Think of them as a CSI team minus the blood and guts.
Armed with GPS devices and hip boot waders, biology students at the University of Missouri-Rolla canvass the Marguerite Bray Conservation Area just west of Rolla each month, searching for signs of life. Only instead of looking for people, this team looks for cave salamanders, Eastern fence lizards, and other Missouri creatures to add to its online catalog.
For field hand John Campbell, a junior in biological sciences, the opportunity to discover what animals live in the Bray area was too tempting to pass up. "Working at the Bray site was fun," Campbell explains. "This isn’t like traditional coursework because to me that means being in a classroom or lab working. Being out in the field is different because you’re not cooped up in some lab, which to me is boring."
The field work was a new experience for Trini King, a senior in biological sciences. "We took scientific measurements and readings, such as GPS locations, water pH and temperature, to correlate the types of species found with their living environment," King explains. "This is a good application of textbook material. Students can really see biology in the works."
The project also offered Campbell and the rest of the team the chance to find out what animals live in the area. "If we knew that an endangered species is found there, we could do something about it," Campbell explains. "Plus knowing what animals are out there could help students who are interested in starting different projects decide what to do."
In addition to examining the area’s biodiversity, the UMR team assists with Bray Fishing Days, sponsored by the Missouri Department of Conservation, and other events to help teach area grade school students about the environment. "I captured different types of specimens and helped the kids identify the species," King says. "They were really curious about all we had to show them."
The team’s examination and monitoring of the site’s biodiversity is a continuation of a project that began two years ago under the guidance of Anne Maglia, assistant professor of biological sciences, and Jennifer Leopold, assistant professor of computer science. UMR biology and computer science students worked side-by-side to collect data on the amphibian population and develop software tools, including a website, to store and analyze the information collected.
In just the past few years, bioinformatics, the field devoted to applying computational methods to biological problems, has emerged as a critical component of gene sequencing and other data-heavy challenges.
"Our biggest problem in biology is we’re inhibited by our ability to understand the data," Maglia says. "We’re making these major technological advances in collecting data, and we have so much data we don’t know what to do with it."
Bringing computer science into the biology field gives students like Campbell and King the ability to collect data and share it with anyone. "Working on this project opened the door to more opportunities for me," Campbell says.