their field. I am pleased that so many of our undergraduates participated in the SURF program and hope to see more in coming years.”