SPUR 2022 Projects: Science

School of biological sciences | college of science


FOREST RESILIENCE: EXPLORING FACTORS THAT IMPACT TREE PHYSIOLOGICAL RESPONSES TO DROUGHT

William Anderegg, Associate Professor

Climate change, especially in the western United States, is predicted to bring more frequent droughts and higher temperatures which threaten our ecologically and economically important forests. The future of western US forests in a rapidly changing climate hinges around how trees can survive climate stress, like drought. The lab studies the effects of climate change on forests, and our research specifically focuses on the physiological health of individual trees affected by drought and fire. Our goal is to determine how forests are responding to climate change, what areas/ species are most at risk, and how they may be able to recover. Our research will help illuminate when and where forests may be resilient or at risk as the climate continues to change, which matters enormously to society in terms of land management, carbon sequestration, ecosystem services like tourism, and our western landscapes.

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Chemistry | College of Science


STUDYING THE EFFECT OF BELONGING AND INCLUSIVITY IN INTRODUCTORY STEM COURSES

Regina Frey, Professor

Students in introductory STEM courses often have concerns about whether they will be academically successful in large university courses, but many have an additional concern that maybe “people like me don’t belong in this course.” This concern is called belonging uncertainty and is related to the insecurity someone feels because of their identities. While the transition to college is challenging for most students, this challenge may be increased for students from under-resourced or underrepresented groups who may feel alienated by the institution’s cultural norms and therefore experience low or uncertain belonging. These belonging concerns may be especially acute in large, primarily lecture-based, introductory STEM courses, where rigorous coursework is combined with an unfamiliar learning environment in that the course size is larger than with what students are accustomed, and there are limited opportunities for individual interaction with the instructor during class. In our group, we are studying the effect that course-level student belonging has on student performance and retention in the course. We have found at two different institutions, course-level belonging affects student performance in large general chemistry courses. Expanding upon these studies, we are interested in understanding the mechanism of how social belonging affects course performance and retention. One step in determining the mechanism is to explore the characteristics of the course that students use when describing their sense of belonging. Our goal is to help instructors create course environments that support and encourage all students to reach their potential and continue to pursue careers in STEM or healthcare.

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School of Biological Sciences | College of Science


PERTURBATION OF MESODERM DIVERSIFICATION DURING VERTEBRATE DEVELOPMENT

James Gagnon, Assistant Professor

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Embryos develop from a pool of equivalent “stem cells” into adults composed of thousands of different cell types organized into tissues and organs. What are the mechanisms that choreograph such a complex process, such that that majority of embryos develop correctly into healthy adults? How do these mechanisms go wrong in diseases? Over the past century, developmental geneticists have carefully studied these mechanisms one gene at a time, to understand their role in this larger process. Our lab is taking a different approach adapted from systems biology. We have developed CRISPR tools for large-scale perturbation of gene regulatory networks in embryos, and combined them with single-cell sequencing methods for sensitive and detailed descriptions of the consequences of each perturbation. Now that we have these tools in hand, we are focused on the network of genes that control mesoderm specification and diversification. Mesoderm is formed early in the embryo, and diversifies during development to generate muscles, skeletal tissue, and organs such as the kidney, ovary and testis in adults. While we can appreciate the importance of mesoderm, we have a poor understanding of the gene regulatory networks that underlie its formation and diversification.

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School of Biological Sciences | college of Science


POLLEN METAGENOMICS

Joshua Steffen, Assistant Professor (Lecturer)

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Utah is home to an astonishing diversity of native bee species. Recent estimates suggest that over 900 bee species call Utah home including more than 100 at Red Butte Garden alone. Compared with honey bees, relatively little is known about the vast majority of these native bee species. To support native bees, and the plant species they pollinate, we need to gain a better understanding of their basic biology.

Most research describing the foraging behavior of bee species uses approaches that are quite labor intensive or require specialized expertise. We are developing and testing molecular approaches that allow us to more efficiently categorize the pollen, microbes, and fungi collected and distributed by pollinators. Our research group will be employing a molecular approach called DNA metabarcoding to assay foraging behavior. DNA metabarcoding has the potential to reveal all the species in an environmental sample based upon the DNA sequences that are present in that sample. Over the course of the next year undergraduates working with on this project will test molecular protocols, collect native pollinators in the field, and use bioinformatic tools to provide accurate descriptions of the foraging behavior native pollinators. By gaining a nuanced understanding of foraging behavior we will be able to better inform practices used to support the health and diversity of plants and pollinators in native ecosystems.

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