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Undergraduate Research Fellowships

Three Shepherd University biology students have been awarded undergraduate research fellowships by the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium. Kyle Clark of Sterling, Virginia, and Marshall Hoffmaster and Sierra Fowler, both of Hagerstown, Maryland, have each been awarded $4,500 grants giving them the opportunity to work with a Shepherd professor to conduct research over the summer and during the next school year. They were each also awarded an additional $500 to use toward travel to a conference.

Hoffmaster is working with Dr. Jonathan Gilkerson, assistant professor of biology, investigating gene expression patterns in the Arabidopsis thaliana, or mousear cress plant.

“We’re interested in how plants respond to different growth factors, so my lab investigates how a particular peptide growth factor influences plant growth,” Gilkerson said. “Marshall’s going to be investigating how that peptide works to change gene expression to influence plant cell growth.”

A peptide is a compound consisting of two or more amino acids linked in a chain. Gilkerson said there’s a good understanding of how growth in plants is promoted, but not so much about how it’s inhibited.

“Plant growth is a fundamental question in biology because it influences lots of different things that are important in our life, like food production, crop growth, and crop productivity. We need to understand the basic mechanisms by which plants grow,” he said.

Hoffmaster’s goal is to eventually attend medical school with a focus on general surgery.

“I’m hoping by working with Dr. Gilkerson I’ll be able to apply some of my knowledge from this project in medical school with the complex problems I will experience there,” Hoffmaster said.

Clark and Fowler will both work with Dr. Mark Lesser, assistant professor of biology. His research revolves around understanding why plants, particularly trees, grow where they do. Clark will study the effects of acid mine drainage on plants that grow near abandoned coal mines in Tucker County, measuring factors like pH and iron concentrations. He will also document plant species abundance, richness, evenness, and diversity.

Lesser said the data Clark collects will be modeled against soil data and other environmental factors to assess influence of acid mine drainage on plant communities.

“This is really important in providing a better understanding of how to manage mine reclamation work,” Lesser said.

Clark, who eventually wants to earn a Ph.D. and teach, hopes cleaning up acid mine drainage will allow people to get out and enjoy nature more.

“I’ve studied a lot about acid mine drainage and it’s a huge problem in West Virginia,” Clark said. “It’s not always fun to go out hiking and see barren wasteland because acid mine drainage is there and it has destroyed all life. I’ve always wanted to fix this problem. It’s been my dream.”

Fowler, who plans to eventually pursue a Ph.D. in ecosystem health and natural resources management, said her research will focus on how climate change might affect the growth of red oak trees. She will take core samples from trees growing in the Shenandoah National Park to try to determine how elevation, temperature, and moisture affect their growth.

“I know my research is important and highly beneficial because the recent increasing climate change has concerned many scientists as to what will happen to tree communities,” Fowler said. “Once my research has been conducted, I will be able to deduce the reaction that other trees may have.”

“We expect tree species to shift their ranges quite substantially in the coming years,” Lesser added. “Understanding the environmental conditions that tree species perform best under is really important both in understanding how ranges are going to shift and for the proper management of our forests.”

Healthy Eating Initiative

SNAP-Ed participants include (from left) Dr. Danielle Hollar, coordinator; Helen Zumbach, a music education major from Frederick, Maryland; Charlotte Davis, Page Jackson Elementary School kindergarten aid; Dr. Virginia Hicks, dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies; Annika Rochefort, an education major from Shenandoah Junction; Heather Duncan, Eastern Panhandle Conservation District; and Alex Greer, coordinator.

SNAP-Ed participants include (from left) Dr. Danielle Hollar, coordinator; Helen Zumbach, a music education major from Frederick, Maryland; Charlotte Davis, Page Jackson Elementary School kindergarten aid; Dr. Virginia Hicks, dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies; Annika Rochefort, an education major from Shenandoah Junction; Heather Duncan, Eastern Panhandle Conservation District; and Alex Greer, coordinator.

Shepherd University is working with eight elementary schools in Berkeley and Jefferson counties to teach children the benefits of eating healthier foods. Shepherd’s Health, Physical Education, Recreation, and Sport (HPERS) program received a $100,000 subcontract from West Virginia University to implement United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program-Education (SNAP-Ed) gardening education and Smarter Lunchroom programs for the first time in the Eastern Panhandle.

The federal government requires that anyone receiving SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps) have some type of nutrition education to help them learn how to use their benefits wisely. Dr. Danielle Hollar and Alexis Greer are coordinating Shepherd’s efforts in the elementary schools, which includes Marlowe, Mill Creek, Mountain Ridge, and Potomac in Berkeley County and Page Jackson, Ranson, North Jefferson, and Blue Ridge in Jefferson County. Students from Shepherd will also help.

There are two components to the program—gardening education and smarter lunchrooms. Seven of the eight schools will participate in a program that includes classroom instruction as well as time in the garden called Learn, Grow, Eat, Go! Each school is in the process of installing gardens where children will learn to grow fruits and vegetables. Some gardens will be in the ground while others will be in raised beds or containers, depending on how much land the school has.

“I’m excited to be part of this project in bringing nutrition and gardening curriculum to students in both Berkeley and Jefferson counties,” said Greer, who spent 11 years as a public school teacher. “In underfunded communities they often don’t have access or opportunities and this is a great way for the community to get involved, to support nutrition education, and to expose children to healthy, nutritious foods.”

Through the Smarter Lunchroom program, Hollar and Greer work with cafeteria managers and staff at each school to help them market the healthy food they serve, and to make small changes in existing food service activities, with the aim of increasing school meal participation, consumption of nutritious foods, and reducing waste.

“We might give them posters to market whole grains or reduced-fat dairy items,” Hollar said. “We might try to ask them to move their milk around to make sure white milk is up front so that becomes the first choice for children. We might work on lighting, maybe put a nice little light on the food service line to make it feel a little better, or provide fruit in baskets instead of having it on trays. There is a wide variety of things we can do to just the nudge the student to make the healthy choice.”

Two Shepherd students are currently signed up to help with the program. Annika Rochefort of Shenandoah Junction is an education major, and Helen Zumbach of Frederick, Maryland, is a music education major.

“I think nutrition information is really important for children to have,” Rochefort said. “I think it’s a good opportunity to start them young and help them grow through the years.”

“In the education department we do a lot of observing, but not enough hands-on,” Zumbach said. “This is hands-on helping children in the field and it’s a good opportunity.”

Rochfort and Zumbach recently attended a tree planting at Page Jackson Elementary School in Jefferson County where kindergarten students helped plant two apple trees donated to the program by the Eastern Panhandle Conservation District.

“It’s so exciting because they are both going to be teachers,” said Dr. Virginia Hicks, dean of the School of Education and Professional Studies. “They’re very sincere and hardworking.”

Shepherd’s subcontract to carry out SNAP-Ed activities in the Eastern Panhandle as part of the larger statewide federal grant ends in September. Hollar said Shepherd is applying to double the grant for next year which would allow the program to expand so it can offer a food of the month curriculum in schools and a mobile health texting program that will deliver healthy food or gardening messages once a week to parents.

Hollar, who has managed other similar programs through her nonprofit Healthy Networks Design and Research, said teaching children about proper nutrition is an effective way to help families make better choices when they spend their SNAP benefits.

“We’ve had gardens installed at Head Start centers or elementary schools and parents have called the schools asking ‘how do I garden?’ Or they’re calling about something the child has harvested from the garden and has enjoyed and wants to have at home,” Hollar said. “If you focus on particular nutrient-rich foods, if we have targeted education and experiential tasting opportunities, then the children go home and ask for those foods that they’ve tasted in the classroom as part of the gardening education.”