Sarah Banks, Staff Writer
In March, eleven Warren Wilson students presented their Natural Science Seminar presentations to an audience of fellow students, professors and researchers at the North Carolina Academy of Science in Raleigh. Seven students won Derieux prizes for their undergraduate research in the designated fields of Chemistry & Biochemistry, Botany, Zoology and Environmental Science.
The experience of researching and presenting an original topic for an NSS is one of the most rigorous academic experiences at Wilson. Over the course of three semesters, students majoring in scientific fields design and implicate their own research with a teacher mentor.
“This experience has the potential to be our most valuable experience here,” Chemistry Professor Dean Kahl said. “Undergraduate research gives students a better sense of the scientific world, and a more realistic lab experience.”
Warren Wilson students have won more awards for undergraduate research than any other college in North Carolina.
“I felt that we had an unfair advantage over the other schools because of our NSS program.” senior Amy Wagner said. “It wasn’t that the other presentations weren’t good, but they didn’t have the support that we do in the mentor program.”
“The strength of our program is that it is student-driven: students decide what to research,” Kahl said.
“The chief quality that makes a good NSS isn’t a flashy topic, or flashy methods—it’s perseverance,” senior Jesse Rickard said. “Things are going to go wrong: you’ll run out of money, lose data, equipment will break. You have to expect that, and set up multiple experiments, and plow through.”
Many students who have completed their NSS have said that the program, while being one of the greatest academic challenges here, is also one of the greatest rewards.
“Presenting at the N.C.A.S. was less nerve-wracking than presenting here,” senior Laurel Thwing said. “It was a great opportunity for networking, and learning more about the scientific community.”
Senior Ali Gore received first place for her research in Chemistry & Biochemistry. Her research involved using molecular modeling to predict the outcomes of certain chemical reactions called elimination reactions. Gore used computational chemistry, which uses quantum mechanics to predict the properties of a molecule. Gore then tested the predicted outcomes in the lab using wet chemistry.
Gore used cyclopentyl alcohol to study three particular elimination reactions.
“I wanted to do my NSS on pure chemistry,” Gore said. “Before doing this research, I practiced the same experiment with less expensive materials, to develop the technique. Each reaction ran five hours, but the computational chemistry was relatively quick.”
“I was lucky to conduct undergrad research and work closely academic adviser; it’s a great opportunity for science students.” Gore said.
Dean Kahl, chemistry professor, was Gore’s mentor.
Gore, who is a chemistry major, plans to work in the Bannerman Technology Center over the summer, and eventually go to graduate school for neuroscience.
Laurel Thwing, senior, received second place in botany for her research on the plant Galax. Galax, which is a ground cover plant, is a $10–30 million industry annually in Western North Carolina. Thwing tested sustainable propagation techniques, using different soil samples and methods to measure the reproductive growth of the plant.
“I found out about Galax, which is a hot-button issue and decided to do my research on it,” Thwing said. “Taking a crack at the Galax issue would give me a way to stand out in my field.”
Thwing’s Galax research was a two-year process.
“I had two unsuccessful trials before I was successful,” Thwing said. “I’m planning to continue with Galax research at a graduate school in the area because it’s an issue for South-Eastern Appalachia.”
David Ellum, professor of sustainable forestry, and Amy Boyd, professor of biology and environmental science, were Thwing’s mentors.
Thwing, who is a sustainable forestry major, plans to take some time off before continuing her research. She recommends doing an NSS on Galax.
Octavia Sola, senior, received third place in zoology for her work on shore bird interaction with humans. Sola spent the summer of 2010 as a University of North Carolina Marine Lab intern researching bird activity on the coast of North Carolina on a marine base at Onslow beach. Her research examined the differences in shore bird behavior and diversity between three areas on the beach: the marine area with heavy equipment activity, like tanks, the recreation center, with human activity, and a control area without human activity.
Sola’s findings indicated that shore birds—who were preparing their fat stores for winter migration—spent less time foraging for food in the human populated recreational center.
“We couldn’t analyze the Military Training zone statistically because there were so few birds seen at that site, which was disappointing,” Sola said.
The field study involved three hour periods of bird watching with binoculars or bird scopes.
“After spotting a bird, we would watch the bird for one whole minute,” Sola said. “There had to be one person in each zone, at the same time, to omit daytime irregularities.”
Amy Boyd, professor of biology and environmental science, was Sola’s mentor at Warren Wilson.
Sola, a conservation biology major, plans to return to UNC Marine Lab as a Teaching Assistant for the summer.
Senior Linden Blaisus received second place in Environmental Science for his work on the invasive species, Rosa multiflora, and its growth relationship to Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and shading. Blaisus built a growth chamber with four different sections, with two CO2 levels and two shading levels, to measure the effects of both shade and CO2.
“I figured growing an invasive species would be easy,” Blaisus said. “I wanted to see what increasing CO2 will do to the rose population.”
CO2 levels in the atmosphere are increasing, and are projected to increase substantially by 2100.
“The way plants are growing is changing” Blaisus said. “I wanted to see if Rosa multiflora would become a worse invasive if the CO2 levels changed.”
“The roses didn’t react the way I thought they would,” Blaisus continued. “The increased CO2 didn’t affect them, but I had trouble with the vent fans–they fluctuated the CO2 levels.”
Blaisus found shading to negatively affect the growth of the roses.
David Ellum, professor of sustainable forestry, was Blaisus’ mentor.
Blaisus, who is an Environmental Science major with concentrations in Environmental Chemistry and Forestry, plans to return to Arkansas after graduation.
Taija Ventrella, senior, received second place in Chemistry and Biochemisty for her research on antioxidants in juices. Ventrella tested the antioxidant levels of pomegranate, blueberry and acai juices with the brands Bom Dia, Bossa Nova, POM Wonderful and Sambazon.
“I like pomegranates and blueberries, and it was a project that seemed interesting to me,” Ventrella said.
“The process of measuring the antioxidants was really tedious. It only took 4 minutes to run one test, but I had to run the same test about one hundred and fifty times,” Ventrella said. “There were a lot of late nights in the science building.”
Ventrella found POM Wonderful to have the highest vitamin content.
“Although NSS seems like a really daunting process, it is a really valuable experience,” Ventrella said.
Vicki Collins, chemistry professor, was Ventrella’s mentor.
Ventrella, a Biochemistry major, has tentative plans to go to Mexico City for the summer after graduation.
Senior Jesse Rickard received first place in Environmental Science for his research on the forest management effects on soil respiration, or the release of CO2 from carbon stores in the soil. On Christmas Tree Hill, Rickard tested the carbon levels in soil in three areas of the forest: an area with single trees or clusters of trees were removed, an area where every third row of trees had been cut, and a small coppice, or patch-cut area. He tested the light, soil temperature, soil moisture, and humidity levels of the three areas of forest.
Rickard’s findings suggest that a greater opening in the tree canopy will result in a greater loss of stored carbon in the soil, and a greater release of CO2 .
“My research is part of a larger movement to quantify the carbon storage and carbon fluxes on the school’s property,” Rickard said.
David Ellum, professor of sustainble forestry, was Rickard’s mentor.
Rickard, who is majoring in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Forestry, plans to get a Master’s degree, and continue working in forestry and Silvaculture.
Amy Wagner, senior, received first place in zoology for her research on Wood Frog tadpoles’ ability to adapt in the presence of predators.Wagner raised the tadpoles in the caged presence of their natural predators, dragonfly larvae.
After their metamorphosis, Wagner tested the froglets’ jumping ability to determine whether the deeper tail would translate to altered adult traits and improved jumping performance.
”My research is part of a larger question of what’s happening in our ponds, and preventing amphibian decline,” Wagner said.
“The process was intensive,” Wagner continued.“I spent two or three hours a day with the tadpoles, hovering over them, making sure that I had covered all of my bases. In the end, I had sixty-six froglets, and I measured three of their jumps. The videos of this are hilarious – I showed it my presentation and everyone laughed.”
Lou Weber, biology and environmental professor, was Wagner’s mentor.
Wagner, who is a conservation biology major, plans to work for a year, and then go to graduate school.