Student Research Published in National Journal

On Monday, Lauren Howard ’12, Jimmy Philps ’12, Jamie Shenk ’12 and Min Jae Yoo ’12 joined the distinguished ranks of published scientific researchers.

After students in the Biology 580 class taught by Geoffrey Tanner, Instructor in Biology, conducted an ecology project last spring, Tanner submitted several of their research projects to the Journal of Experimental Secondary Science (JESS), “a professionally reviewed journal of high school science research,” according to the journal’s website.

Howard, Philps, Shenk and Yoo studied the effect of nitrogen levels in soil on the closure times of Venus Flytraps. They found that flytraps in nitrogen-rich soil tended either to close more slowly or to stop closing entirely.

Tanner approached the students about publishing their paper because the experiment had yielded clear and tangible results. “I sent [to JESS] the [papers] that I thought had the most interesting results, not that the other papers weren’t interesting, but some papers didn’t get any sort of monumental result,” he said.

Tanner said that he had never before had students publish a paper from his class. When the journal published the article, Tanner and the students toasted with apple cider to celebrate, according to Shenk.

The students proposed the experiment on Venus Flytraps because they knew that nitrogen-poor soil causes the flytraps to eat flies. The students hypothesized that if the flytraps lived in nitrogen-rich soil they might stop eating flies all together.

The group bought Venus Flytraps and positioned half of them in nitrogen-rich soil and the other half in nitrogen-poor soil. They used fertilizer to boost nitrogen levels in the nitrogen-rich soil and used peat moss to deplete the nitrogen levels in the nitrogen-poor soil. The group tested the nitrogen levels of the soil daily.

After testing the nitrogen levels, the group members used a pencil to touch the sensor that causes the trap to close and recorded the flytrap’s closure time.

Initially, the group planned to release flies into the containers of flytraps and count the remaining flies after the flytraps had eaten them. However, after the first batch of flies died, and the second batch never hatched, the group needed to rework the experiment.

Howard brainstormed the idea to trigger the sensors with a pencil. Tanner said that her plan salvaged the project.

“That ended up being a far better design because it was something they could quantify in terms of time. They ended up having two or three different really nice quantitative measures of the flytraps’ behavior,” he said.

Tanner sent the paper to JESS last spring and informed the group over the summer that the journal had decided to publish it.

However, the decision to publish the article also presented several difficulties. Once a scientific journal accepts a paper, other scientists critique it and may propose additional experiments.

Due to time constraints and a lack of resources, the students could not perform more experimentation. In addition, after the initial submission to JESS, the students had to edit portions of the paper but struggled because they completed it months before.

“A lot of it was trying to go back and figure out what we were doing or going back and trying to rework the statistics,” said Shenk.

Though the process was time consuming, the students responded well to the editorial critiques, according to Tanner.

“They were still able to produce a really good final product even though things didn’t work out the way they originally planned. It was good for me to see how innovative and insightful the students could be even when they were up against a wall,” he said.

“I was glad that Dr. Tanner inspired us to keep working on the project from last year because I never would have known that it was worth the extra effort without him,” said Philps.

“It was a relief to know that all the work we had put into it for the class and then this fall had actually paid off,” said Shenk.

The published article is available to be read online at the JESS website.