Sarah R. Carrino-Kyker
Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, Graduate Student in Biology
As an undergraduate at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, my major initially was Secondary Education with a concentration in earth and life sciences. My desire to be a science teacher was influenced by the many great teachers I had during junior high and high school. I especially remember the influence of my sixth grade and eighth grade science teachers who guided my interests in science fair projects. Through their guidance, I selected the topics of rainforest deforestation in the sixth grade and recycling benefits in the eighth grade for my projects. Also prominent in my decision to engage in science were intriguing lessons on the preservation of aquatic microorganisms and ozone destruction due to CFC emissions delivered by my high school biology and chemistry teachers, respectively. Throughout my undergraduate education, while the classes I took in the Education Department were useful, I found myself more captivated by the classes I took in Microbiology, Geology, Zoology, Chemistry, and especially Botany. With motivation from one of my Zoology professors, at the end of my first year of undergraduate education, I began to seek a job in the Botany department. I was not expecting to have a job with much responsibility, but after speaking with Dr. Nancy Smith-Huerta, such was not the case. Dr. Smith-Huerta offered me the opportunity to have my own project in her main area of interest: pollination biology. With her guidance, I was able to perform my own study, obtain funding from outside sources, present a poster at the Botanical Society of America Conference in August of 2002, and progress in my knowledge of the scientific field, especially in Ecology, a field in which I was becoming quite interested because this field incorporates conservation. The experience that I had while working with Dr. Smith-Huerta encouraged me to add a second undergraduate major in Botany and to pursue graduate school. Her influence on my life has been profound, and I am forever grateful for the opportunities she gave me as an undergraduate.
Prior to my entrance into the graduate program at Case Western Reserve University, a new faculty member, Dr. Andrew Swanson, was appointed. From Dr. Swanson, I learned that microbial communities can be altered by human influences. With Dr. Swanson’s guidance and in a partnership with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Cleveland Metroparks, and Metroparks Serving Summit county, I began investigating how human alteration affects headwater systems in Northeastern Ohio. In particular, I have been studying the microbial community of headwaters. The microflora of headwater systems are the drivers of energy for the habitats, which makes them very important to investigate. Despite this, the microbial community of headwaters has been poorly studied. My master’s project involved an investigation of the microbial composition of aquatic microorganisms in vernal pools and how the physicochemical nature of these pools changes in relation to human development.
Headwater ponds and streams, though small and usually temporary, support a diversity of macrofauna, including salamanders, frogs, aquatic insects, and zooplankton. These organisms are all uniquely adapted to the dry periods that headwater streams and pools experience during dry summers. One of the most interesting studies that I read involved adhering dormant zooplankton eggs from a dry vernal pool to the outside of a spacecraft. Once the spacecraft went into outer space and returned to earth, the dormant zooplankton eggs were re-hydrated and hatched to produce viable adults. If that isn’t nature working at its best, then I don’t know what is!
In the lab, I identify microorganisms with molecular methods. This ultimately involves DNA sequencing. I compare my research to working in a forensic lab, although, instead of having a blood sample from a crime scene and asking “who dun it?” I have a soil sample from a headwater habitat and ask “who’s providing the energy?” An interesting finding that we have made is that the most diverse organisms in our vernal pool sample are the fungi. This abundance of fungal taxa led us to hypothesize that headwater habitats may be very important locations of decomposition and nutrient cycling within the forest.
I am continuing on for my Ph.D. at Case Western Reserve University with the guidance of my very helpful committee members, Dr. Joseph Koonce (an aquatic ecologist), Dr. Chris Cullis (a plant molecular biologist), and Dr. Paul Drewa (a plant ecologist). These three professors are also some of the best co-workers I have ever encountered. They all have a love for scientific discovery and really have fun with it! This just proves that scientists have the best job! My current project focuses on the function of headwater habitats surrounding Cleveland, Ohio and how they change in response to the human-altered environment. In particular, I am interested in the importance of headwaters for nutrient cycling for the forest ecosystem that surrounds them. And given that human practices, such as urban sprawl, can alter the microbes responsible for nutrient cycling, I believe it is important to study how headwaters are responding.
Overall, working in Biology has given me the opportunity to study a variety of phenomena in nature, perform sophisticated scientific methods, work with exciting and encouraging individuals, and help the environment! Who could ask for more?