Students Take a Closer Look at Nature's Evolving Relationships

Students Annette Marinello ‘14 (left) and Malia Santos ‘15 collecting data in the field (a VERY large field)

By Linda Peterson

Assistant professor of biology Chris Smith is a teacher, a scholar and a 2013 recipient of the prestigious National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant. Like his colleague, Emma Coddington (see article: Decoding the Impostor Syndrome), also a CAREER grant-winner, Smith integrates teaching and scholarship in a way that brings science to life. He’s also a fine storyteller. Listen to his description of evolutionary ecology:

“I think about how interactions between species shape their evolutions and vice versa. Take cheetahs and gazelles, for example. Only the fastest gazelles avoid being eaten by cheetahs. And only the fastest cheetahs get lunch. They’re both getting faster.”

Smith’s work focuses on interactions between plants and insects, and in particular what Charles Darwin called “the abominable mystery.” Why is it that the youngest plants — those with flowers — have proliferated so richly? Today, there are about 250,000 species of angiosperms, or flowering plants, but they’re younger than pine trees or mosses. One suspicion is that pollinators make new species of plants, and Smith’s work is testing that theory by studying Joshua trees and their pollinators, yucca moths.

During spring break, Smith took five Willamette students with him on a field research trip with two agendas: prepare them to work in his lab during the summer and give them a firsthand taste of field work. The setting in Nevada and southeastern California — including Joshua Tree National Park — was appetizing for young scientists, and education and discovery were on the menu.

With his students’ assistance, Smith taught field ecology through the Desert Institute’s adult education program in partnership with the United States Geological Survey. “All of the students are biology majors who understand that the scientific method is built on developing a hypothesis, designing an experiment and collecting data,” Smith says. “This isn’t about a textbook. It’s about hands-on work.”

Students relish the opportunity, and so does he. “Being with students in the field is why I do what I do. What’s most exciting about my job is being able to see in other people the same kind of excitement and enthusiasm and intellectual zeal that I experienced when I first started studying science. In the field, you’re much closer to the organisms. That’s where our passion comes from — real plants, real animals. You’re immersed in your subject. And it’s beautiful. The desert has almost a spiritual component that you can’t capture in classroom exercises.”

What students glean from the experience, Smith says, is meaningful even for those who don’t go into academic science. “They come away with a more profound understanding of the scientific process. They’re more confident. They can follow through on a long process and weather the inevitable setbacks and failures. They have a greater sense of ownership of their work.”

Student Scholars Relish Field Work

Two of Chris Smith’s students, Annette Marinello ‘14 and Malia Santos ‘15, talk about cool moments and surprises in the desert. Marinello will spend part of the summer at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies on Catalina Island, in Southern California, researching marine biology. Santos will work with Smith during the summer, supported by an Arthur Wilson award for women in science.

Coolest moment:

Marinello: Driving into the Tikaboo Valley. We had seen only a handful of Joshua trees. Then, halfway through the valley, we were in a forest of them.
Santos: Being in the field with a group of people who love biology as much as I do.

Surprised by:

Marinello: How spiky Joshua tree leaves are. Ouch!
Santos: How old Joshua trees are and how slowly they grow.

Aspirations for the future:

Marinello: After this trip, I realized I would like to do field ecology as a career. Not only did I enjoy working in the field, but I also got to know people who do this work. It was awesome to talk with people from USGS and learn about their jobs. It’s hard work and physically tiring, but at the end of the day, you feel you’ve accomplished something.
Santos: I have always been apprehensive about becoming a biologist, but this trip has shown me how much I love biology and how much I would enjoy it as a career. If I go into a biology-related field, I would like to study as many organisms as I can.

Left: students Annette Marinello ‘14 (left) and Malia Santos ‘15 collecting data in the field (a VERY large field)

View from base camp at Joshua Tree National Park

View from base camp at Joshua Tree National Park

Assistant professor Chris Smith giving a morning “pep talk”

Assistant professor Chris Smith giving a morning “pep talk”