GGC students conduct research expedition in Mojave Desert

While their colleagues may have spent part of the summer at the beach, students and faculty from Georgia Gwinnett College spent part of their summer on desert sands.
 
James Russell and Clay Runck, both assistant professors of biology, led a summer research expedition in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. They were accompanied by three GGC biology majors – Angela Burrow, 37, of Lilburn; Mehul Desai, 28, of Lawrenceville and Nick Stewart, 29, of Lilburn. The team investigated some of the ecological interactions of the native plants, insects and animals. 
 
“Going on expeditions allows students to experience different environments, people and ideas,” said Russell, the trip’s organizer. “An education confined to classrooms excludes the experiential learning environment encountered beyond college campuses.” GGC puts emphasis on providing educational experiences both inside and outside of the classroom.
 
Members of the GGC School of Science and Technology are committed to field exploration, as it contributes to the development of students' interpersonal skills as productive and contributing members of a team under sometimes trying circumstances.  
 
“By spending an extended period of time at a location, students really get to learn about the area and its ecology, and go places and see things they may never have done had they simply been a tourist and driven through the Mojave Desert on a day trip,” Runck said.  “We saw some spectacular scenery and rich biodiversity in what appears to the casual observer as a wasteland.” 
 
Key scientific findings from the trip included:
 
• The replacement of a wasp species from one population by another wasp species. Data from the Kelso Dunes region of the Mojave Desert has been collected over the past 15 years. This is the first year the wasp species, Trichogramma kaykai, has not been found in significant numbers. It seems to have been replaced by another species called Trichogramma pratti.
 
• The desert metalmark butterfly, Apodemia mormo, suffered extremely high rates of parasitism in certain regions of the Mojave Desert samples. In the western Mojave region called Last Chance Canyon, 92 percent of the A. mormo eggs collected were parasitized by T. kaykai wasps.  
 
• Consistent with previous findings, the Wolbachia bacteria infection frequency for the T. kaykai population in the Mojave Desert was between 10-20 percent. This bacteria feminizes genetic males, turning them into functional females who are capable of cloning themselves. 
 
The team will add their collected data to a 20-year study of the T. kaykai population.  Burrow and Desai will present their research findings at regional and national scientific conferences. The entire expedition team will co-author and submit scientific papers on their findings. 
 
Stewart, who has a specific interest in pollinators, collected many species of pollinating bees, some possibly representing new range expansion data for some species. He is working with entomologists at the University of California - Riverside on species identifications. 
 
The three students were not the only ones to benefit from the expedition. Several other biology students are completing genetic and behavioral research on wasp species collected during the trip.  
 
Expedition team members said the most significant challenge of the experience was water scarcity. The research station housing the group suffered a water pipe break that depleted much of the water supply, leading to strict water conservation. In addition, transporting five people by car and airplane was difficult at times. However, the team noted that the research station was beautifully situated in the Granite Mountains of the eastern Mojave Desert, and everyone pitched in when it came to cooking and cleaning, making for an enjoyable stay.  
 
“The expedition allowed me to apply classroom concepts from numerous classes to real situations,” Burrow said. “I gained invaluable experience in conducting research that does not have a prescribed resolution.” 
 
The experience also helped students solidify concepts across disciplines, such as applying statistics to ecology, and provided insight into how to guide student-driven learning. Russell plans to conduct similar expeditions in the future.
 
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