SPUR 2022: Pollen Metagenomics

Background

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.

Student Role

Professor Steffen mentors a unique research group, exclusively composed of undergraduate researchers. As such, students choosing to work on this project would be working directly with professor Steffen and a small cohort of peers. Students will share general lab responsibilities and based on their interest, select specific components of the larger lab project as focus of their own. In this group students learn fundamentals of molecular biology research, are introduced to the basics of informatics and data analysis, and also receive an introduction to working in the field. A typical day may include reviewing literature as a group, culturing microbes, collecting environmental samples, carrying out molecular assays in lab, and discussing the challenges of research with peers. Undergraduate researchers are expected to participate in two weekly group meetings and an individual meeting each week with professor Steffen. Students will be expected to work 35-40 hours per week and take advantage of all SPUR-required activities.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

Students will be introduced to a wide breadth of research techniques. While this project is focused on specific set of biological systems (assaying foraging behaviors of pollinators) the approaches and tools we use in lab can be applied to almost any research setting associated with Biology. After completion of this summer research experience students should become comfortable reading primary literature, become familiar with common computational tools use in biological sciences, be able to evaluate the experimental outcomes and propose next steps, and practice sharing scientific findings in multiple formats. Professor Steffen hopes that students who work with his group are prepared to engage more deeply in research activities and become more aware of how to align their scientific interests with academic activities and professional aspirations.

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Joshua Steffen
Assistant Professor (Lecturer)

School of Biological Sciences
College of Science

Students working with professor Steffen should expect regular and clear communication about expectations. He will work closely with each student to identify their strengths and provide opportunities for students to leverage these strengths to make valuable research contributions. In addition, students working with professor Steffen will be asked to self-reflect to identify areas where they see opportunities for growth. Students will be expected to actively engage in the mentorship process to help professor Steffen provide the resources and feedback needed to facilitate growth as a researcher. Finally, students should view this experience, and associated mentorship connections, as one piece of the mentorship network they can rely on throughout their education. Professor Steffen will work with students to help make connections with other professionals that can help foster career development.