Researchers in SBE as well as the Engineering Department are taking advantage of radio-controlled planes to solve the mysteries of bird migration. Brian Barainca, a mechanical engineering student, has been building radio-controlled (RC) planes ever since he was in high school. When SBE Professor Rebecca Holberton saw him flying his RC planes on campus, she called upon him to help with bird migration research, and it has been an adventure ever since.Ani Varjabedian, a student in SBE’s Zoology program, was working in Professor Holberton’s acoustics lab and started working on the RC plane project in order to bring a biological perspective to it. “I’m interested in using the plane to test different altitudes of bird flight and where we can see the most birds,” explained Varjabedian. The goal of using a plane to observe bird migration is to view birds without disturbance and at a closer proximity. “You have to get pretty close to birds when you view them on the ground, which could disturb them,” explained Barainca, “but with the plane you can step back and get to where you need to go.” In this way, the plane reduces error by eliminating human presence from observation.
The plane works via a remote control by someone on the ground. A camera on the front of the plane sends live video footage to the controller in order for the controller to see exactly where the plane is going. Although the current camera on the plane is great for live viewing, Barainca hopes to get a new camera that is higher quality for recording. Also, the camera is not equipped to see if there are birds right below the plane, which Barainca hopes to also improve.
The researchers ideally want to survey shorebird populations and find migration patterns. The plane will hopefully be able to track birds with radio frequency signals. Tagging birds with radio tags has not been successful in the past because researchers don’t necessarily know where the birds go. If the plane can detect tagged birds it will be monumental for migration research.
Barainca is obsessed with aircraft. Although he already knew how to build planes, his engineering education has helped him apply what he has learned to biology. “Airplanes brought me to mechanical engineering, and my major has helped me analyze stress on the plane,” he said. Best of luck to Professor Holberton, Ani Varjabedian and Brian Barainca as they soar to a new level of bird research.
The purpose of the course is to be able to identify species of birds by sight and sound, and to be able to understand how specific birds are related to each other and how they are adapted to the environment. “I like the lectures because they are a lot of fun. I love learning about birds. They are unlike any other species on earth…I had heard that this class was the most sought after undergraduate ecology class at UMaine. I knew that it would be interesting, because I had Brian Olsen as a professor in BIO 100 & 200” explains Dana Freshley, a student studying communication with a minor in biology. This course allows students to see how all the interdisciplinary aspects of an organism’s environment play a role in the interaction of all living organisms.
“Biology is often taught through reductionism. Students learn about each system and biological mechanism isolated from all of the other things going on at the same time…The beauty of organismal sciences is that we get to talk about the nexus among the biological sub disciplines using a single organism as a semester long case study…I think that adds a needed flavor to how a student then interprets their other classes” explains Olsen.
In the lab, which is not a requirement, Olsen gives his students exposure to some of the major methods currently used by avian biologists. These methods provide students with pertinent skills by teaching his students identification skills without relying on a guidebook, or an iPhone, though these things are great resources for ecologist currently. Along with knowledge of general fieldwork procedure, the course exposes students to Program R (a very common program used by biologists), mist netting and capturing techniques, and how to use the necessary technology for ornithology, such as radio telemetry. These necessary skills provide students with building blocks for future work with birds in the eastern North America.
Olsen assigns his students a semester long project that will help improve their ability to construct a formal research paper. Students are able to design a field project, and analyze the data using the Program R mentioned above. Throughout the semester, students present on their research project, giving them multiple opportunities to receive input from their professor as well as their classmates. Dana Freshley and India Stewart, both current students in Avian Biology& Ecology, decided to do their research on the American Crow. Their project involves fieldwork in which they visit 6 birding spots a week, testing population habitat as a function of temperature. They will be presenting their results in a few weeks.
Olsen’s love for Avian Studies was sparked during a summer field job he acquired in the summer before his sophomore year college. He became a field site surveyor in the White Mountains, and from this experience his love for avian studies began to emerge. Olsen described his passion for Avian Studies as “A slow growing love.”
“Brian always keeps you alert, attentive, and he uses his sense of humor to teach his class. He always looks at the broader picture of ecology which makes him a great ecologist,” says Dana, a student of Olsen.
Olsen has been a valued member of our SBE Faculty since 2008. He has been teaching this course for five years, and he is still surprised and delighted by the diverse ways students handle difficult questions. “I really enjoy watching students grapple with open ended scenarios…when we work on hypothetical applications of biological theory, especially when students construct and defend answers that were far removed from what I expected” said Olsen. Olsen runs a research lab called “The Olsen Lab” with help from several undergraduate and graduate students. The research he focuses on in his Avian Biology course is not directly correlated to his personal research, though he does recruit potential students for his research in the Olsen Lab.
“In terms of research, I find a deep abiding joy by indulging my own intellectual curiosity and working with graduate students is deeply rewarding…to work with some of the best students form the undergraduate pool …allows for both the teaching relationship and the abilities of the students to grow. It is a pretty awesome experience.”
Good luck to Professor Olsen and his students as they finish up the rest of their semester.
Graduate student Jenny Shrum is as excited as ever to start her new project on maple trees this spring. She is interested in the role of sugar maples in the Northeast and is examining how climate change may shape this role. The first part of her study explores the plausibility of using traits expressed at the edge of a species’ range to help cope with climate change. In the case of sugar maples, she is interested in finding out if trees from other regions might actually be better suited to the conditions Maine will be experiencing in fifty years. If so, foresters and syrup producers may be able to plan sugar maple seeds from those regions here. Many people think that tree species exist here because they are best adapted to this environment, but that’s not always the case. “We might be able to utilize specific characteristics adapted by a certain subpopulation to help a forest or sugar bush to thrive despite climate change.” The second part of her study will try to draw correlations between sap flow and weather conditions to better understand how the sugaring season is likely to be affected as the severity, length, and timing of winter changes in the decades to come.
Shrum is a Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate Program in Ecology and Environmental Sciences and is working under SBE professor Brian McGill. Her dissertation will include planting different populations of sugar maple seeds from across the range in a common garden and comparing the rate of germination and seedling growth success. With a little luck, she hopes to find a successful tree that perhaps can be tapped for syrup in later years. Unfortunately Shrum won’t be able to tap the trees before her Ph.D. program is over. “It takes 20 years before you can tap a tree,” she said. However there may be people able to continue the study.
Shrum has found several citizens that have been tapping trees for many years, and they may be able to give insight into maple syrup production in the past and future. “One man said he doesn’t see sugar maples reproducing like he used to, and now he has to plant them himself,” she said. “Another man has been collecting soil temperature in his yard at two feet deep for the last 20 years. I can use this data to correlate temperature and snow cover to sap flow.” After talking to citizens it is clear to Shrum that maple trees provide a certain role in New England culture and are very important to the people of Maine.
Before coming to UMaine, Shrum was working on numerous wildlife ecology projects over a span of fifteen years, but she is enjoying working with maple trees even more. “I wanted to study something that had ecological, economic and social importance. This is something that families have been doing for years and I hope this research will be meaningful and help someone along the way,” she said. Best of luck to Jenny Shrum as she continues her research. Shrum is producing a short video about her research that will be available on the SBE website by mid summer.
The University of Maine Herbarium is the most comprehensive collection of plants, fungi, lichens, and mosses in Maine. Records concerning the establishment of the herbarium are unclear, but it is likely that it began when UMaine was created as the Maine College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts. One of the earliest contributors of specimens to the herbarium was Merritt Lyndon Fernald, the son of the third president of UMaine, Merritt Caldwell Fernald. Starting at age 13 Fernald collected plants, and the herbarium now has over 600 of his specimens that he collected throughout his lifetime. Fernald became a world-renowned botanist at Harvard. The Herbarium now houses about 70,000 specimens in Hannibal Hamlin Hall. Information about most of these specimens is also kept in a digital database that anyone can access by visiting the herbarium website (herbaria.umaine.edu).
The purpose of the Herbarium is to document the flora of Maine and to provide a repository for specimens. The Herbarium is also a teaching facility and a resource for the broader community. It is used in at least five biology classes ranging in topics from fungi to the taxonomy of vascular plants. Workers at the Herbarium, such as SBE graduate students Eric Doucette and Garth Holman, and Professor Chris Campbell, identify plants for citizens, farmers, land-trusts, people conducting conservation easements and others. Scientists interested in a group of plants that occurs in Maine can borrow UMaine specimens.
The UMaine Herbarium Friends Group, which meets monthly, focuses on caring for the specimens and usually works on one plant group that is native to Maine during each meeting. The specimens are kept in cases that are airtight. Periodically, the specimens are frozen for one week, which provides a non-toxic alternative to pesticides suppression of insect pests like dermestid beetles that can damage the specimens.
In addition to its primary mission of documenting the flora of Maine, the Herbarium is also used in other areas of research, such as climate change. Data from the timing of the opening of overwintering tree buds on Herbarium specimens, combined with other data, can be used to see if bud-break has shifted over the past 150 years. Scientists can also obtain samples of pollen from herbarium specimens and extract DNA from specimens are over 100 years old. Because of its significance in research, the herbarium is highly valuable to the research community.
The Herbarium is supported by members of the Josselyn Botanical Society of Maine.
The photo shows a University of Maine Herbarium specimen of northern white cedar (also called arborvitae). This conifer tree is common in Maine, often used as an ornamental, and its wood is important for log homes and shingles. As the label in the lower-right hand corner indicates, this specimen was collected in Lincolnville. In addition to the leaves, the specimen has cones (about 1 cm long) and a piece of the fibrous bark characteristic of this species.
Michelle Goody graduated from SBE in 2007 and is now conducting post-doctoral research in the Molecular and Biomedical Sciences Department here at UMaine under Dr. Carol Kim. She obtained a Ph.D from the UMaine Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in August 2012 and studied under SBE professor Clarissa Henry.
Most of Goody’s current research involves the study of zebrafish, which she uses to test certain diseases and pathogens. By studying the cell adhesion in zebrafish muscle development and disease, she can investigate the health of muscle tissue in response to inflammatory diseases, such as virus infection. “Most cells have adhesion to their surroundings, and many diseases come from when this cell adhesion fails,” explained Goody. In order to prevent this adhesion failure, she treats them with NAD+ and vitamins.
As an undergraduate in SBE, she majored in biology and worked in Dr. Mary Rumpho’s lab cleaning the sea slug aquaria and maintaining the algae for the first two years of college. The summer after her third year, she worked in Dr. Seanna Annis’s lab looking at fungal diseases of blueberry plants. Both of these jobs were valuable to her in gaining research skills. One of Goody’s most influential SBE professors, Dr. Mary Tyler, suggested graduate school to Goody. Tyler helped in setting up a meeting with Dr. Clarissa Henry, which led to Goody’s Ph.D. “With that suggestion, Mary Tyler greatly impacted my future and set me on the course to discovering my love for scientific research,” explained Goody.
Goody says that her undergraduate education in Biology allows her to approach biomedical research from a different perspective. “I generally tend to think and make connections on ‘larger size scales’ than many biomedical researchers, which makes my approach a nice compliment to ‘smaller size scale’ molecular and microbiology studies,” she affirmed.
In the future, Goody hopes to become a professor here at UMaine. “I love UMaine and living here in general,” she said. “I also like the research side of things. Watching the zebrafish embryo cells divide fascinates me.”
Best wishes to Michelle Goody as she continues her zebrafish studies.
Jennifer More of Deloraine, Manitoba, Canada accepted a hockey scholarship at UMaine and plays more than 14 hours of hockey a week, but she didn’t let that stop her from pursuing a biology major. More was originally a Kinesiology and Physical Education major, and switched to biology because it offered a broader curriculum, giving More ample career options. More is hoping to go to graduate school to become a physical assistant.
Combining hockey with biology has been a challenge. With four and a half hours of practice every evening, it’s hard to get studying done. “It’s a lot of work now, but after I’m done it will be worth it,” she said. More and the other players have an in-house tutor on the team who is able to attend all practices and help with academics as well. It was important and helpful for More to have a tutor who knew what she was experiencing on and off the ice.
More is Assistant Team Captain for the Black Bears this year, which is the first time a sophomore has ever been a captain in the history of the women’s hockey program. She is captain along with Chloe Tinkler. More plays forward and scored 7 goals in the 2011-2012 season and was on the Hockey East All Academic Team for that season.
More says she wouldn’t trade it for anything. “Being able to go to the rink is really fun,” she said. “It’s a place where I can just get away from school life.” More has played hockey since she was 3 years old and has grown up with hockey because most of her family plays. In fact her dad, Paul More, was in the Western Hockey League, and her uncle, Jason More was drafted in the first round and was placed 18th overall in the 1987 NHL draft.
Can you imagine spending three months on a small island, two miles off shore and only going home once? That’s just what SBE student David Bridges did this summer while he was interning for the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. David was selected with a small group of interns to live on land owned by the organization in order to help with research on sea birds. Many species of sea birds, such as Guillemots and Atlantic Puffins, are in danger of colony collapse due to over-hunting for feathers in the early 1900s. The staff who live in these remote bird habitats are there to collect data and oversee the bird populations.
Bridges was living in an old lighthouse on Petit Manan, a 10-acre island without running water. Many of the bird species were ground nesters that were easily disturbed by human activity. This confined Bridges and his research partners to a small area of living space. Food rations were brought by boat once a week. “It was an intense experience,” said Bridges. “It puts a lot of things into perspective, like what you need, and don’t need, to be happy.”
Bridges and his research partners would climb the lighthouse and count birds every morning and night. During the day, they would observe the birds under camouflage blinds and enter data into a database on their solar-powered computers. Some variables recorded were numbers of nesting pairs, what type of fish species they ate, and general behavior. They found that there were almost 2,000 nesting pairs of birds on the island.
Bridges found out about the internship through SBE Professor Rebecca Holberton, who collaborates regularly with the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Bridges said he would recommend the internship to anyone wanting fieldwork experience. “It’s a great first field job,” he said. “It shows you can do it.” Bridges hopes this will open up opportunities for conservation fieldwork in the future. “There is a tight network of people in the conservation sciences, so it’s great for networking.” Bridges is a fourth year biology major and aspires to attain a Ph.D. in animal behavior someday.
SBE professors Michelle Smith, Seanna Annis, and Frank Drummond, along with University of Georgia professor, Jennifer Kaplan, recently did a study on clicker use among adults outside of the formal classroom. Clickers are remote-like devices that electronically send student responses to a computer system, and are typically used in undergraduate level classes. The study expanded the use of clickers to blueberry growers in a presentation seminar, and examined how peer discussion and other demographic factors affected the accuracy of responses. Similar to what has been observed with undergraduates, after blueberry growers were able to discuss questions with neighbors, they got more questions correct.
The study took place at an annual presentation by UMaine’s Cooperative Extension to Maine blueberry growers about plant diseases and pests. Demographic information on the blueberry growers were taken such as sex, age, education level, percentage of income coming from blueberries, role on the farm (grower, manager, landowner), and number of years working with blueberries.
The researchers found that none of the demographic classifications showed a significant relationship with how the growers responded to the use of clickers and peer discussion. “Some blueberry growers had post-graduate degrees, while others had a high school diploma, yet based on results from peer-discussed clicker questions, the education levels of the growers did not disadvantage a subset of the population” said Assistant Professor Michelle Smith.
Even without an incentive, the blueberry growers were still incredibly enthusiastic. “I have always used clickers at the undergraduate level,” said Smith, “and it was really cool to walk into a group of adults and see them respond in the same way. I learned that with small changes you can really make a difference in the way adults learn.” This work is published in the journal PLoS-ONE. For more information contact Michelle Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org.