The dozen high school students in the iCREATE CTE Bioscience class toured two very different labs at NAU on Monday, April 24th. First, they ventured to the Geochronology Lab in the Science Lab Facility building where Lab Manager Katherine Whitacre described the process of amino acid racemization and how it is used to date small specimens including single microorganisms or bits of mollusk shells, egg shells, etc. Northern Arizona University has one of the few amino acid geochronology labs in the United States and has analyzed samples from all over the world for almost 20 years under the leadership of Lab Director and Regents Professor Darrell Kaufman. Below, graduate student Ethan Yackulic showed one of his sediment cores from Crater Lake in Colorado.
The lab has a large walk-in refrigerator with lake cores from all over the world, collected by NAU researchers and graduate students. The cores are kept cold so unwanted microorganisms don't grown on the surfaces. Ethan uses a Specim hyperspectral single core scanner designed for studying lake sediment core samples. By changing the range of wavelengths, he can detect locations of specific minerals or organic compounds, to help pinpoint where to collect his samples.
In the photos above: Katherine is dissolving mollusk shells with hydrochloric acid, an iCREATE student looks at shells under the microscope, and graduate student Kara Gibson uses a particle size analyzer on soil samples for her dissertation research.
Many of the research results from this lab focus on understanding paleoclimate change, which may then inform our understandings of, and models for, present climate change. You can learn more about this research here.
The next tour was to Nathan Nieto's lab in the Wettaw Biochemistry Building. Dr. Nieto has studied numerous animals in the past, but these days his lab is overwhelmed with ticks being mailed to him from all over the country. On an average day, the graduate students and undergraduate researchers in his lab will identify, grind, extract DNA and run real time PCR on 200-400 samples to determine whether the tick is host to pathogens such as Lyme disease and tick-borne relapsing fever. One week in May of 2016 he received over 2,000 ticks in the mail and it looks like he may exceed that this May. The tick study will identify what regions of the country have which species of ticks and what diseases they are carrying. This project will create a "heat map" of tick-borne diseases that can then be used by doctors and epidemiologists.
Photos above: Nate looks over where some of the many ticks are being mailed from, just a few of the mailboxes of ticks in his lab, and undergraduate Shienna Braga who is identifying the species of ticks at the microscope.
Photos above: Nate shows an iCREATE student the number of eggs one female tick laid, and graduate student Tanner Porter leads the lab tour for the students, including the refrigerator with thousands of samples from numerous animals including coyote tongues (possible reservoir for Rocky Mt. Spotted Fever), mice, squirrels, bats and more!
Nate's lab website explains what keeps him busy: "Our research focuses on the ecological maintenance and evolution of infectious diseases in wild animals and how this translates into transmission of disease to humans, domestic animals, and wildlife. We use a mixture of microbiology, molecular biology, phylogenetics and population ecology to investigate empirical infectious disease dynamics in wild animal populations.
Thank you Katherine, Nate, and generous students for sharing your time and knowledge with the iCREATE bioscience class!
Flagstaff STEM Coordinator