As some of you may be, I am in the spring break. Since I finished grading exams before the break, I can now focus on scholarship. One of the listed projects that I wanted to accomplish before the next Monday was to revise a manuscript based on the independent project that students conducted in my Amphibian Biology course two years ago. The manuscript was rejected twice by different journals (totally my fault) but finally found a home recently. This is my second publication from the same course. As you speculate, those projects were published in small journals, though still international and peer-reviewed and students did everything from data collection to writing. In both publications, one of the students is the first author. Those publications are valuable for students to learn science by doing science, and also for me to grow as a teacher-scholar, which tenure review committee at Liberal Arts also value.
The part of the following writing comes from the article I wrote for the quarterly journal of Amphibian Survival Alliance, called FrogLog.
In 2011, I started teaching as a visiting assistant professor at Bucknell. I was excited with the opportunity to develop and teach an upper level Amphibian Biology course. A few things were certain to me by then. First, education is essential in promoting conservation. Second, the current generation college students in general lack direct experiences with nature. And finally, cookbook labs are boring not only to students but also to teachers. And when we are bored, we are careless, not engaged, and thus do not learn well.
How I came up with the idea
With these three points in mind, it didn’t take me long to decide to bring detection of chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) into the laboratory section of the Amphibian Biology course. This fungus has been linked with many amphibian declines worldwide. Thus, examining the prevalence of chytrid fungus among local amphibians provides important information for conservation management. However, this kind of project is not appealing or rewarding to many university researchers because it is so simple, lacks novelty, and does not often result in high impact publications. Yet, unlike frog calling surveys, it is difficult for layperson volunteers to conduct such studies because of the funding, equipment, and techniques required. This may in part explain the lack of our knowledge on the distribution and prevalence of chytrid fungus in many areas of the world, including central Pennsylvania. I realized that this class project has a potential to contribute to the scientific community by expanding the chytrid fungus database, in addition to its educational value in amphibian conservation and providing an opportunity for undergraduates to experience amphibians in their natural habitats and also to learn science by doing science.
I spent a few weeks during the summer of 2011 teaching myself PCR assay to detect chytrid fungus. I ordered primers (pieces of DNA sequences used to amplify specific parts of a target organism’s genome) that are specific to chytrid fungus, obtained chytrid fungus DNA (for use as a positive control) from Matt Venesky (thanks to Matt), and conducted a preliminary experiment to establish the methods for students to follow. It went well and gave me confidence that I could develop the lab section around this project.
During the 2011 fall semester, each of four groups of students in Amphibian Biology course (in total 13 students) conducted an independent research project examining chytrid fungus prevalence among local amphibians in one of three habitats: stream, forest, or pond. Students were very excited about the fact that nobody knew how their results would turn out and they would be the first to know. Students, many of them never caught amphibians before, were also very excited about finding amphibians. During the first four weeks of the semester, we visited three pond habitats, one forest, and one stream. The collected samples were brought back to the lab and students performed all of their work: DNA extraction, amplification of target DNA sequences using polymerase chain reaction, and agarose gel electrophoresis. In total, they examined 59 individuals from six species: 15 dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus), 2 bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), 8 green frog (L. clamitans), 1 wood frog (L. sylvaticus), 18 eastern newt (Notophthalmus viridescens), and 15 red-backed salamander (P. cinereus). Of these 59, only one sample, eastern newt, was found to be infected with chytrid fungus.
Writing and Publishing
I asked one of the best writers in class if she was interested in writing up a manuscript based on the class results. She agreed. We started working on the manuscript. Frankly, that was a lot of work, much more than I anticipated. But we finished the first draft before she graduated. And the manuscript was accepted for publication in Herpetological Conservation and Biology in 2012 (Wunder et al. 2012). Another student from the same course presented their findings at a campus-wide research symposium in March 2012 at Bucknell University. I gave a poster presentation about our project at the 7th World Herpetology Congress in Vancouver, Canada, in August 2012. It was a fruitful project for the students, for me, and, I would argue, for the scientific community.
Since the fall 2011, I have taught the same course three times. The lab is basically the same as it works really well, students love it, and it is a great way for students to learn conservation issues surrounding amphibians. But it is difficult to do publishable research once it is published. So I have tried to diversify the list of the projects from which students can choose their own project. During the summer 2012, I contacted the owner of a local zoo, who kindly consented to the idea of Bucknell students examining chytrid fungus prevalence among their amphibian collection. As a result, in the fall 2012 I added two more options to the previous year: detection of chytrid fungus among forest, pond, stream, zoo, or pet shop amphibians. Several studies suggest that global pet trade promotes the spread of chytrid fungus. However, there is a paucity of studies that actually test chytrid fungus prevalence among zoo and pet shop collections. One group examined the zoo amphibian collection and another examined amphibians from several pet stores in northeast. This study was recently accepted for publication in Herpetological Review (Winters et al.). Now I am planning to add detection of Hellbender through environmental DNA to the list of the projects. It is impossible to do publishable research every time I teach Amphibian Biology. But I am hoping to have such project once in a while. And it is really fun to do something new whose outcome is unknown to me.