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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

First generation college student studies "Nitrogen cycling and metabolism in a drought-ridden prairie stream" during her MAPS KSU summer REU experience

Molly Fisher
       A great love for the natural world, a father with a passion for the outdoors, and an even stronger interest in studying water, led Molly Fisher to Kansas State University (KSU) this summer to participate in a research experience for undergraduate students (REU).  Molly is a first generation college student from Nashua, Iowa and is an Environmental Science Major at Simpson College in Indianola, IA.  She said she applied to the 2018 KSU Summer REU opportunity for two reasons.  One, “both of my environmental professors (who I greatly admire) from Simpson College, Dr. Clint Meyer and Dr. Ryan Rehmeier, completed graduate degrees” at KSU, and two, she can’t ever “pass up an opportunity to conduct research in or on water when it arises.”
Molly recording temperature and dissolved oxygen in the field
and making acidified filter packets in the lab
     This summer, Molly worked with Dr. Walter Dodds, KSU Distinguished Professor and Lead Investigator on the Aquatic Team for the Kansas NSF EPSCoR OIA-1656006 RII Track-1 Award: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS). The title of her project is Nitrogen cycling and metabolism in a drought-ridden prairie stream. Her study, however, faced some research challenges.  As she explains it, she attempted “to work in an extreme drought situation at the Konza Prairie Biological Station,” but she had to continually modify the project in response to the “decreasing water levels in the pools of what was left of Kings Creek.” And, as a result of this summer’s drought conditions, she was only able to complete her research on “two pools which were within 50 yards of each other.” She describes her research as follows: “I was attempting to determine nitrogen cycling and metabolism in these pools using a labeled isotope method (15NH4Cl) during an extreme drought. This entailed adding a calculated amount of labeled ammonium chloride to contained stream water. We then filled six recirculating chambers with the isotope water. Rocks which have the biofilm on them (the biofilm is what cycles the nitrogen) were also placed into the chamber. All chambers were covered for the first 40 minutes to determine ecosystem respiration (of the biofilm). Once those 40 minutes were up three chambers were uncovered and three were not. After the uncovering, the chambers ran for two hours. Every ten minutes the temperature and dissolved oxygen were recorded. Water samples were taken before isotope addition, after the isotope addition, and after the chambers were ran. Rocks were collected before and after chamber runs to analyze the biofilm. Rocks were scraped, filtered, and the filters were dried. To determine NH4, water samples were filtered, spiked with a calculated amount of regular ammonium chloride, MgO and NaCl were added alongside an acidified filter packet and were placed on a shaker table. To determine NO3, water samples were filtered, spiked with a calculated amount of KHSO4, MgO and NaCl were added, the samples were boiled down, and then more MgO in addition to Devardas alloy was added. Samples were placed in a drying oven for 48 hours then placed on a shaker table.”  She then sent her samples to an isotope lab for further processing and is awaiting the results.  Once she has her results, she will be “comparing it to data taken from normal precipitation years as well as flood years.”
     Molly’s favorite part of this whole summer REU experience at KSU has been “getting the opportunity to work with all the great individuals in the Dodds’ Lab. I owe a huge thanks to everyone (Dr. Walter Dodds, James Guinnip, Sammi Greiger, Lane Lundeen, Sophie Higgs, & Anne Schechner) for their patience, kindness, and willingness to help. They made me feel as if I had always been a part of their lab. They assisted me in more ways than I could ever imagine especially the grad student who worked closest with me, James Guinnip.”  She said she also learned, “There will be many mishaps in all aspects of one’s research.  Sometimes the only thing to do is laugh and continue. Additionally, surrounding yourself with great individuals to assist you in your research holds monumental importance.”
     Molly will be a junior at Simpson College this fall.  She is the Campus Activities Board (CAB) President, a past President of Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society, and a Junior Class Senator for the Simpson College Student Government Association (SGA).  In addition, Molly is an active member of Beta Beta Beta Biological Honor Society and the Sustainability Club as well as a Carver Bridge Scholar.  In addition to her co-curricular activities, Molly has made the Dean’s List four times, the fall of 2016, the spring of 2017, the fall of 2017, and the spring of 2018.   
     Molly’s other interests also reflect her passion for studying water.  She has conducted ecological research through prior summer programs at Simpson College and through a study abroad course in the Cayman Islands this past May.  She mentioned it was through this course she had the opportunity to study “the effect of depth and location on the amount of coral bleaching.”  Furthermore, it was during her visit to the Cayman Islands that she also received her certification in scuba diving.  In her spare time, Molly enjoys being outside and describes herself as an “avid runner.”
     As for Molly’s future plans, she will graduate from Simpson College in 2020 and plans to attend graduate school and earn a Ph.D. in the biological sciences.  She added, “I aspire to continue to research coral reefs, but will go where opportunities arise.”

Workforce Development, Education and Outreach funding for the Summer MAPS REU program is provided by the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006 titled: "Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas."  The grant's workforce development and educational objectives are designed to enhance STEM education in Kansas by supporting activities that will lead to an expanded STEM workforce or prepare a new generation for STEM careers in the areas of aquatic, plant and soil microbiome environments and ecological systems.