Science fair project grows from museum collection
APRIL 2011 - After Marlene Bond watched the movie An Inconvenient Truth, the 13-year-old eighth grader at Randy Smith Middle School in Fairbanks grew curious about the phenomena of global warming. After she learned that Alaska is on the front line of research, with scientists measuring symptoms like melting glaciers, thawing permafrost and the migration of shrubs north into the tundra, she wanted more information.
As it happens, Marlene’s mother knows firsthand about plants and shrubs. Steffi Ickert-Bond is the herbarium curator at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. “Although I am interested in climate change and the effect it has on plants in the Arctic, my research focuses on questions related to biogeography and taxonomy. I thought using our collection to investigate climate change in arctic plants made sense.”
Marlene decided to test whether dwarf arctic birch showed a response to elevated carbon dioxide levels for her science fair project. Plants absorb CO2 with help from tiny cells in the plant called chloroplasts, which convert the gas “breathed” by the stomata into oxygen. Studies have shown a direct link between lower stomatal density and increased levels of CO2.
Marlene counted the stomata on leaves from samples in the museum’s herbarium collection spanning the last century. “I never knew that plants had little openings called stomata and how they worked. I never really understood how global warming worked. Now I understand it much better and I hope we can all make a better effort to save energy and produce less carbon dioxide.”
One specimen Marlene examined was collected in 1898 on an archipelago called Svalbard in northern Norway, while other samples were collected throughout Alaska as recently as 2004. These historical specimens provided the basis for showing that, over time, plants have been tracking an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Did the person who collected the specimen in 1898 know it would be used for this purpose? “No,” said Ickert-Bond. “That is the beauty and value of natural history collections. They are being collected and maintained as vouchers for floristic surveys or as by-products from environmental impact statements. We do not know how else they might be used in the future.”
Or the honors that information might help today’s students win. Marlene’s project was picked to compete in the Interior Alaska Science Fair, where she enthusiastically explained her work to visiting scientists. “I won an award from the Association of Women in Science and a microscope from the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. Now I can look at all sorts of things under my microscope in my own house.”
Other students have created science fair projects with the help of the herbarium collection, including Stephen Chen, who placed third at the 2011 Statewide High School Science Symposium with a project called “Speciation Between Two Varieties of Osmundastrum cinnamomeum: var. cinnamomeum and var. glandulosa.” Chen worked with museum collection manager Jordan Metzgar for more than a year, studying how to distinguish two species of cinnamon fern.
“I found it to be extremely rewarding,” Metzgar said. “Stephen was eager to learn the intricacies of each protocol we used. He was an asset to my own research through his contagious enthusiasm to discoveries that had become blasé for me over the years.”
Part of the museum’s mission is sharing collections with the public and making them available to students and researchers. Now that the science fair is over, the work Ickert-Bond shared with her daughter will keep her inspired over the coming years. “Once I saw the results Marlene achieved, it sparked an interest to follow up with more in-depth research on the effect climate change has on arctic plants.”