Undergraduate intern research opportunities for the summer of 2022!

Asclepias

We’re excited to have four summer research opportunities open for college students! These are 8-week paid internships with housing (if in person), and part of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Research Experience for Undergraduates Program. If you are interested in any of these opportunities, please contact Adam or one of the other mentors mentioned below, and please apply to the REU program. Also, please see our mentoring statement. Applications are due February 28th.

Project #1: Locating “lost” populations of threatened and endangered plant species

Mentor: Adam B. Smith (Missouri Botanical Garden)

Although >2700 plant species would likely qualify to be listed under the US Endangered Species Act, only ~800 actually have such protection. A first step toward protecting vulnerable listed and unlisted species is identifying the locations of populations. Field surveys are costly in time and expenditure, and hindered by access to private lands.  However, online biodiversity databases like GBIF and TROPICOS offer a potential shortcut to locating “lost” populations of these species. In this project the REU would work with Dr. Adam Smith of the Missouri Botanical Garden to mine online biodiversity databases for the locations of sensitive species. These would then be compared to databases of monitored populations to determine which populations have “slipped through” conservation assessments. This project would involve use of myriad biodiversity databases, interpretation of historical specimen collections, and retroactive georeferencing. Most of the project would be done online, although work in the MOBOT herbarium could also be performed (depending on COVID safety protocols). The successful applicant will be enthusiastic about conservation of rare plants, detail-oriented, and able to navigate complex workflows and make thoughtful judgment calls for cases that do not “neatly” fall into the standard workflow. The REU would also be supported by a team of peer-mentors (undergraduates, post-bachs, grad students, and postdocs) in the Smith lab.

Project #2: Optimizing georeferencing for understanding vulnerability to climate change

Mentor: Adam B. Smith (Missouri Botanical Garden)

Herbarium and museum specimens are frequently used to predict species’ responses to anticipated climate change using ecological niche models (also known as species distribution models). Many specimens were collected before widespread adoption of GPS or even appreciation for recording detailed locality descriptions. As a result, they cannot be matched with confidence to values of environmental conditions. Although it would be possible to georeference these specimens, this is a laborious process, so these “imprecise” specimens are typically discarded before analysis. In this project, the REU student will work with Dr. Adam Smith of the Missouri Botanical Garden to design and test an “optimum” strategy for retroactively georeferencing specimens for use in niche models. The student will assess how addition of records alters predictions of species’ responses to present and future climate. The work can be done entirely online, though some work in the Garden herbarium may be possible if conditions allow.  The successful candidate will be enthusiastic about plant conservation, detailed-oriented, and have experience in programming (an introductory course in the R language is available for all REUs at the start of the term).  The REU would also be supported by a team of peer-mentors (undergraduates, post-bachs, grad students, and postdocs) in the Smith lab.

Project #3: Investigating the effects of climate change on mixed mating systems: Do changes to water availability affect outcrossing rates?

Mentor: Matthew Austin (Washington University in Saint Louis)

Austin is a postdoctoral fellow with the Living Earth Collaborative, whose research focuses on how plant-pollinator communities respond to environmental variability. Species with dimorphic cleistogamy produce two types of morphologically distinct flowers: cleistogamous (CL) flowers that obligately self-fertilize and chasmogamous (CH) flowers that facultatively outcross. CL flowers are produced as a bet-hedging strategy in stressful environments, while CH flowers are produced under good growing conditions. Our prior research has found that the common blue violet (Viola sororia), a dimorphic cleistogamic perennial native across eastern North America, has responded to climate change in Missouri by increasing investment in CH flower production. As climate change in Missouri has been characterized by increased precipitation, the increased investment in CH flower production by V. sororia is likely a response to greater water availability. Here, the student will expand this work to other species and locations across North America to test whether the positive relationship between water availability and CH flower production is generalizable across species with dimorphic cleistogamy. To accomplish this, the student will quantify CH and CL flowers on herbarium sheets, pair these flowering data with historic climate data, and test for associations between water availability and CH flower production. As outcrossing can facilitate future adaptation, while selfing can lead to inbreeding depression, understanding the effects of climate change on reproductive strategy investment is crucial for a comprehensive assessment of the biological impacts of global change. It is possible for the student participating in this project to receive co-authorship on a publication resulting from this work.

Project #4: How can we design bee-friendly yards?

Mentors: Nicole Miller-Struttmann (Webster University) and Adam B. Smith (Missouri Botanical Garden)

With over 163,000 sq km of lawn in the United States, backyard conservation has the potential to enhance biodiversity in cities. Urban environments create biological filters that favor some species over others. For instance, cavity nesting bees and generalist foragers are favored in cities. Backyard conservation initiatives can weaken those filters and increase bee diversity. However, it is unclear what the knock-on effects are for their interactions with plants. Since the majority of flowering plants (more than 85%) require animal pollination, understanding how pollinator behavior is affected by local and landscape features could be critical for urban plant reproduction. This project would leverage a citizen science project, Shutterbee!, organized by Dr. Nicole Miller-Struttmann (Webster University) that is focused on bee pollinators across the Saint Louis region. With Dr. Adam Smith (Missouri Botanical Garden), the REU would employ occupancy-detection models to assess the degree to which particular aspects of participants’ yards attract and affect bees and their interactions with plants. These aspects include amount of yard dedicated to flowers, presence of particular plants, amount of urban land cover (impermeable surface) in the surrounding neighborhood, inter alia. The REU researcher would work with Drs. Miller-Struttmann and Smith to develop models in the R programming language. The results are expected to help develop guidelines for “bee-friendly” properties. The successful participant would need to be comfortable with programming in R or another language (there is also an R teaching workshop at the beginning of the program).