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Biodiversity Blog


Biodiversity Center Sponsors Freshman Research Initiative Course

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 Biodiversity Discovery FRI Students Christiana Peek, Evan Samsky, Hannah Gilbreath, Thomas Johnston and Ari Nehrbass prepare to sample vegetation at BFL (Photo: Alejandro Santillana)

By Nicole Elmer and Dr. Susan Devitt

The Freshman Research Initiative is a pioneering program allowing first-year students chances for hands-on research with UT faculty and graduate students. This year-long program increases the likelihood that students remain in college and complete math and science degrees.

The Biodiversity Center is sponsoring a Freshman Research Initiative course in Biodiversity Discovery. Taught by Dr. Susan Devitt, the stream caters to students who are interested in ecology, evolution, natural history, medicine, molecular biology, animal behavior, and environmental science. Students do a great deal of research not only in a traditional lab setting, but also at the two field labs of the Biodiversity Center: Brackenridge Field Lab (BFL) and Stengl Lost Pines (SLP). The course kicked off in January 2018, welcoming 28 students and eight peer mentors and will eventually grow to 38 freshman students.

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 FRI students Christiana Peel, Evan Samsky and Ari Nehrbass collecting data at BFL (Photo: Alejandro Santillana )

At the field stations students work on their own or in groups, observing as well as collecting specimens. The Biodiversity Discovery group has established a series of 12 permanent plots at BFL that they will monitor every semester. These plots are in an area where invasive plants have been removed and the regular monitoring will allow researchers and station managers to measure how effective this invasive removal is and if native plants are recovering. In addition, the students keep a field journal and take regular independent observations at BFL. Field work such as this helps refine the biologist’s “eye.”

The Biodiversity Discovery stream has a full molecular lab where they measure and catalogue the specimens they have collected in the field and use molecular and genetic tools to uncover evolutionary history and intraspecies relationships. Since much of the core focus of the course is about understanding Biodiversity — how to quantify and measure it by species, the lab work focus on species is especially important to the course mission. Even within the Austin area where students work, species deemed as “new” to science contribute to the understanding and conservation of biodiversity.

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 FRI Peer Mentor Hannah Gilbreath photographs Eurycea salamanders in the herpetology collection at Pickle Research Center (Photo: Alejandro Santillana)

At the end of the first semester, students begin independent projects, often related to larger projects going on in the lab. This allows students to focus on research more tailored to their academic interests. Some projects have included measuring undescribed Eurycea salamanders in order to describe a new species, assessing social structure of fire ant colonies from their hometowns, and how native leaf cutter ants Atta texana utilize non-native species of plants.

To learn more about the course, please visit: https://cns.utexas.edu/component/cobalt/item/3137-biodiversity?Itemid=1971

To learn more about the Freshman Research Initiative, please visit: https://cns.utexas.edu/fri




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