Baker biology professor’s tree climbing summer reseach program funded for another 3 years
A research inspiration Baker University professor William Miller discovered while watching the Travel Channel has paid off with a $286,285 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund a three-year summer undergraduate research opportunity.
Miller, director of research in biology at Baker, said he saw a show on the channel about a biologist employing the single-rope climbing technique for research in trees. A former Marine Corps air traffic controller who flew a combat mission over the Gulf of Tonkin, Miller had no fear of heights and recognized the value of the technique in field research. After a quick Internet and search a few emails later, he was talking with the biologist about learning and applying rope climbing in his field research.
Fast forward to the summer of 2013 and Miller was introducing eight students from colleges around the nation to rope climbing, during the first year of a two-year pilot for the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. After members of the Tree Climbing Kansas City Club trained the students for two weeks in single-rope climbing, the undergraduates scaled trees in woods near Baldwin City, the Baker Wetlands, the Kansas University Field Station and Kansas State University’s Konza Prairie to collect tardigrades, tiny invertebrates called water bears because their appearance under a microscope.
The past two summers, the pilot program’s student researchers collected 1,400 samples and extracted 12,000 tardigrades. They confirmed three new tardigrade species and others not previously found in Kansas, the Midwest or the United States. The students also have published eight peer-reviewed papers in scientific publications.
“The kids we get are very good students,” Miller said. “They want to be published. They keep me hopping.”
The pilot program was enough of a success for the National Science Foundation to approve the $286,000 grant to continue the respect experience for three additional years. Miller said he and Meg Lowman of the California Academy of Sciences, who partnered with him on the pilot program, had to tweak the research experience somewhat by adding two-week trips at the end of each research experience to different states so that samples could be collected in different ecosystems. This summer’s program will include a trip to Florida, while trips to Massachusetts and Oregon are planned in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
The research experience will continue to include extracting tardigrades from collected samples and the opportunity to view them with a Kansas University electronic microscope. The students will conclude the summer program with a public outreach presentation at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco.
The two-week ending trips were added so that the National Science Foundation would have a new angle to fund and not because the past two summers of research haven’t made important tardigrade discoveries from local ecosystems, Miller said.
Before the students from those first two pilot programs scaled trees in local woods for tardigrade samples, biologist had only collected them at ground level. With one exception, it was discovered that tardigrades will in greater numbers and diversity in the canopy, Miller said.
“The one place we found uniform diversity at different levels was at Black Jack Battlefield,” he said. “We looked and found those samples were collected from sugar maples.”
Miller said eight students were selected for this summer’s 10-week research experience from 45 applications. Applicants learned of the program on their own and not from advertisements in science or environmental publications; he and Lowman did not have time to place ads because of the late date they learned the program would be funded.
The title of the program research experience is “Tardigrades and Wheelchairs in the Canopy,” which emphasizes it is available to the ambulatory disabled. Although there were two students in the first year who climbed into trees from wheelchairs, no such students applied this year, Miller said.