Monday, April 12, 2010

SNRAS seniors launch research projects

Pictured from left are Sabrena Gneiting, Adriana Amaya, Taylor Beard, James Ward, Kirsten Woodard, BriAnna Graves, Shannon Pearce.

The SNRAS senior thesis series continues. On April 2, seven students presented their research proposals.

Shannon Pearce is studying wetland protection priorities for avian species of concern in the greater Fairbanks area. “Wetland habitats are crucial to birds,” Pearce said. Her goal is to rank twenty-four types of wetlands in terms of value for fifteen bird species. She said the project should be useful to developers, environmental firms, and government agencies.

“This is necessary to set land acquisition priorities and to make decisions in an informed manner,” Pearce said.

She will rank the habitats using the Delphi method, and will seek information from seventeen bird experts.

James Ward’s topic is economic considerations for commercial greenhouse production during interior Alaska winters. “Winter is a long season and is not considered best for crop production,” Ward said. “I would like to research what may or may not be feasible. I will determine if it is reasonable economically.”

Ward said greenhouses and nurseries are the state’s largest agriculture industry and receive the most income. “Greenhouse operations generally cease in winter due to cost of heat and electricity,” he said.

“We could perhaps produce fresh food locally and compete with imported food.”

His objectives are to establish economic factors relating to winter crop production and identify scenarios that the feasibility could continue. He plans to identify the heat and electricity needs for a generic greenhouse and estimate the costs of heating and lighting from Sept. 15 to March 15.

He expects that greenhouses will be useful in areas with uniquely low electric and heating costs, such as those with hot springs or waste heat.

Taylor Beard is tackling the impact of arsenic contaminated irrigation water on tomato accumulation. “Arsenic levels are becoming an increasing concern around the world,” Beard said. “Chronic exposure can cause serious health problems.”

The EPA has set acceptable arsenic standards at ten parts per billion for drinking and irrigation water, Beard said. She found there has not been a lot of research on this subject, but learned that arsenic is located in areas where gold was mined. “Fairbanks has one of the highest arsenic concentrations in the US,” Beard said. Fairbanks and Ester have tested at 146 parts per billion. “Many people are unaware of the potential risks,” she said.

Arsenic uptake in tomatoes can inhibit root, shoot, and fruit growth, Beard said. Phosphorus and arsenic are taken into the plant roots by a common carrier.

Her objective is to increase awareness of arsenic and its effects in the Fairbanks area and to determine how much arsenic tomatoes absorb from contaminated water. The type of tomato she will test is Trust and she will use a control plot with distilled water, one with 150 ppb of arsenic and one with 300 ppb. There will be ten plants per treatment, with samples taken from the fruit clusters and leaves.

Kirsten Woodard’s subject is temperature dependent bending capabilities of Alaska Salix alaxensis populations: a potential advantage for biofuel crops. Woodard noted that woody shrubs compress under snowload and she wondered what mechanism allows the willows to bend over throughout the cold temperatures and rebound in the spring. This occurs primarily in arctic and boreal species as an adaptation to extreme environments.

Woodard said willows have rapid growth rate, are widely available, have the ability to acclimate, and may have a potential as a biofuel. Her objective is to determine if differences in temperature cause responses to twig deflection. She will collect ten twig samples from five latitudes in Alaska, and will use a bending apparatus and test the twigs at 0, 10 and –40 degrees, measuring the moisture content. She hopes to figure out which populations of willows have the best potential for biofuels.

BriAnna Graves’ topic is stomatal conductance variability in three populus species under seasonal and diurnal changes using a leaf porometer. Stomato are the pores in the epidermal layer of plants that facilitate gas exchange between the internal and external environment. Her study site is at a landfill at Elmendorf Air Force Base, where she will sample ten leaves from each sapling and test three each of quaking aspen, balsam poplar, and black cottonwood.

She expects to find similar stomatal conduction in all three species. She also thinks there will be mid-day dips in conduction, as the levels of soil moisture drop in the heat of the day.

Sabrena Gneiting will study the effects of diet quality on grasshopper fecundity. “Grasshoppers and locusts cause problems and outbreaks aren’t understood,” Gneiting said. She wants to learn if the ratio of protein to carbohydrates matters for egg production.

Her tests will be conducted on grasshoppers caught in Delta Junction field. They will be kept warm with a sixty-watt light bulb. Six pairs of grasshoppers will be checked using five artificial diets. The food will be weighed and the eggs counted and dried.

Adriana Amaya will produce a volunteer handbook for phenology monitoring at Tetlin National Wildlife Refuge. Her handbook will explain how to gather phenological data (noting plant and animal life cycle events such as budding or bird migrations).

“To do this we must incorporate citizen science,” Amaya said. The Tetlin NWR is near Tok and features 734,000 acres of wetlands and boreal forest. It includes important migratory bird habitat.

Data taken across a large spatial and temporal scale can help predict and monitor the effects of climate change on refuge lands,” Amaya said. Her book will explain phenology and how to recognize notable events and become familiar with the species being monitored. These include the dragonfly, wood frog, five species of birds, the red squirrel, and five plant species. “I would like to work with volunteers to create a program that will be successful in the future,” she said.

The senior thesis series continues Friday, April 16 in room 401, International Arctic Research Center at 2:15 p.m. Presenting the results of their research will be Anne Miller and Ellen Hatch. On April 30 the final session will begin at 2:15 p.m. in Arctic Health Research Building room 183, with Laurel Gale, Nicole Swensgard, and Quintan Hecimovich.

Related post:
Students tackle tomatoes, recycling, gypsy moths, food security for senior thesis research, SNRAS Science & News, March 29, 2010

1 comment:

John Ohab said...


That sounds like a great senior project. You may be interested in a new website we just launched, Science for Citizens (, which is aimed at connected the citizen scientists of the world with the thousands of research projects.

Take a look and let us know what you think!

John | Sci4Cits