Ross Students Collaborate with Smithsonian Scientists

DSC_5058 Back in October, students participating in a Field Academy course in the Solomon Islands conducted marine studies alongside Smithsonian Institute scientists Dr. Sea McKeon and Dr. Chris Meyer. Since their return to the United States, the students have been hard at work producing a field guide that documents the hundreds of species they observed on the trip. During the week of May 18, Dr. McKeon and his research colleagues met with students at Ross to lend their expertise in identifying and documenting the marine organisms.

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In the Marine Science lab, Dr. McKeon, Smithsonian scientist Michele Weber, and CUNY (City University of New York) doctoral candidate Stephen Harris kicked things off with a workshop on the process of genetic barcoding and DNA extraction and sequencing. During the session, which also included students from a 2013 research trip to Mo’orea, the group accessed national gene sequence databases to take previously sequenced DNA samples from the Solomon Islands and identify matching organisms.

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“The process was full of excitement, because it was possible that a specimen was related to a species that nobody had ever entered into a worldwide database—or it might even be an entirely new discovery,” said junior Shanshan He, who helped collect samples in the Solomon Islands.

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Throughout the week, the students worked with the scientists to identify the specific species and images for a Solomon Islands field guide. They also spent time arranging the photos and information into a useful, visually appealing format.DSC_5067

When complete, the field guide will be submitted to the Solomon Islands government for review. The research may have a significant impact on the country’s future biodiversity studies, because there is currently no recognized academic source for information about marine species in the islands.

The scientists will stay in contact with the students through the conclusion of the project to offer guidance and information, as well as a final review of the field guide.

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“Working with the DNA of the specimens we collected is incredible. After diving, collecting, handling, photographing, and taking tissue samples, we are finally seeing the end result of our work,” said sophomore Evi Saunders. “After this experience, I most definitely want to pursue similar work for my Innovation Lab project next year, and potentially in the future.”

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Dr. McKeon and his colleagues also discussed the logistics and economic feasibility of equipping the Innovation Lab @Ross with technology for DNA extraction and amplification. “One of the major benefits is that our students can continue to expand their expertise in DNA research using the techniques introduced this week,” said Dr. Jack Szczepanski, Marine Science teacher at Ross. “Plus, the equipment would include a kit small enough to bring into the field on future research trips to collect hundreds of new specimens.”