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Biology Meets History in Research Project

Institute Report, February 2010

It’s not often that a biology professor joins forces with a history major to conduct a research project, but that’s been the case for Maj. Anne Alerding since she began mentoring Cadet Travis Daniel last May during the Summer Undergraduate Research Institute.

Daniel and fellow 2nd Class Cadet Roy Hunter, a biology major, spent last summer collecting data on garlic mustard – Alliaria petiolata – an invasive, biennial herb that poses a severe threat to native plants and animals in forests in much of the eastern and midwestern United States. In fact, they didn’t have to go far to collect specimens of the plant, as it grows on forest land owned by both VMI and Washington and Lee University.

“We’re using garlic mustard as a model system to figure out how plants make decisions to allocate limited resources between vital processes such as growing, reproducing, or making defensive or competitive chemicals,” said Alerding. “Garlic mustard is an excellent choice because it is so pervasive and its genome is similar to Arabidopsis, the model plant for molecular genetic research. This allows us to explore the garlic mustard genome to determine how it produces a toxic chemical that is killing soil fungi that are beneficial to native tree species such as maples and ashes.”

While garlic mustard has been in the United States since the 1800s, Alerding said there is little research published on exactly how the plant affects the forest biosystem and how best to stop its spread. She hopes the work she’s been doing with Daniel and Hunter may shed more light on a growing problem.

Last summer Hunter concentrated his research on how the plant affects insects and spiders that live in the soil surrounding it; Daniel focused on how the life cycle might influence garlic mustard’s production of chemical toxins and whether the toxins come from the root or the leaves of the plant. Their work has continued through independent study projects.

Alerding, who taught both students in an introductory biology course, said she approached Daniel about the project because of his analytical and research skills and because he is patient and detail-oriented. Those traits came in handy last summer when equipment broke down in the lab and Daniel had to troubleshoot problems to keep the project moving along.

By contrast, Hunter loves the outdoors and enjoyed his work in the field. Despite sporadic weather conditions that tested his patience, he enjoyed the trial-and-error process of collecting specimens and studying the plant in its environment. The garlic mustard project has piqued his interest in environmental science, as well as in conducting research.

“I’m really enjoying the blend of research with field work,” said Hunter. “This project has given me new ideas about my future. I can see myself researching fish kills on the Shenandoah River or focusing on pollution or run off issues – perhaps a career as an environmental scientist or working for a wildlife refuge.”

While Daniel is sticking with his history major, he foresees biology playing a continuing role in his future.

“I plan on commissioning in the Army following graduation, but I can see myself teaching history or biology one day,” he said. “I didn’t like the way biology was taught at my high school; perhaps I might make a difference to students by teaching at a high school or community college.”