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Outdoor lab gives hands-on experience

9:12 AM  Jul 26th, 2017
by Cari Zahn ’18

Salamanders, Siberian larch forests and invasive plants: these are areas of research University of Dayton students are focusing on in the McEwan Lab.

Nearly 100 undergraduate students have put their hands in the dirt and tested the waters, including current lab members Eric Borth ’17, Mitchell Kukla ’18, Meg Maloney ’18, and Taylor Sparbanie ’19. While projects are different for each student, they all have a focus in invasive species and forests.

Kukla and Sparbanie are currently working at Bill Yeck Park in Centerville, Ohio, just 20 minutes south of campus, to create a species list that could help park staff understand how to respond to invasive species.

Maloney focuses her research on salamanders.

“A lot of the science that we’re doing has a big, significant impact on the really big world issues we’re having right now,” Maloney said. “A salamander is an organism that indicates water quality in the streams, which lead to bigger streams, where eventually there could be a pollution problem.”

No one day in the lab is the same. Some days, the students are on their hands and knees by a stream, identifying macroinvertebrates. Other days, they’re getting up close and personal with different plants as they try their hand at identifying them.

It’s the type of opportunity Professor Ryan McEwan, who now focuses his research in forest ecology, received himself. McEwan started the lab to allow students to gain research experience as undergraduates. As a college junior, McEwan began his research on dogwood anthracnose, a type of fungal disease. He presented this research at the Ecological Society of America in 1999 and published was in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

“It changed my perspective on what I could do with my career and provided an opportunity I didn’t think about before,” McEwan said on being published while still a college student.

Borth, who graduated in the spring and is pursuing his master’s in biology at UD, is looking forward to a collaboration with Mississippi State University that will take him to Siberia. He will study larch trees, permafrost soil, and how the way in which carbon is emitted and stored contributes to warmer climates.

Overall, the lab has provided students with the ability to gain real world experience and discover whether or not this kind of work is something they want to do.

“It’s been very affirming that yes, this is something I can see myself doing,” Sparbanie said. “The big question for me for awhile was ‘Am I even capable?’ Being able to get experience in a research lab is huge.”

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