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Health, Science, Environment

St. Louis-area students experience scientific research firsthand

Tyson scientist Solny Adalsteinsson, left, helps Wash U sophomore Olivia Arias, center, and Webster Groves High School senior Julia Berndt check the photos on a motion-triggered wildlife camera on July 27, 2018.
Tyson scientist Solny Adalsteinsson, left, helps Wash U sophomore Olivia Arias, center, and Webster Groves High School senior Julia Berndt check the photos on a motion-triggered wildlife camera.

Julia Berndt kneels on the forest floor and picks up a crushed eggshell from an experimental bird nest.

The Webster Groves High School senior has spent nearly three months working at Washington University’s Tyson Research Center near Eureka. The summer program pairs St. Louis-area students with scientists who help them design their own independent-research projects.

Berndt is studying how controlled fires — also known as prescribed burns — affect the predators that eat bird eggs.

“Something was clearly tugging at this nest,” she said, leaning in for a closer look.

To pinpoint the culprit, Washington University sophomore Oliva Arias checks the images on the nearby motion-triggered wildlife camera.

The evidence is irrefutable. In one image, a racoon reaches into the nest with the nonchalance of selecting an apple at the grocery store. The next photo captures the tip of a furry ear, after the racoon notices the camera and comes close to investigate.

The goal of the nest-predation study is to understand why some bird populations — especially those that nest close to the ground — decline after prescribed fires.

It’s possible that fire burns away the low-lying vegetation, leaving the nests more exposed to predators, said Anirudh Gandhi. The Wash U junior designed the study, with help from Tyson scientist Solny Adalsteinsson.

To test this idea, he bought artificial bird nests from an online craft store, placed them in previously burned and unburned forest plots, and stocked them with quail eggs.

After setting up wildlife cameras near the nests, Gandhi waited.

The wildlife cameras take a series of five photos each time motion is detected near the experimental bird nests. Using a memory card reader, the students are able to check the photos in the field on a cell phone.
Shahla Farzan | St. Louis Public Radio

“There’s a lot of planning that goes into it,” he said. “Initially, I was focusing more on the results of what we were setting out to do, but you have to focus on the methods as much as the results.”

Adalsteinsson said that’s the point of the student research program: to emphasize that science is a process.

“When they do read about scientific studies in the news, hopefully they can picture what goes on behind the scenes and the many, many iterations it takes to get the experiment right,” said Adalsteinsson, who helps mentor the students.  

Not all of the students who participate in the program are biology majors, and for some, like Olivia Arias, this is their first taste of scientific research.

“I’m getting to do something that’s out of my comfort zone, and that’s challenged me academically,” said Arias, who majors in environmental policy at Wash U. “I’m thinking in a totally different way than I normally do.”

Arias has spent the summer investigating how tick host-seeking behavior changes over the course of the day, as temperature and humidity fluctuate.

Her tick-collecting strategy was simple yet effective: dragging strips of cloth through the forest and prairie.

“Ticks are really cool,” Arias said. “When you’re looking at them really up close under the microscope, their anatomy is really awesome.”

This year, the five students in the Tyson research program hail from Wash U, Harris-Stowe University and Webster Groves High School. After completing their research projects, they will present their results this fall at the Washington University Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

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