Launching your summer research project by digging ten-inch-deep ditches for eight hours in a hot, humid, poison ivy-infested forest doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of a good time. But for Shannen Kelly ’19, it meant that one of her most anticipated and ultimately gratifying experiences of her academic career was under way.
“Not necessarily fun, but at the end I walked away thinking it was a great day,” Kelly recalls. “It was a terrific team building activity and your spirits stay high when you are working with people who are interested and invested in what you are doing, and are dedicated to helping you achieve what you’re trying to find.”
Kelly, a double major in environmental science and Spanish, is one of two Hollins students who this summer helped pioneer a new partnership between the university and the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech. The affiliation offers undergraduate students from Hollins the opportunity to gain summer research experience at Virginia Tech in both the lab and in the field as part of the Fralin Life Science Institute’s ten-week Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) Program.
In collaboration with Ph.D. candidate Becky Fletcher, Kelly measured the growth rate, based on differential weather conditions, of an invasive weed called Johnson grass. It’s found throughout the United States and has had considerable destructive impact on agriculture.
In another experiment, Kelly explains, “I did my own lab-based study of five populations of Johnson grass from five different states – Georgia, New Mexico, New York, Texas, and Virginia – and exposed them to different light intensities or different carbon dioxide concentrations to see how the populations and their progressions differ based on latitude and climate or origin.”
Kelly notes that the research will continue over time. “This was sort of a preliminary ‘what if’ project. The long-term goal would be to create genetic profiles of each population so that we can trace the differences in photosynthetic capacity, dark respiration rates, or even carbon assimilation rates.”
The junior from Tolland, Connecticut, spent much of her time at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm in Blacksburg and discovered “that I love field work. It was a really unique experience learning science hands-on. When we were out in the field we really had to be creative because if a problem arose you quickly had to adapt to solving it. There was a lot of perseverance involved; Becky and I would sometimes spend three or four days trying to flesh out a problem. You can’t give up – you have to push through it.
“I also liked the team aspect of research. I worked in a lab with three or four other people at any given time and a great community that was built there. If someone had a question about their research they would just swivel their chair around and ask everyone else in the lab. It promoted a lot of scientific conversation.”
One of the biggest challenges Kelly took on was teaching herself to operate a complex piece of scientific equipment. “No one in my lab really knew how to use it, and only one professor on the entire campus ever worked with it on a regular basis,” Kelly recalls. “Becky however had some experience with its operation and was able to help me in the early stages of learning, which was vital. Still, it was something you just had to work with yourself to grasp how it functioned.” Kelly says she relied on manuals to help her troubleshoot how to construct light response and carbon response curves, familiarize herself with the “hows” behind the machine’s technical aspects, and ensure the equipment’s consistency since she and her team encountered a lot of machine-based control errors.
Her time at Virginia Tech, Kelly believes, “definitely opened my eyes to the types of opportunities I have and specifically made me very interested in research. It’s pinpointed where my interests lie right now – I’m interested in plant physiology and the ecological impact of invasive species. Most importantly, it made me interested in going to grad school once I graduate from Hollins.”
Kelly also sees what she’s gained at Hollins as blending perfectly with the teaching environment at Virginia Tech. “I feel like Hollins gives you the empowerment and Tech gives you the resources and technical competencies. I said all summer, I’m so glad I got to have both experiences because now I have my toes in both waters. Hollins is very beneficial to the individual education of a student – I can learn a lot in class. And then Tech was an incredible experience because I got to see what a research institute does. I’ve grown so much not only as a student but also as a researcher and scientist.
“I heard Tech was pleased with [Elaine Metz ’19, the other Hollins student involved in summer research at the Global Change Center] and me because most of the students who go into this program are from technical universities. We were among the few students from liberal arts backgrounds to take part. I think they were pleasantly surprised at how well-rounded we were, and that was because of Hollins.”
Kelly is now looking forward to spending Spring Term 2018 at Spain’s University of Granada, where she hopes to continue growing her skills in both her majors. “Granada is very diverse in terms of ecology and landscape and one of the leading areas of the world for environmental research.”
Photo Credit: Cassandra Hockman, Global Change Center at Virginia Tech
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