On the Ground: A Sampling of Undergraduate Student Research

Funded directly by our generous alumni, parents, and friends, the Sponsored Projects for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) program provides grant money for CNR faculty and undergraduate students to collaborate on research projects. Students may apply to join a research study run by a professor or may design their own project and be paired with a faculty or postdoc mentor. Since the program was launched over a decade ago, more than 1,200 students have participated.

A field of sunflowers

Circadian clocks and plant movement

Genetics and plant biology majors Alyson Ennis and Kristen Poen worked with Benjamin Blackman, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, on a project researching the solar tracking of sunflowers. The developing disks of sunflower plants move to face the sun throughout the day, but when the flowers bloom, they stop moving and face east. To begin to understand why, Blackman and the students grew many types of domesticated and wild sunflowers in the field, keeping track of their daily stem movements and where blooms faced when they matured.

Three undergrads working among the ferns
Photo by Julie Van Scoy

Sustainably remediating contaminated soil

Three undergraduates joined environmental science, policy, and management (ESPM) professor Celine Pallud’s lab to assist with research on the fern Pteris vittata’s ability to remove arsenic from soil by gathering the chemical into its fronds. Through their participation in field and greenhouse experiments, Kristen Chinn (conservation and resource studies and geology), Marcella Depunzio (environmental sciences), and Aizah Khurram (molecular environmental biology) gained experience in field-experiment design and setup, sampling soil and plant tissue, and preparing samples for laboratory analysis. Some of their soil sampling will help community organizations determine how a local vacant lot can be used for urban agriculture.

A large meal on a table
Courtesy of Alyssa E. Thompson

Combating campus food insecurity

As part of the UC Berkeley Food Security Committee’s initiative to address food insecurity on campus, in spring 2016 the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology (NST) offered a new course on preparing healthful meals, taking into consideration student limitations like food availability, budget, and time. Sabrina Lee, an undergraduate in the dietetics specialization of the nutritional sciences major, worked with course instructors and the director of the dietetics program, Mikelle McCoin, on course implementation and an evaluation of the course’s impact on student skills, knowledge, and attitudes. Lee developed a research poster on the course and presented it at the California Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ annual meeting in Riverside.

Researchers in a lab
Julie Van Scoy

Vitamin A and energy metabolism

In summer 2016, Marta Vuckovic and Hong Sik Yoo, postdoctoral research fellows in NST professor Joe Napoli’s lab, advised two undergraduates on research examining vitamin A metabolism and its relationship to energy metabolism in the context of obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Students Adrienne Rodriguez (microbial biology) and Emily Devericks (nutritional sciences - toxicology) learned about histology analysis and gene expression and received hands-on training in mouse-colony management and other techniques used in molecular biology and cell-culture research.

Land-use modification and the California newt

Image of a newt and image of a student presenting a research poster
Courtesy of Skye Glenn

Every rainy season, Berkeley’s Tilden Regional Park closes roads from November to April to protect migrating California newts (listed by the state as a species of special concern) as they crawl to breeding ponds to mate. In spring 2016, ESPM assistant professor Ian Wang mentored molecular environmental biology major Skye Glenn on a project she designed to analyze genetic diversity in different newt populations, as well as how different parts of the landscape, including roads, impede the movement of newts between different breeding ponds. The information she collected will allow for better management of limited resources and help focus conservation efforts where they’ll be most effective, maintaining the greatest amount of diversity and gene flow while minimizing disruption to residents.

Image of a hand placing a plastic bottle into a recycling bin

Assessing recycling and convenience centers

Jared O’Shaughnessy, a conservation and resource studies major, and Kevin Ong, an environmental sciences major, worked on a team led by agricultural and resource economics (ARE) professors Sofia Berto Villas-Boas and Peter Berck to analyze the efficacy and efficiency of California’s “Convenience Zones” for recycling centers, which were established as part of Governor Jerry Brown’s California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act. The students geo-coded the centers, then combined their data with zip code demographics and the volume capacity of each recycling center to inform the design of user surveys.

photo of farming practices

California’s drought: measuring the uses and benefits of weather data

Twenty students joined ARE professor David Zilberman’s study of the 150 weather stations across California that have provided information for irrigation decisions in agricultural and urban settings since 1982. The group designed surveys, conducted interviews, and compiled user-feedback forms to analyze weather-station use and the resulting overall impact on water and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. Gaining real-world practice with survey design and implementation, the students also contributed to a growing body of literature on drought preparation that becomes increasingly important as the effects of climate change intensify.

Support SPUR

Visit nature.berkeley.edu/give-spur to help us bring another decade of diverse research opportunities to CNR students. For other ways to get involved, contact Andrew Judd: judd@berkeley.edu, (510) 642-6707.