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Tuesday, November 5, 2019

KU doctoral student teaches ecology to Kansas 3rd grade students through the MAPS KEES Program

Laura teaches students about soils
   Laura Jimenez-Jimenez understands the benefits of  STEM outreach, so when she was asked to participate in the Kansas Ecology for Elementary Students (KEES) program, she said "I got very excited and I happily joined the team. Particularly after finding out that I could teach in both Spanish and English at a dual-language school.” The KEES program is a part of the workforce development and education outreach initiatives included in the Kansas NSF EPSCoR RII Track-1 Award OIA-1656006: Microbiomes of Aquatic, Plant, and Soil Systems across Kansas (MAPS). Dr.  Peggy Schultz, Associate Specialist in the Environmental Studies Program within the Kansas Biological Survey at the University of Kansas (KU) is the KEES program director. During the academic school year, the KEES program travels to elementary schools in Lawrence and Topeka, KS to provide 3rd-grade students with opportunities to conduct small group hands-on experiments in order to learn about Kansas ecology. One of the participating schools located in Topeka is the Scott Dual Language Magnet Elementary School, where they teach all of their science curricula in Spanish.
   Being bilingual and having studied ecology, biology, and statistics in her master's and doctoral programs, volunteering to teach Kansas ecology in Spanish was a natural fit for Laura. As a KEES instructor, she has “learned different strategies for teaching in elementary schools, from playing games to doing fun experiments in the classroom.” She also mentioned she enjoys contributing to the development of both the Spanish and English KEES curriculum. Her favorite part of this outreach experience is when she hears “comments from our students after they participate in a lesson. Most of them are really excited to participate and enjoy learning with us so much that they can hardly wait for our next visit.”
Laura teaches trophic levels as she gently
supports a King Snake 
   Laura's doctoral research uses mathematical models to study a wide range of problems in biology and ecology. She first became interested in combining mathematics with the natural sciences when she took a statistical ecology course in her master’s program. Laura explained, “having the opportunity to observe science through mathematics has been a beautiful experience. It has stimulated my creativity and helped to enhance my analytical thinking skills. Through statistics, I am able to use mathematical models to better understand random phenomena and analyze data. Moreover, working with ecologists has made me realize that I can contribute to solving problems that will have a positive impact on society.” Specifically, her area of interest focuses on “estimating the fundamental niches of species from occurrence and physiological data.” Laura described her research as follows, “The fundamental niche of a species is defined as the set of environmental combinations the studied species needs to maintain populations; leading, at the same time, to the survival of the species. The concept of the ecological niche is central to ecological biogeography, which focuses on spatial patterns of ecological communities called species distributions. Estimating the fundamental niche of a species is assumed to require physiological experiments, which require bringing specimens to the lab and placing them in chambers where environmental conditions are fully controlled. However, these experiments are not viable for all the species. The kind of data that is widely available is occurrence points, known to represent a subset of the fundamental niche. Our work focuses on finding an approximation to the fundamental niche from occurrences and any information related to physiological data. We do this by providing a statistical model for estimating the parameters that represent a fundamental niche. So far, we created some examples of virtual species for which the resulting estimates were compared to its theoretical fundamental niche with the purpose of evaluating our proposed model. The analysis of data from virtual species helped us describe conditions that may produce better estimates for the fundamental niche in real cases. Therefore, we are working on a second version of the model that takes into account what we learned from previous analyses.” Currently, Laura is a fifth-year Ph.D. student pursuing a doctoral degree in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. Her adviser is Dr. Jorge Soberón, a University Distinguished Professor of the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and the KU Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum.
Laura Jimenez-Jimenez
hosting a LAGO recruitment table
     Originally, Laura is from the state of Puebla in Mexico where she lived for fifteen years. Then, she and her family moved to the state of Guanajuato, Mexico where she went to college. While living in Mexico, Laura earned a bachelor's degree in Mathematics from the Department of Mathematics (DEMAT) at the University of Guanajuato and a master’s degree in Probability and Statistics from the Mathematics Research Center (CIMAT). She also received two scholarships from the Mexican National Council for Science and Technology (CONACyT). The first scholarship fully funded her master’s program, and the second has funded four years of her doctoral studies. During both her undergraduate and the master’s programs, she was an instructor for Matemorfosis, a group dedicated to the dissemination of science at the Mathematics Research Center (CIMAT). As an instructor, she specialized in teaching geometry with origami. By using origami, Laura could assemble several pieces of paper to build various 3D shapes which created a hand-on visual display to explore geometry concepts such as symmetry, volume, and regular polygons. Though she has used origami as a teaching tool, Laura added “Origami is one of my hobbies and it helps me relieve stress. In addition, I occasionally give origami workshops and talks as well.” While studying for her Ph.D. at KU, Laura has volunteered with the KEES program for 3 years, joined the KU Tango Club, and served as both the vice president and the president of the KU Latin American Graduate Organization (LAGO). This fall, Laura became a Graduate Teaching Assistant for an introductory statistics class for biology students, and stated, “I am very excited about having the opportunity to teach at KU.”
     After Laura completes her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, she would like to find a postdoc position that also provides her with an opportunity to continue her research.

Workforce Development, Education and Outreach funding for the KEES 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.