The College of Our Lady of the Elms has received a research grant of $31,700 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will provide for international and domestic travel, field work and collaboration with colleges across the U.S.

NSF Grants Elms $31,700 for Biological Diversity Research

Adult Blepharoneura fruit flies feed on plant surfaces such as the leaves and flowers of Gurania spinulosa. Image courtesy of Marty Condon, Cornell College.

National Science Foundation Awards Elms College $31,700 Grant for Research on Biological Diversity

The College of Our Lady of the Elms has received a research grant of $31,700 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will provide for international and domestic travel, field work and collaboration with colleges across the U.S.

The funding will allow Nina Theis, Ph.D., associate professor of biology at Elms College, to travel to Peru with two undergraduates to study tropical cucumber species in the field, as well as peacock flies – a type of true fruit fly that feeds on these cucumbers – and wasps that feed on the flies. It also will allow Elms students to attend national and regional conferences, as well as a workshop in Georgia.

The Elms project is part of a larger collaborative study of biological diversity, evolution and speciation – the evolutionary process of species origination – in the tropics. The NSF funding for the entire project, titled “Diversification Dynamics of Multitrophic Interactions in Tropical Communities,” totals nearly $2 million. That $2 million represents one of only 10 grant packages awarded by the foundation’s Dimensions of Biodiversity program this year. Marty Condon, Ph.D., of Cornell College in Iowa is leading the research team, which includes participants from Elms College, the University of Iowa, the University of Georgia and North Carolina State University.

“The larger project is to try and understand what drives diversity: why new species arise in this system at such a rapid rate,” Theis said.

Theis’ piece of the project focuses on her specific area of expertise: She studies fragrance in flowers and the effect of fragrance on insect attraction. Her component of this project will focus on the cucumber odors that attract the herbivorous peacock flies as well as the parasitoid wasps that feed on the flies. (Parasitoids are not the same as parasites: As adults, the parasitoid wasps find the flies feeding inside the plant. They lay their eggs on the flies, and their offspring live and feed inside the body of the fly, eventually killing it.)

In previous work, Theis has studied the fragrance in, and pollinator and herbivore attraction to, a variety of plants in the cucumber family. “We’re going to analyze the fragrances of the flowers and see if we can find out how these insects are attracted,” she said. Then she and her team will determine whether fragrance is a driver in host detection and specificity, or why specific flies and wasps are attracted to specific parts of the flower. They also will conduct trapping experiments in the field with parts of the flower or extracted fragrance from the flower.

The field work will mean traveling to Peru, which is a valuable opportunity for Elms students. “Research is a great experience for any student,” Theis said. “It requires a lot of diligence and a lot of independence, and in order to get into graduate school these days, you have to have research experience. It’s something people look for on resumes, because it shows that your professors thought well of you, that they wanted to invest their time in working with you. And with all the skills that you get from doing research, it puts you ahead of the game.”

In addition to the field work, the grant includes funding for Theis to hire students to analyze the fragrance data over the summer. Two Elms students also will be invited to attend a bioinformatics workshop at the University of Georgia. Bioinformatics involves the techniques and software that analyze and interpret large biological data sets; the workshop will train these students in the latest methods, and that training will give them valuable experience in a fast-growing field of study.

The students also will have the opportunity to attend scientific meetings and conferences, which will help them network in the field, gain experience in presenting research and learn about other scientists’ work.

“This is an exciting time to be a science major at Elms,” said Theis, who also is the director of the ElmSTEMs program, supported by a separate NSF grant of $620,620. ElmSTEMs awards scholarships, ranging from $3,800 to $10,000, to students who attend Elms College full-time and major in STEM fields such as biology, computer information technology, chemistry or mathematics. The program also provides opportunities for: lab and field research, science and technology internships, STEM-related service learning, industry experiential career enrichment, and networking with industry professionals. The first group of ElmSTEM scholars started at Elms College this fall, and applications are already being accepted for fall 2016.

“We have this STEM grant -- it’s an educational grant: scholarships, money for students to get experience in STEM -- and it’s really great synergism to have the STEM grant and the research grant at the same time,” Theis said. “Two of the things our STEM grant promises are that there will be scholarships and that our students will get research experience. And now we have the money to give our students paid jobs doing research on campus and a very high-quality tropical research experience.”

For more information about the ElmStem program, visit the ElmSTEM page.