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Sampling the Scientist's Life

Sampling the Scientist's Life
Undergrad research ignites young minds.

Undergraduates in Oregon State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences don’t have to wait until graduate school to conduct hands-on research. The college offers them the opportunity to put down their textbooks and step outside the lecture hall. These students are learning whether they have the chops to put up with biting insects and bad weather in the field as well as with the detail-oriented, no-room-for-mistakes labor that’s required in laboratories. Once these high achievers earn their diplomas, they find that their experiential learning helps them land jobs or get accepted into graduate school. Here’s a look at what several current and former students are doing or have accomplished.

THE BIRD MAN

Tyler McFadden

Tyler McFadden holds an Orange Oriole that he caught while conducting research in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. The fisheries and wildlife undergrad has also studied hummingbirds in Costa Rica and wants a career doing more ecological research in Latin America. (Photo by Brian Seneca Eldredge.)

Like all undergrads in OSU’s fisheries and wildlife department, Tyler McFadden was required to participate in two internships. He spent one in Mexico studying the breeding habits of the Yucatan Wren, whose coastal habitat is threatened by development. Before dawn each morning, he’d rise from his hammock, then walk about a mile with the rising sun. He’d be sweating in the humidity and nearly triple-digit heat as he strung nets amid the cacti to catch the birds for banding and release. Then he’d watch their behavior.

The next year found him measuring carbon stocks in the mangrove forests of Honduras. “Working in a mangrove is like climbing through a woody, muddy jungle gym. It takes you back to kindergarten,” he says. To help determine the mangroves’ role in mitigating climate change, McFadden’s job was to measure the trees’ diameter and sample the swampy soil, which has been storing carbon for thousands of years.

The hands-on exposure, he says, helped him find his passion. “At first I was interested in carnivores, then birds,” he says, “but with these experiences I’ve learned it’s not the animals I’m interested in, but the ecological process that the animal takes part in.” The experiences, he adds, will give him an edge in the job market. “I feel like I’m graduating with some marketable skills instead of just a piece of paper that says I got a degree.”

THE BUSY BEE

Ann Bernert

Hands-on with honey bees, Ann Bernert vacuums bees from a hive at OSU. “I’ve had a lot of research experience here, and it has been awesome,” says the BioResource Research undergrad. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

Ann Bernert, an undergrad in the BioResource Research program, spent last August dabbing pink dots on the backs of hundreds of young honey bees to later identify those that had been specially inoculated. “Baby bees are so cute and fuzzy,” she says. Days later, dressed in a protective coat and netted hat, she vacuumed the bees out of a hive, knocked them out with carbon dioxide, then quickly counted and caged them before they woke up angry only seconds later. “That’s when I got stung in the face,” she says.

It was part of a research project that aimed to see if two antibiotics that are commonly used to protect honey bees from diseases harm their intestinal flora. The research comes as scientists around the country work to promote the health of honey bees and reverse their population decline. In her study, Bernert exposed the bees to the two chemicals, then froze them, extracted their guts, and counted the number of colonies of lactobacilli, a type of friendly bacteria that aid in digestion.

“I learn a lot more doing research projects than sitting in lectures. It has application and value,” Bernert says. “With research, it’s not just the science skills you practice. There’s teamwork, writing, presentation—which is good for future job work.”

Lab work is nothing new to Bernert. During high school, she spent three years working in the plant pathology lab at OSU’s North Willamette Research and Extension Center in Aurora. She was looking to see if rust fungus could be mass-produced to control the non-native Himalayan blackberry. “Getting involved at North Willamette revealed something I was passionate about,” says Bernert, who now wants a doctorate degree and a career in research. At the moment, she’s the PR agent for fungi. “I like mycology,” she says. “It doesn’t get as much positive attention as it should. Everyone says, ‘Ewww, fungi. Gross. Mold.’ But they’re cool.”

THE WINEMAKER

Anthony Sereni

Anthony Sereni examines a trapped brown marmorated stink bug, which dines on more than 100 crops, including wine grapes. He studied how the invasive pest, which secretes a cilantro-like scent when it’s stressed, might affect the flavor of Oregon’s signature wine. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

Anthony Sereni wants to be a winemaker. He has a degree in psychology, but his real love is Pinot noir. That’s why he’s now at OSU to earn a second bachelor’s degree, this time in food science and technology with an emphasis on enology and viticulture. “I still have a ways to go,” he says. “I’m working on the science and getting more practical experience.”

Winemakers have to contend with vineyard pests, such as the brown marmorated stink bug. Sereni spent last October counting hundreds of the invasive bug and then tossing them and clusters of grapes into a crushing machine to find out what chemical compounds they secrete when they’re stressed out. Could these chemicals affect the taste of the wine? Sereni served Pinot noir spiked with tiny amounts of a food-grade version of the main compound to taste testers at OSU to find out at what point they could detect it.

It turns out that one cluster of grapes would have to be crushed with the compound from 3½ stink bugs before tasters noticed the difference.

THE TREE CLIMBER

Becky Miller

“I wanted a school with a strong research reputation, and OSU fit that bill,” says Becky Miller, a BioResource Research major. “It was the scientific community at OSU that brought me here.” (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

About 40 feet up in a tree, Becky Miller straddles a limb that’s no wider than a balance beam. She leans forward onto her stomach and plucks a temperature gauge from the green canopy. On the sidewalk far below, umbrella-toting students walk to class, oblivious of her red parka and safety ropes.

Miller, who is majoring in BioResource Research, is in this tree at OSU’s campus as part of a project to figure out how the temperature of Douglas-fir needles might influence when new growth begins. The answer could ultimately help scientists, farmers, and foresters understand how climate affects the productivity of plants.

As part of her research last summer, she lived at OSU’s H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, where every morning she scrambled down a steep ravine with a car battery strapped to her backpack to recharge the infrared camera she used to photograph the green, growing fingertips of trees. Then for the rest of the workday, she helped a graduate student with his research, toppling young Douglas-firs with a handsaw and sweating under head-to-toe clothes that fended off a bloodthirsty pack of mosquitos.

“A lot of what I do, people would think is hard. But I love it,” says Miller, now down from the tree. “A lot of people say, ‘You gotta do your time washing dishes in the lab.’ Nope. That’s not for me. I would rather get my start packing car batteries through the woods.”

She takes off her helmet and steps out of her harness. “Even on a rainy day,” she says, “it’s fun to be in a tree.”

THE MIND MENDER

Pachida Lo

Pachida Lo is a resident in psychiatry at the University of California Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. She graduated from OSU in 2006 with a degree in BioResource Research. “I think about OSU a lot,” she says. “That’s where I learned the most about who I wanted to be.” (Photo by Lencxod Lyfoung.)

Alumna Pachida Lo says her undergrad research helped her get to where she is today. “OSU and BioResource Research allowed me to build confidence in my skills to pursue a career in science,” says Lo, who went on to medical school and is now a resident in psychiatry at the University of California Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. In the emergency room, she examines people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression.

About 10 years ago, she was at OSU examining the liver and lung tissue of mice for her BioResource Research major. She fed mice two different diets—one healthy, and one fatty. Then she looked at their DNA to see if the diets affected the expression of a gene that has been correlated with asthma and other respiratory diseases in studies.

The process that she learned then of scrutinizing data is something she uses today. “When looking at medications, you have to be able to analyze literature and be confident in your choice of medication for your patient,” she says. “This foundation of research methodology helped me feel confident as a psychiatrist in analyzing data and reviewing it to make sure that it’s a good research study.”

Her research at OSU also helped her land a grant and a job at the Asian Liver Center at Stanford University, she says. “My experience with BioResource Research, where I had to write a thesis and develop a research protocol, helped me to quickly write up a proposal,” she says. “My advisers told me if I didn’t have this research background from Oregon State, I wouldn’t have gotten the grant.”

THE TRAVELING VET

Ryan Scholz

Every Tuesday morning, OSU alum Ryan Scholz tests poultry for avian influenza at the Woodburn Auction Yard. He logs about 2,000 miles a month in his job as a veterinarian for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. (Photo by Stephen Ward.)

Ryan Scholz already has his bachelor’s degree—two in fact. The former double major in animal sciences and BioResource Research is now a district veterinarian and emergency preparedness coordinator for the Oregon Department of Agriculture. He’s a busy guy. One week found him swabbing the throats of chickens at the Woodburn auction to test for avian influenza, conducting a tabletop drill in Fossil on a hypothetical outbreak of anthrax, and meeting with Josephine County officials to review their plan for sheltering pets in the event of a major disaster.

It wasn’t that long ago that Scholz was an undergrad at OSU, spending the summer squeezing 100 gallons of juice out of a plant known as false brome with a press he improvised out of scrap metal and a 5-gallon bucket. He was trying to see if he could condition sheep to eat the invasive weed, which chokes out native plants. The next spring, he mixed the juice with milk and bottle-fed newborns several times a day. He later trailered the sheep to OSU’s nearby forest and measured how much they ate of the nonnative grass, which they don’t normally find appealing. It turned out that the lambs ate more of the weed after watching older ewes graze on it. His study showed that there are alternatives to herbicides for controlling the weed, he says.

Those days of studying false brome taught him how to teach himself. “My background is in animals. I grew up on a sheep farm,” he says. “But my research was on plants; I had to teach myself plant ecology and biology to do this research.” So, he sifted through websites and journal articles and sat down with experts on campus. This self-guided learning helped him when he signed on with the ODA. “Emergency preparedness coordination is not something I went to school to do. I had to teach myself,” he says. “The hands-on undergraduate research program helped prepare me to teach myself to get the job done.” His undergrad fieldwork also taught him to solve problems—like fabricating his low-budget juice extractor—and it set him apart from the hundreds of other students when he applied to OSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine, he says.

A major deal

OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences created the BioResource Research (BRR) interdisciplinary major to give students a taste of what it’s like to conduct research, provide them with career skills, and help them decide if they’re interested in graduate school or a job in their field of research. Students majoring in BRR are required to take courses in biology, chemistry, physics, calculus, and statistics; conduct mentored research; write a thesis; and present their work at a public seminar. They can choose from 14 areas of concentration related to natural resources and agriculture, including applied genetics, food quality, and toxicology.

“BioResource Research has a rigorous curriculum and a required research component to prepare me for grad school,” says Becky Miller, a BRR major. “Being involved in research gives me an application of what I’ve learned in the classroom and a way to synthesize it before grad school. It’s also a good way for me to develop organizational skills needed to handle a project, get funding, handle proposals, and work with a mentor.”

Every year, within 3 months of earning their degree, about 60 percent of the program’s graduates enter a graduate or professional school; the rest find employment, says BRR’s director, Kate Field.

Smart money

Financial support often makes research like this possible. Funding can come from various sources, including the National Science Foundation, the E.R. Jackman Internship Support Program, and OSU’s Undergraduate Research, Innovation, Scholarship, and Creativity program as well as from donors who directly support scholarships, fellowships, and other opportunities to enrich students’ experiences beyond the classroom.

Published in: Innovations, People