Summer at Calder Inspires Future Ecologists

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Thanks to a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), 11 undergraduates spent their summer doing original conservation biology and environmental policy-related research at Fordham’s 113-acre Calder Center Biological Field Station.

The students were part of the 2011 Calder Summer Undergraduate Research Program (CSUR), an NSF program designed to offer research experience to undergraduates regardless of their financial means.

On Aug. 17, the students presented their original research projects at a symposium on the Rose Hill campus.

“These students are well on their way to becoming professional scientists,” said John Wehr, Ph.D., director of the Calder Center and co-director of CSUR. “We hope this program has been an important stepping stone for them.”

For Rachel Coffey, a Fordham College at Rose Hill junior, doing a project on the hybridization of two types of sunfish found in the Calder Lake was definitely galvanizing. The biology major spent the summer snorkeling in the lake to observe the behaviors of the Redbreast Sunfish and the Pumpkinseed Sunfish, whose breeding seasons overlap. She extracted DNA samples from each of the fish breeds and from the eggs they were guarding, to compare their genetic makeup for signs of cross-breeding.

“It was my first laboratory experience,” Coffey said, “and now I appreciate this kind of work a lot more.”

Shampa Panda, a junior from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said her project studying the causes of algae blooms in nearby North Lake cemented her interest in being a scientist.

“I got to collect all of my own data and to interpret it,” Panda said. “Even though I had two professional mentors, I felt I had real ownership of the project. It was a phenomenal opportunity.”

The 12-week, intensive research program helped students learn the fundamentals of experimental design, how to collect data and analyze it, and how to prepare and deliver an oral presentation of their findings.

This year’s symposium, Wehr said, was unique in that Fordham collaborated more with its research partners, including the New York Botanical Gardens (NYBG) and the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Coffey said she even received funding from the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, which enabled her to use the American Museum of Natural History’s DNA analyzer to parse her genetic data on the two sunfishes she studied.

“Our collaborations have deepened the program and improved the quality of work and opportunities that our students have,” Wehr said.

More than 100 students from all over the country applied to participate in the highly selective program, in which they are given housing and paid to conduct research under the mentorship of Fordham faculty and biological science professionals.

Other student projects included a comparison of genetic biodiversity between the NYBG, Calder and Black Rock Forest, a study of the feeding ecology of biting and sucking Darter fishes, and an analysis of the optimum square footage for accurately counting ticks in a wooded area.

Evon Hekkala, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology, gave a keynote talk focusing on her recent collaborative research studying the genetic makeup of certain extinct species. Like the summer projects, Hekkala said that all of her research has been collaborative.

“Science is never done by one individual,” she said.

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