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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Pitt-Bradford students spend summer researching ecology, physiology



BRADFORD, Pa. – Joe Hannon, a junior biology major at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, spent his summer bent over – first over delicate trout lilies in the field, then over a microscope as he dissected the spring flowers.

Hannon worked with Dr. Mary Mulcahy, associate professor of biology, on a research project to test an evolutionary prediction: that the lilies that received more pollen would produce more ovules, or seeds.

Once Mulcahy showed Hannon what the early spring lilies looked like and the conditions under which they were likely to grow, she turned him loose with the instructions to obtain a randomized sample of 40 lilies from three different elevations.

Hannon found three areas where the flowers grew, laid down a string grid and harvested a certain number from each square in the grid to ensure randomization. Then he took his bounty back and dissected them under a microscope.

To count the grains of pollen and ovules, he had to create a gel dye in the lab to stain the particles for easier viewing.

He found that some flowers have no pollen grains and other received as many as 600 grains and that the population with the greatest variability of pollen numbers had significantly fewer ovules.

“In an evolutionary sense, it is interesting to ponder how a plant evolves in the face of such extreme variability,” Mulcahy said.

“He has very good data,” Mulcahy said. “I am very pleased with that.”

She noted that research takes a lot of dedication on students’ part and gives them confidence and a leg-up on graduate or medical school.

“It’s essential if students want to be able to go to graduate school,” she said. She hopes to guide Hannon through the process of publishing in an undergraduate research journal.

Hannon said the experience with the trout lilies and working with alumna Heather McKean, a watershed conservationist with the McKean County Conservation District, gave him a deeper knowledge of biology subjects and confidence in his ability to conduct research.

With the Conservation District, he and another Pitt-Bradford student, Lindsay Shine, also a biology major from Bradford, surveyed the fish population of Potato Creek near Smethport to determine the health of the stream.

“I’ve learned a tremendous amount about waterways and about pollination, too,” he said. “I learned it a lot more thoroughly” than he would have had he just been exposed to theory in the classroom, he said.

“I feel more comfortable where I’m at academically – being able to do something like this.”

Mulcahy added, ‘Our students do need the confidence that they can succeed in graduate school.”

Other students worked with other professors over the summer in the area of physiology. James Cable, a biology major from Russell, conducted research on clams with Dr. David Merwine, who also guided Wray Woelfel, a biology major from Kersey, in his study of cockroaches.

Still other biology majors, Kelly DeRolf of Carlisle, Arpad Hervanek of Bradford, and Yuxi Lin of Philadelphia, did their research this summer away from campus at the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, a field station on the shores of Pymatuning Lake near Lake Erie run by the University of Pittsburgh.

“Going to Pymatuning was one of the best decisions I have made as a student majoring in biology,” DeRolf said. “Not only was the class incredible, but I met a number of resourceful contacts along the way, so resourceful that I actually ended up getting a research position there for the remainder of the summer with one of the Ph.D. students. I suggest that every student interested in ecology attend a class there.”

In this photo by Alan Hancock, James Cable, a biology major from Russell monitors the reaction of a clam’s heartbeat while conducting research this summer.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

I was wanting to know the final resolution on the patato creek study??