Leah Flaherty with plant samples her students collected in St. Albert this summer.

Biology students contribute to international study on evolution

September 14, 2018 | Science

Just a month ago, students in Dr. Leah Flaherty and Dr. Karen Christensen-Dalsgaard’s Biology 410 class were knee-deep in the grasses of St. Albert’s boulevards and schoolyards, clipping samples of white clover along the Sturgeon River.

It was the perfect way to test out what they were learning in the field ecology techniques course, but the exercise wasn't only academic. Data students gathered from the tiny leaves are contributing to the Global Urban Evolution Project at the University of Toronto.

Leah, who uses Twitter as one way to stay informed of science trends, saw a tweet about the project, which looks at hydrogen cyanide in white clover plants (a common and invasive species that flourishes in urban areas). The U of T research team’s earlier research found that white clovers in Toronto, New York and Boston produced less of the cyanide (which protects the plants from herbivores) the closer they were to downtown. The international project aims to see if the same is true globally.

It was the perfect way to bring real-world research to the classroom, says Leah – something that can often be challenging due to issues like time constraints and quality control.

“This was the first opportunity for the majority of these students to contribute to a ‘real’ research project,” says Leah. “They really stepped up and owned the idea that they needed to make sure the quality of the data they were collecting was really high.”

Summer student research assistants in the Department of Biological Sciences helped design the urban-rural transect – a series of 40 white clover sampling sites that started at the urban core of St. Albert.

Then Biology 410 students took over, splitting into groups of three and heading off with a faculty member or technician to collect roughly 20 individual plant samples at each site. The samples were then brought to the lab and placed in the university’s ultra-low temperature freezer.

Next students headed into the lab, analyzing samples from each site to see if cyanide was present. Their results were sent off to Toronto and will be added to data collected around the world.

The exposure to this “real-life” research project is something Leah says the students really valued. “There are always roadblocks and things you don’t expect along the way,” she says. “Understanding the importance of quality control, and thinking and planning in advance are a few of the things students identified as being really valuable.”

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The Dr. Sherrill Brown Distinguished Research Award is granted periodically to recognize scholarly excellence of faculty whose research, scholarship or creative activity have made significant contributions to society and the scholarly community within local, national or international contexts.

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