By Jack Brymer
The first year of a two-year ecological study of Oak Mountain State Park yielded more than evidence of the Park's importance, according to Samford University biologists Malia Fincher and Betsy Dobbins. They directed the study funded by a $240,000 grant from the National Science Foundation-Research Experience for Undergraduates (NSF-REU).
"The research grant benefits students by developing their research skill within a community of scientists," said Dr. Dobbins. "We focused on training new scientists, addressing wide ranging issues with workshops on integrity and ethics in science, careers in science and statistical analysis."
The grant includes funding for 12 undergraduates from around the nation to study hands-on ecology at the Park during the summers of 2013 and 2014. Oak Mountain is the largest of Alabama's state parks located about 15 miles south of the Samford campus. The 12 students represented 11 colleges and universities in eight states. They were chosen based on their interest in biological research and academic acumen.
"An REU is the best thing a student who is considering a career in science can do," Dobbins said of the importance of the grant and its purpose. The course included field trips to working research sites as well as unique research projects for the students working with faculty mentors.
The students were able to use Samford's Interpretive Center at Oak Mountain Park with the assistance of director David Frings, another biology department faculty member. Frings helped orient the students and served as a mentor. He lauded them for the thoroughness of their research of the park and its "multiple ecosystems."
The students benefitted from the richness and biodiversity of Oak Mountain and Alabama, said Dobbins. "When we think of biodiversity, we usually think of animals, but our plant diversity is an untapped pool of natural products," she said. More than 60 percent of medicines come from a plant source, Dobbins said.
Two representative research projects from students:
The research yielded some valuable information in addition to serving as a training ground for future scientists. For example, Emma Sheffield discovered that the proscribed (controlled) burns at Oak Mountain are NOT increasing the success of the long leaf pine habitat. The long leaf pine habitat is incredibly rich in plants and insects, but less than 3% of the original area is left in the Southeast.
Students Ar'Shundra Hampton and Charlene Farmer looked at the effectiveness of mushroom enzymes in removing estrogens in waste water left by medicine, birth control pills, etc., (there are no regulations concerning estrogens in waste water.) The students demonstrated that the enzyme laccase in the shitake mushroom does break down estrogens, but that enzyme was not present in either of the mushrooms tested from Oak Mountain.
Dan Proud, a Ph.D graduate of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette, served as director of the project. "He has great skills in research design, science writing, community building and incredible patience," said Dobbins.
Projects for the summer of 2014 will be determined by the students working in collaboration with their mentors; therefore, each project will be distinct, although some may continue work begun this summer.