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Learning how to be a scientist, and loving it

Carlisle Evans-Peck '14 gets results at Rocky Mountain Biological Lab

October  25, 2012

Carlisle Evans-Peck conducting field work with Gothic Mountain in the background.

Last summer, Carlisle Evans-Peck '14 spent his hours in a sunny field on a mountainside, considering the bees and flowers. More specifically, he researched phylogeny and plant communities at the non-profit Rocky Mountain Biological Lab (RMBL), working with a professional ecologist, Dr. Ken Whitney of Rice University.

Located in Gothic, Colo., the site of a former ghost town left by silver miners, RMBL hosts one of the world's largest rotations of research biologists. About 160 scientists live in unheated, non-air-conditioned cabins and work in highly technical labs at this sophisticated backcountry research site. One aspect of their work is to mentor undergraduates.

Peck, who had applied for research experiences through the National Science Foundation, said he "went out to RMBL with the basic idea to focus on plant communities and evolution." With Dr. Whitney, he came up with a topic suitable to the time and place: "Phylogeny of plant communities and success in attracting floral visitors."

"We looked at relatedness of single plant species to species in the larger community (of plants), and whether that has any influence on the number of pollinators a plant can attract," he said.

"There were two possibilities," he continued. "One: If a plant is in the presence of close relatives, they will out-compete for pollinators. Or two: Close relatives will help attract pollinators."

Peck's study focused on 27 species of plants growing in the area around Gothic. This first entailed hiking around and locating species, and then spending long sessions watching plants get pollinated. Though the work could be tedious, the surroundings were spectacular, even in the parched conditions.

"The drought was horrible in Colorado, and affected everyone's research, especially the plant people," he said. "They said it was usually gorgeous in summer, with hillsides covered in flowers. We were concerned that the drought had affected the sample size we could gather, that the blooming time had shifted. I wasn't expecting to find anything significant."

The findings

At the end of the summer, he and Dr. Whitney analyzed the data, corrected for all the variables, and did find significant results.

"Our findings showed that the nearer the plant's relative (on the phylogenetic or evolutionary tree), the lower the floral visitation rate will be," he said. "However, when you look at the average of relatedness (among all the plants in the area), it was the opposite effect. So we found both competition and facilitation at once."

To put it more simply: Imagine a field of flowers, attracting (or not) a number of bees. If one plant's neighbor is a close relative, chances are greater the bee will land there, instead, and stimulate pollination. On the other hand, if all the plants in the field are related to some extent, chances are greater that bees generally will visit that field more often. "Competition and facilitation at once" may be a paradox, but it works.

Peck did a presentation at RMBL on the results after his internship, but has plenty more work to do. He is continuing to write up his research for possible publication. "It is so tedious to apply to a journal and go through their editing process," he said. "But now I have learned so much about how to be a scientist, how to do science, and the right questions to ask. Luckily, I've found out I love it."

Like-minded people

It all started when he first came to Augustana, thinking he would be in pre-med. He switched to biology at the end of his first year. "Logos (the science-based honors program) and rigorous thinking helped me figure that out," he said. "I also found like-minded people."

Now a junior, Peck is thinking about both Senior Inquiry, which will connect to his major but not necessarily to his summer research, and his Honors Capstone, which does not need to be related to his major. For that more immediate project, he is considering creating some new hydroponics systems. He is co-founder of the hydroponics student group, Augieponics, as well as president of the Darwin Club, co-founder of the Salon discussion group, and a member of the Augustana Choir.

Peck has found his like-minded people in college and in his field. He may return to RMBL as a research assistant in the future, and rejoin the community of scientists who study the life surrounding, and bring life to, a ghost town.