Canyon-land research gets students out of the classroom
by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN.– Gopher hunting, the Grand Canyon and seeing scientific collaboration up close all made for a good start to the summer for two Bethel College students.
Wes Goodrich, senior from Independence, and Emily Simpson, junior from Smyrna, Tenn., with their biology professor, Francisca Méndez-Harclerode, and her husband, Jerry Harclerode, worked for a week on an environmental impact study at the proposed site of a uranium mine near the Grand Canyon, June 7-14.
When Méndez -Harclerode presented the opportunity last spring at a STEM (collective term for the sciences) seminar, the students jumped at it – Goodrich almost literally. “I raised my hand and stood up before she even finished describing it,” he says.
Méndez-Harclerode’s masters-level research at the University of Central Missouri involved extensive studies with gopher populations in the Black Hills. One of the undergraduate students she worked with was Jo Ellen Hinck, now a toxicologist who leads environmental impact study teams for the U.S. Geological Survey, based in Columbia, Mo.
Hinck has been working with the Canyon Mine study team at a site in the Kaibab National Forest near Tusayan, Ariz., about ten miles from the Grand Canyon’s south rim. Hinck needed a scientist with experience trapping gophers, and Méndez-Harclerode was looking for a way to give her students a chance to get out of the classroom and do some fieldwork.
The Bethel College group joined with others from, in addition to the U.S.G.S., the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Energy, the Arizona Game and Fish Department and Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff.
While Bethel’s responsibility was gophers, other individuals or groups were studying other small mammals, snakes, bats, soil, arthropods (scorpions, spiders, insects) or reptiles.
The objectives of the environmental impact study, says Méndez-Harclerode, are to establish pre-mining conditions at Canyon Mine; to determine contaminants of potential concern and critical contaminant exposure pathways; and to survey the plants, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds and small mammals to understand the local food web and refine the list of target species for contaminant analysis.
Although the Canyon Mine has been subject to controversy and lawsuits (some still ongoing) for a number of years, it is scheduled to begin mining operations in 2015. The environmental impact study will set a baseline so that plants, animals and soil can be retested once uranium starts coming out of the ground to see what the effects are, if any.
The gopher group spent time figuring out when the gophers were most active and then had to work on ways to trap them. Gophers live almost entirely underground and they are not easy to catch – but Méndez-Harclerode knew how to do it and Jerry, she says, had been to the Black Hills with her and is a great gopher-catching co-worker.
“We had to find the mound of dirt, then find the tunnel, then figure out where to put the trap,” says Simpson. Finding the tunnel could and often did involve extensive digging.
When the students delivered the gophers, the scientists weighed and measured them, checked radiation levels and took blood and tissue samples from vital organs.
Méndez-Harclerode also collected tail snips from the gophers and all the small mammals caught.
“This provides samples that will allow Bethel students to design and carry out experiments for their senior seminar projects,” she says, “looking at genetic composition and structure of the different populations or comparing among species. Thus, many more students could benefit from this study, not just Emily and Wes.”
Goodrich and Simpson were happy to have gotten the opportunity.
“It augmented what we learned in class,” says Goodrich, adding that he appreciated being able to watch scientists on a government-funded project in action and the chance to use sophisticated tools and instruments undergraduate students don’t normally have access to.
“This was active field research in my major,” he adds. “Plus research with Francisca is awesome, and I had never been to the Grand Canyon.”
“It was a full-paid trip to the Grand Canyon,” Simpson agrees, “and a chance to get out [of the classroom] and get my hands dirty, which we did.”
“They got to see how science in collaboration works,” says Méndez-Harclerode. “This gave them exposure to federal science positions and a career path.
“People who choose biology have a passion for life,” she adds. “What better way than through seeing nature up close?”
Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.