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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

MAPS summer REU student from UMass studies fungal drought tolerance at KSU

Achala Narayanan
     Achala Narayanan traveled to Kansas State University (KSU) this summer from Amherst, Massachusetts to study Extreme Drought in Grassland Ecosystems (EDGE) with Kansas NSF EPSCoR  OIA-1656006 RII Track-1: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS) researcher Dr. Ari Jumpponen.  As a biology major with a mathematics minor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst MA (UMass), Achala first became interested in ecology after taking a biological anthropology class and reading books about evolutionary biology. Her interest in systems and how different components affect and are affected by singular changes came from her opportunity to work on behavioral experiments with birds and volunteering in a soil microbial ecology lab. While working in the soil microbial lab, she studied bacterial lignin-degrading capabilities.  She said, “that's when I discovered how interesting it was to look at big picture community interactions at such a small scale - a microbial scale," and "Dr. Ari Jumpponen's work at KSU was a fascinating representation of that field.”
Growing fungal colonies 
     Achala describes her project, titled Selection for fungal drought tolerance in an experimental system (EDGE - Extreme Drought in Grassland Ecosystems), as follows: "Climate change projections show that the future holds climate extremes. I am doing a small study to look at whether systems are already becoming adapted to these environmental changes. Broadly, I am looking at whether environment selects for certain ecotypes. Specifically, I am looking at selection of fungal drought tolerance. We collected soil from two sites (Hays Agricultural Research Center and Konza Prairie Biological Station) with different mean annual precipitation…. At these sites they have set up rainfall shelters to experimentally impose drought. Looking across sites, and across these treatments (drought manipulation vs. ambient), we were trying to determine how the proportion of drought tolerant fungi varied. We expected that when grown on drought-selective media, the drought-imposed, xeric soils would yield a greater proportion of colony forming units as compared to mesic soil from ambient conditions. I did colony counts of the number of fungal colonies that grew on media … and also extracted DNA from these plates, to look at what fungal communities are present and how they vary across the precipitation treatments and the sites… there seems to be marginal evidence for greater number of colonies in the drought-imposed conditions as compared with the ambient conditions.”
     Her favorite part of her summer REU experience was learning new skills such as “how to sample soil, plate and grow fungi on media, extract DNA, run gels, and modify the experimental design along the way.” She also learned “how to organize and plan experiments, and how and when it is necessary to try different approaches to answer a question.... there is a lot of trial and error involved in executing an experimental design, and changing the plan is a standard part of the process.” In addition, Achala enjoyed working in the lab, attending lab meetings and discussing everyone’s project with them.  She said within the lab, the group developed "a great community with people always offering help and advice." And, she added, the overall experience "has been fun."
     As for her immediate future, she plans to return to UMass in the fall of 2018 where she is a part of the Commonwealth Honors College on a Dean's Award scholarship and is also an alto in the University Chorale. “Singing is a huge passion” of hers.  Her long term plans include applying for graduate programs in biology so that she can one day have a career that balances "fieldwork/research along with science education and communication."  Her dream job would involve working at “Institutions like natural history museums or biological stations.”

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.