LATROBE, PA – Under the guidance of Dr. Michelle Duennes, assistant professor of biology, a group of Saint Vincent College biology students spent a week of their summer vacation on an immersive research experience in California’s Sequoia National Park.
Taylor Hatchet, C’21, of Reisterstown, Maryland, along with rising seniors Mary Andreola of Pittsburgh (15236), Lauren Gailbraith of Greensburg, Adam Meneses of Pomona, California, Casey Moyer of Robinson, Yariana Pino Sanchez of Guyanabo, Puerto Rico, and Kelsey Tobin of Greensburg, spent June 21-27 in the mountains of California conducting field research for a number of projects.
“The trip was very productive,” said Duennes. “Everything really went perfectly. The students were able to collect plenty of samples for their projects while we saw so many great sights.”
Most of the students who traveled are in the midst of capstone projects that will be presented at the College’s 2022 Academic Conference.
Andreola collected water samples from various streams and lakes, which will be analyzed to determine the types of insects that dwell in them. Tobin collected bumblebee samples from different field sites and will sequence the DNA in the pollen to identify the plant species bees are feeding on. Gailbraith and Moyer collected samples of different species of bees to identify and study both the beneficial and harmful microbes in their intestines and digestive systems, while Meneses, Pino Sanchez and Hatchet assisted Duennes in collecting bee samples for her research project on bumblebee health funded by the USDA.
“I had seen the colonies that a previous student was using for their research,” said Tobin, “and found the whole colony dynamic very interesting. I knew I didn’t want to study colonies specifically, but I still wanted to study bees. Eventually, I landed on researching the pollen collected by bumble bees. I had planned with Dr. Duennes to do my research in California because I will be studying abroad for the fall semester. Since the research portion of our senior capstone takes place in the fall, I needed to complete it in the summer and Dr. Duennes was more than happy to accommodate.”
Andreola had initially planned to just study waterways in western Pennsylvania, but inquired about moving her research to California after learning of Tobin’s plans.
“I have always wanted to travel for research,” said Tobin. “I was particularly excited to research in a national park, because I hope to work for the National Park Service someday. Luckily, Dr. Duennes said yes!”
The SVC group stayed each night at a base camp at the base of the Sierra Nevada in the park’s Mineral King section.
“I think my favorite moment of the trip was when we first arrived at Mineral King,” said Tobin. “The view of the mountains was breathtaking. It was easily the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.”
The group conducted research and collected samples at a variety of settings throughout the park, including a steep cliff along the roadside, the Lake Isabella reservoir, flowery meadows and in Sequoia National Forest. One of the highlights of the trip, however, occurred when they spotted an endangered species during a sightseeing venture.
“After three days of field work,” said Duennes, “we took a break and went to a frozen yogurt shop. It had a garden adjacent to it and I looked out up into a tree and saw a distinct bee with an orange rear end. It was the endangered Bombus crotchii species! We caught two queens and it was at the exact right time, because we went back three days later and all of the flowers on which we had spotted the bees were already dead and out of season. It was perfect timing.”
“The employees and other customers who were eating outside definitely thought we were crazy standing on tables with nets,” added Andreola, “but the shop’s native plant garden was a gold mine of bumblebees!”
Another highlight of the trip came on the last day, when the group visited the world’s largest tree, the General Sherman, which measures 275 feet high and 36 feet in diameter.
“It was mindboggling to see how huge it was,” said Andreola.
For the last two days of the excursion, the SVC contingent was joined by a group of tourists through Atlas Obscura, which provides non-scientists with authentic scientific research and field experience. Saint Vincent’s researchers were joined by a group of eight from the Atlas Obscura group, ranging from two men in their 70s to a mother and her teenage son.
“I really didn’t know what to expect from the vacationers,” said Tobin, “but I was surprised to find that most of them had hobbies or jobs that revolved around nature or biology in some way. They were all very eager to learn about the collection process and our research.”
Added Andreola, “They were all so kind and I had a lot of fun working with them. It was cool to hear about all of their diverse life experiences and backgrounds, and what led them to their interest in bumblebees and scientific research. We had a lot of fun teaching them field work techniques as well as just hanging out with them.”
With their field work complete, the group will now begin to analyze its research. The Jonah Ventures lab in Boulder, Colorado, will use DNA extraction to identify the bacterial microbes in Galbraith’s and Moyer’s samples, the plant species in Tobin’s samples and the aquatic invertebrates in Andreola’s samples.
Duennes said that she plans to lead another student excursion to Sequoia National Park with Atlas Obscura in the summer of 2022 and has begun to raise money for her students and their projects through her online Teespring store (https://duenneslab.creator-spring.com/) and Etsy store (https://www.etsy.com/shop/DuennesLab), for which she designed a coloring book that will be available for purchase soon.
“I had so much fun on this trip with the students,” she said. “I really couldn’t have asked for a better group to go with me! It’s rare that students get to experience such intensive, immersive fieldwork as undergraduates and I feel so lucky to have been able to provide an opportunity to do that for my students.
“In terms of benefit to our research, this was by far the most productive field expedition I’ve been on, and I’ve been on a lot of them. I hope that the students got a lot out of it, too.”
PHOTO 1: Mary Andreola, Casey Moyer, Lauren Galbraith, Taylor Hatchet, Kelsey Tobin, Yariana Pino Sanchez and Adam Meneses at the group's base camp in the Mineral King section of Sequoia National Park
PHOTO 2: A sampling of the bees collected by the group.
PHOTO 3: The view from the group's base camp.
PHOTO 4: Adam Meneses nets a bee of the endangered Bombus Crotchii species outside of a frozen yogurt shop.
PHOTO 5: The group poses in front of the General Sherman, the largest tree in the world.
A full gallery of images from the group's trip to Sequoia National Park can be found AT THIS LINK