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Three biology students receive NASA research fellowships

ISSUED: 6 May 2016
MEDIA CONTACT: Valerie Owens

SHEPHERDSTOWN, WV — 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 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.”

Listen to the interview HERE.

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