Best of Scene

Students and faculty take summer research projects on the road to the Washington coast and Idaho’s south hills

By Steve Hansen
Of all the potentially tedious chores that can make up a college student’s summer job, here’s a new one: spending hours on your knees, rolling over one boulder after another just to see what’s underneath.
Melissa Youngquist and Stephanie Agoncillio

Melissa Youngquist and Stephanie Agoncillo head down a ravine to reach the intertidal area.

It’s how Stephanie Agoncillo ’08 and Melissa Youngquist ’09 spent their summer. And this was a coveted gig.

In truth, to stand under blue skies and smell the salt air blowing off Washington’s picturesque Strait of Juan de Fuca, it was clear this was a choice assignment. And when Assistant Professor of Biology Michael Behrens is doing the rock-rolling, all the better.

Behrens was one of many professors who led student-faculty research projects this summer. Some ventured off-campus, like this one to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. In the natural sciences alone, more than nine faculty members worked with more than 21 students to conduct fieldwork, as well as gather and analyze data.

Monika Maier, Julie Smith and Josh O'Brien

Monika Maier, assistant professor Julie Smith and Josh O’Brien take a break for a self-portrait in the South Hills of Idaho.

For Behrens and his team, they spent several days in Washington’s tidal areas conducting fieldwork for two separate projects – one surveying disease in urchin populations, and another investigating a type of fish called pricklebacks that live under rocks in the tidelands. In the case of the pricklebacks, there exist three closely related species that all share the same habitat. The question Behrens and his team were asking was: If these species have the same habitat, why did they evolve into three distinct species?

To get an answer, the trio turned over one rock after another, taking inventory of the pricklebacks and the rocks they lived under, plus measuring the elevation and noting the location. Some fish were also brought back to the labs in Rieke Science Center to be dissected to determine feeding behavior. Throughout the summer, they analyzed the collected data, which Behrens hopes will enable them to produce a publication on the subject.

Either way, for Behrens, the value of this type of student and faculty collaboration is clearly evident. “It is a win-win situation for both sides,” he said. “There is no way I could do that by myself – the research simply doesn’t get done without the students.”

The value to the students, too, is clear.

“I’ve never done field work,” said Monika Maier ’09. Along with Josh O’Brien ’08 and Assistant Professor of Biology Julie Smith, she spent nearly a month in Idaho’s remote South Hills region studying the nesting habits of the crossbill finch. “This was completely different than class. Instead of reading about something in a book and discussing it, we’re out there doing it. And we’re doing it pretty intensely.”

For Maier, that meant spending nearly a month living out of tents and eating meals over a camp stove, as well as bearing a freak mid-June snowstorm and triple-digit heat. Maier even studied-up on emergency childbirth, just in case Smith, who was seven months pregnant at the time, went into early labor.

And there was the research, of course: spotting and tagging a new species of crossbill finch, which live exclusively among the region’s pines, analyzing their nesting-site selection, as well as the “song stability” of the birds’ calls. After returning from Idaho, they took the recordings to Rieke to listen to the tape. They fed some of the data into the computer with the hope of assessing the stability of the birds’ flight calls. Red Crossbills have recently diversified into nine different ecologically distinct taxa. These taxa are recognized on the basis of the unique flight calls, however, the long-term stability of these flight calls have not been studied.

“By making these guys camp, I knew we’d be changing their comfort level,” said Smith. “But this is what field work is like. It is important for them to know what it takes to make a data set. That said, the students were certainly up to the task. They did a great job.”

Behrens agreed. “If they have any sort of aspiration to go to graduate school – particularly really good schools – students need to distinguish themselves from other candidates,” said Behrens. “That means lab and field experience. [Graduate schools] are looking for that – it is a necessity.”

This fact is not lost on Agoncillo. “Grad schools look to see what you have done,” she said. “If I want to get into a good program, then I’ve got to have this kind of experience.”

“There’s another valuable part of it, maybe the most valuable of all,” added Behrens. “You get a chance to work in a particular environment. You might hate it. And if you find out you hate it, then you can mark that off the list.”

In the case of Agoncillo and Youngquist, the two found that even when that work included turning one rock over after another, they didn’t hate it at all. For them, this type of experience, no matter what their career path may be, was the opportunity of a lifetime.