What do you call a group of students who share an interest in subjects like ants, water bears and capybaras?
A biology collaboration, of course.
On Dec. 5, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga fourth-year students enrolled in the ant ecology course taught by UC Foundation Assistant Professor DeAnna Beasley, the meiofaunal biodiversity course taught by Assistant Professor Francesca Leasi or the animal physiology course taught by Professor Loren Hayes gathered in the University Center Tennessee Room to present posters of their research.
The blending of the different disciplines for the biology poster social stemmed from a discussion the faculty members had about tying a research theme together for their individual classes—all of which met at the same hour this semester.
“The courses are not necessarily aligned conceptually,” Hayes explained, “yet we’re having our students do research projects where they test hypotheses. Then they’re coming together and sharing that experience.
“By bringing the disciplines together, students get exposed to what other students are doing. We’re trying to teach scientific method across the curriculum in biology, and I think this is an ideal way of doing it.”
More than two dozen posters were produced, with the social allowing students—some graduating next week—to mingle, explore the work of their peers and write summaries about different biology disciplines.
“The research projects presented at the poster session allowed the students to participate in a group high-impact practice which significantly enhances their learning,” said Dr. Gretchen Potts, the department head for Biology, Geology and Environmental Science. “I thank Dr. Beasley, Dr. Hayes and Dr. Leasi for collaborating on this unique opportunity.”
Hayes said bringing the different biology disciplines together was more than just an opportunity for students to see each other’s work; it was a way to get faculty together.
“It’s been remarkable working with Dr. Beasley and Dr. Leasi because I get a better understanding of the kinds of things that they’re interested in scientifically,” he said. “They came up with things I would never have thought of.
“I think it speaks to thinking creatively about how we can be more collaborative in our teaching.”
While Hayes’ area of research expertise is the social evolution of mammals, Leasi’s specialty, meiofaunal biodiversity, focuses on the tiniest animals on earth.
“Meiofaunal includes animals that are microscopic; basically, my students need to use a microscope to see these microscopic animals that mostly live in aquatic ecosystems,” Leasi explained.
She said she noticed a difference when her class learned they would be presenting to other courses.
“I’m pretty happy to see that the students feel some sort of competition to make the best poster,” Leasi said, “and I’m happy to see my students being more engaged when they are involved with other disciplines and other people.”
Beasley’s background is in urban ecology, saying she is interested in how organisms respond to environmental changes associated with a city.
“As I started working more and more with ants, I came to appreciate how ant societies can tell us something about how other societies may respond to environmental change,” she said, “and as we think about insect societies and the challenges that they’re facing, they’re very similar to the challenges that human populations face. It gives us a lens through which to have these conversations.”
She said that having the chance to discuss those topics with people from different fields raised the conversation level.
“We are such a diverse department in terms of the different questions and organisms that we study,” Beasley said, “and this is an opportunity for students to have a celebration, a moment of accomplishment of how they managed these projects from beginning to end.
“I’m hoping this will be the start of a BGE tradition highlighting the hard work of our students.”
The presentation posters were literally all over the board.
Among the student presenters were Madison Cassella and Mitch Trice, who worked together on “Observed behaviors of Solenopsis invicta when exposed to different concentrations of permethrin pesticide.”
Simply put, they exposed fire ants to various concentrations of pesticides to observe behavioral changes.
“During our observations, we would tally what we see,” Cassella said, “and then we used the frequencies and statistical analysis to get what was significant.”
Said Trice, “Ultimately, the major activities that we saw from our ethogram were self-grooming, temporary immobilization and exploration of the container that we introduced them to. Self-grooming was not statistically significant due to the number of replicates. Temporary mobilization was shown to increase as the dose increases, which makes sense—it’s a paralytic—and exploration was shown to decrease.”
Cassella and Trice were just as eager to view the posters of their peers as they were to describe their project.
“I’ve never done a poster before,” Cassella said, “so I was pretty excited to show off my work. We worked really hard on this and it’s fun to see what everyone else is studying.”
“Yeah, it’s good to see what they’re working on,” Trice added, “and I’ll be hanging out with friends. I’m curious to see these projects I’ve heard so much about.”
Ashley Altman, Makaila Harris and Emily Molino worked together on “Trees of Life and Abundance: Do different tree species dictate the diversity of meiofauna?”
“Meiofauna is typically in aquatic environments, but there are terrestrial organisms as well,” Altman said, “so we wanted to test the abundance of the terrestrial organisms among different tree species.”
“We collected our samples from pecan, oak, magnolia and pine trees,” Harris said, “and we took the bark from every tree—the litter and the moss, too. Then we looked under the microscope to count how many meiofauna were in each species.”
“When you compared the bark and litter,” Molino added, “the bark was where we were finding all of our meiofauna. The litter had little to none. Our hypothesis was supported; we did see a difference between the tree species.”
The faculty members awarded the top teams in each discipline with 3D-printed “trophies.”
Pete Brower and Georgia Greer (ant ecology) were presented with giant yellow replica ants for “A Comparison of Fungal Diversity Associated with Solenopsis invicta in Rural & Urban Habitats.”
Megan Ferrell, Teagan Murphy and Zachary Hendren (animal physiology) received capybaras—the largest living rodents—for “Effects of Dormancy on the Metabolic Rate of Tenebrio molitor Life Stages.”
Skylar Calkins and Ermaya Wise (meiofaunal biodiversity) won oversized water bears—the smallest living organism, measuring just 0.5 millimeters in length—for “Effects of pH on Survival of Daphnia.”
“Our hypothesis was that we were looking at Daphnia to be more productive and reproduce in pHs in their natural habitat,” Wise said of Daphnia, otherwise known as a small water flea, “but we actually found that they were reproducing and living or surviving under basic conditions. They didn’t really survive in the acidic pHs.”
Calkins was all smiles going home with a souvenir commemorating their work.
“We put in a lot of effort, hours in the lab, really had to be patient. We had to count out each of these organisms individually. It was 210 Daphnia in all for each trial—with a total of three trials—so a lot of Daphnia to count.
“It’s really fulfilling and feels very appreciated to be recognized.”