Research Experience for Undergraduates

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Research Experience for Undergraduates in Environmental Sciences: Shima’ nahasdza’a’n bee ‘iina’ (Mother Earth Give Life) is an intensive 10-week research experience that take place each summer and is designed to introduce students to the world of scientific research. This Northern Arizona University (NAU) program is funded by the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Students are selected for the program on the basis of the following criteria: satisfactory performance in at least one science course, lack of access to research opportunities, attendance at a Tribal or community college, interest in pursuing a scientific career, alignment of student and mentor interests,  match with program goals, and overall academic performance and potential.

The program begins with a weeklong course on the conduct of research in environmental sciences at the Merriam Powell Research Station, which is housed on the grounds of The Arboretum at Flagstaff. The arboretum is 5 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona, and surrounded by ponderosa pine forest.

Following this experience, students are ready to return to the NAU campus and spend nine weeks working with a faculty or graduate student mentor on an independent research project matching their interests.

The on-campus portion of the program includes: (1) seminars on career options, research skills development, and Native American and western science perspectives; (2) a short GIS course; (3) individual consultation on research paper and poster presentation development; and (4) social activities.

The program offers (1) a $500 per week stipend, (2) six university credits, and (3) housing.

>> 2014 REU flyer

Program elements

Field work at The Arboretum of Flagstaff
During the first week of the program, participants conduct field work at The Arboretum at Flagstaff designed to give them hands-on experience conducting a scientific investigation. As a group, participants will develop hypotheses, design experiments, collect data, and report results. Although this field work experience may not directly relate to a participant’s individual research project, it serves as a “training ground” for the rigors of developing a hypothesis, gathering data, and communicating results.
Research experience
During the final nine weeks of the program, participants have the opportunity to gain research experience. This portion of the program blends learning science and developing job skills. Participants will work under the guidance of a faculty mentor and experienced students. The goal is to expose program participants to the rigors of working in a research group in a format that teaches them the skills they will need to succeed. The daily schedule depends on the type of research project the student selects and may range from making observations using a microscope or mapping trees outdoors to analyzing data or writing up research results.
Wednesday evening class meetings
The program includes a Wednesday evening class that primarily focuses on communicating research results. Participants will be given weekly writing assignments designed to help them develop their science writing skills. The class will focus on individual sections of a standard science paper beginning with the "Introduction" and moving through the "Methods," "Results," and "Discussion" sections.  During the final two weeks of class, participants will learn the key elements required to create a good scientific research poster, including design, readability, and research content. Finally, guest speakers will talk about career options, scholarship opportunities, and graduate and undergraduate research.

Mentors and projects

Diana Anderson, Quaternary Studies and Geology
Dr. Anderson is interested in recognizing land-use changes on the Navajo Nation using aerial photography. Much literature describes the impact of grazing on the semiarid portions of the Navajo Nation since the turn of the century. Comparison of narrative observations made during the Beale Expedition of 1853, photographs taken around the turn of the century, and photography taken at the same site reveals many changes to upland and riparian areas.
Neil Cobb, Biology
Much of Dr. Cobb's research focuses on two areas of investigation. His first are of interest is conceptually based on arthropod biodiversity, examining the responsiveness of arthropod communities to habitat change (e.g., drought, fire, grazing), and targets national parks as field sites. This body of research is conducted through the Colorado Plateau Museum of Arthropod Biodiversity, which also conducts some population-level studies on insects. Dr. Cobb's second area of interest involves addressing a variety of ecological questions that can be answered using GIS and remote sensing. This research can include a variety of different types of plants and animals. This work is conducted through the he Geospatial Research and Information Laboratory.
Cheryl Dyer, Biology
Dr. Dyer is interested in characterizing the estrogen-like activity of uranium in the reproductive system of mice and rats to determine what human health consequences may result from exposure to environmental uranium.
Matthew Gage, Chemistry
There are numerous environmental factors that have been proposed to lead to DNA damage and subsequently to cancer formation. One such environmental factor is uranium exposure, which has been potentially linked to DNA damage. One of the key proteins involved in protecting the cell’s DNA is the p53 protein. p53 recognizes damaged DNA and causes increases of other proteins that are involved in DNA repair. We are investigating the formation and function of the p53 protein. This particular project is focused on understanding how uranium affects the function of p53. Students working on this project will work with both Dr. Gage and with other students in the lab to learn protein purification and protein refolding techniques, along with standard tests of p53 function. These will be used to determine if uranium affects the function of p53, providing a potential model for the effects of uranium within the cell.
Paul Gremillion, Civil and Environmental Engineering
Dr. Gremillion's research examines human impacts on aquatic ecosystems. Recent research investigates linkages between mercury loading to reservoirs and wildfires in their watersheds. It is suspected that mercury becomes stored in plant and soil material in watersheds, is then released by wildfires,and finally makes its way to reservoirs through storm events following wildfires. To search for these linkages, sediment cores from several lakes in northern Arizona will be analyzed. These cores show distinct zones of charcoal that indicate fire events and coarse sediment bands that indicate erosive events. Tests on these cores and a limited amount of field work to recover additional sediment samples will be conducted during the summer.
Jani Ingram, Chemsitry
The Ingram group is investigating interfacial chemistries of biosurfactants and mineral oxide. These studies are focused on understanding the role of biosurfactants in the fate and transport of metals in the environment.
Tom Kolb, Forestry
Tom Kolb's research group is studying the impact of forest management thinning and wildfire on exchange of a key greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and energy, and water between ponderosa pine forests and the atmosphere. Additionally, the group is working on understanding interactions between forest fires and mortality caused by bark beetles, and the decline of high-elevation forests.
Jeff Leid, Biology
Dr. Leid conducts research on biofilms, structured communities of microorganisms that are attached to either an inanimate substrate, such as a rock in an alpine stream or a catheter in a human, or an animate substrate, such as a human heart valve, that are enclosed in a self-produced or host-derived matrix. In medicine, they are an important problem with implanted medical devices as well as in the establishment of chronic infections. Biofilms are notoriously less susceptible to antibiotics then their single cell, non-community orientated bacteria and are also less susceptible to attack and killing from the human immune system. The overall focus of our research is to determine what makes biofilms less susceptible to attack and killing from the host’s defenses and to determine how we can take advantage of these gaps in protection to make the human immune system better defend itself against biofilm-related infections. One of the recent findings, lead by a team of undergraduate students in the lab, has been the discovery that certain genes in the opportunistic pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa regulate biofilm susceptibility to human white blood cell killing. We are actively pursing these leads and will continue to work on elucidating what mechanisms biofilms utilize to escape from being killed by the host and how we can positively regulate the host response so that humans are better protected against biofilm infections.
Catherine Propper, Biology
Dr. Propper uses amphibians as model systems to understand how environmental contaminants impact development, reproduction, and behavior. Specifically, work in her lab tests hypotheses regarding whether individual compounds and complexes mixes impact physiological function.
Diane M. Stearns, Chemistry
The Stearns lab looks at how uranium and chromium interact with DNA to cause mutations that may lead to cancer. We expose isolated DNA or cultured cells to metal complexes and investigate the resulting DNA lesions, for example, strand breaks, crosslinks, and metal-DNA adducts.
Thomas Whitham, Catherine Gehring, and Amy Whipple, Biology
This group of researchers is interested in drought effects in pinyon pine communities. This research area involves ongoing ecological studies in the piñon-juniper woodland surrounding Flagstaff, Arizona. For two decades, this research group has examined environmental controls on interactions among plants, fungi, bacteria, arthropods, and vertebrates through monitoring efforts and long-term experiments that allow them to address the importance of genetically-based resistance traits in piñon pines on community and ecosystem processes. With recent acquisition of new tools for genetic and molecular analysis, researchers are now able to examine how the presence or absence of individual genes translates to higher levels of organization, including population genetics, microbial and plant community composition, and ecosystem function. Similarly, researchers can probe the influence of environmental perturbations, such as the recent drought in the Southwest, on the genetic structure and distribution of pinyon pine trees and dependent

2014 program dates and application deadline

The 2014 Research Experience for Undergraduates in Environmental Sciences program runs from May 27 to August 2, 2014. The application deadline is March 10, 2014.

>> Application

Contact information

Dr. Amy Whipple
Phone: 928-523-8727