picture of Jennifer Boyd

Dr. Boyd is currently working in her 12th semester at UTC. She teaches ecology and climate change biology. We selected Dr. Boyd for this month’s faculty highlight because of the grant she was awarded in Fall of 2013. Dr. Boyd’s ecology class is coupled with a lab that traditionally required students to conduct experiments on the local flora and fauna. Unfortunately, the experiments were so local they were primarily limited to areas within walking distance of campus. Some of the students studied squirrels in the cemetery while others studied the foliage around campus. In the meantime, Dr. Boyd was conducting her own research on a rare species of orchid that grows a few hours away from Chattanooga.

The species Dr. Boyd is interested in only grows in the area she is studying. She has been concerned for some time that it may be endangered, but currently it is not listed as an endangered species. The rarity of a species does not automatically qualify it for endangered status. In order to register a species as endangered, there must be evidence to support that the population is in decline and the researcher must propose methods for managing the species.

Last year Dr. Boyd decided to incorporate her interest in this specific species into her ecology lab. She did this by asking the students to develop a research plan regarding the rare orchids. The purpose of the research was to determine if the species was endangered or not, based upon national guidelines. It was up to the students to figure out what needed to be measured and how the plan would be executed.

The students decided to map an area where the species is found with a grid system and then count the number of orchids found in each section of the grid. After counting the number of orchids they planned to measure light factors, soil factors and other possible variables in each section of the grid. Unfortunately, upon their arrival at the site they found hundreds of snakes had inhabited the area since the last time Dr. Boyd had visited. She couldn’t safely ask the students to conduct their measurements in the area with the threat of poisonous snakebites.

picture of a copperhead snake in a field

Above is a photo of beautiful orchids and a copperhead.

In order to conduct the research, Dr. Boyd asked for a grant from the Think Achieve program to provide snake-proofing garb for the students. Once the students had the appropriate gear they were able to go in an conduct their experiments in the area.

The experiments didn’t turn up any evidence to support the endangerment of this rare species, but it did provide the students with a unique hands-on experience related to their field. Students are graded on the process rather than the outcome. When the next class takes on the task they will assess the job the previous class did before moving forward. The next experiment will be based upon the strengths of the previous research and will attempt to address alternative hypothesis that were not studied in the previous class.

This assignment is unique for students and professors. The most interesting part about it is that the professor does not have an answer key. Dr. Boyd had no idea how the results would come out when the assignment was over and that made it even more interesting for everyone involved. After all, that is how science works.

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