August 04, 2017 | Hannah Ebeling

Calvin senior Jenna Van Donselaar's (right) summer research experience is taking her to remote places where almost every plant is rare.

This summer, 85 students participated in Calvin College’s summer research. The program spans 10 weeks and allows students to explore one of 56 projects in eight different STEM fields.

The projects investigate a wide variety of topics ranging from cancer research and the evolution of binary stars to clean water and natural habitat restoration.

Cataloguing Grand Rapids flora

Jenna Van Donselaar, a senior at Calvin, is spending the summer working on the Emma Cole Project with biology professor, David Warners and visiting professor, Garrett Crow. In 1901, botanist Emma Cole published a book, which catalogues the flora of the Grand Rapids area. The aim of the Emma Cole Project is to revisit these sights, or similar sights, and see how the plant life of Grand Rapids has changed over the past 100 years, explained Van Donselaar. “My role, then, is to visit sights and collect any plant life, flower or fruit, identify the samples, and assess each location for floristic quality,” she said.

Warners said, “This project has helped us come to terms with a lot of the changes that have gone on in the last 100 years.” He said some of the sites have been replaced with things like parking lots. “There’s this mixture of excitement and feeling heartbroken; some of the sites are gone, but some are remarkably similar.” 

“Our project involves visiting many places that most people will never visit,” said Van Donselaar. “One place that we get to go to is a very beautiful bog, where almost every plant is rare. Walking out on the bog mat (floating sphagnum moss over water) is a surreal experience in itself, and eating the wild blueberries and cranberries just sweetens it.”

The work from this project will contribute to a series of scientific papers and an eventual updated edition of Cole’s Grand Rapids Flora.

Restoring natural habitats 

“Summer research is a very different environment than a classroom,” said Greg Manni, a junior. “It’s very concentrated. You are focused on just one thing and can really own the work you are doing.” Manni is also working with Warners on a project that will inform best strategies for successful urban restoration projects.

Part of the project involves installing curb-cut rain gardens in urban neighborhoods. By replacing the lawn between the sidewalk and the street with a garden, the amount of water ending up in the creek is minimized and flooding is potentially reduced. In addition, students collect and process data from the curb-cut rain gardens that were installed last year.

Manni said the students are also in charge of collecting seeds that will be used for next year’s gardens. “Seed collecting is something I’ve really enjoyed,” he said. “It’s cool to think that in a few months they will be seedlings and then, a part of the rain gardens next year.”

Manni said a highlight of the summer was getting to design one of the rain gardens they installed.  “It will be so cool to come back to the garden years from now and see how it’s grown,” he said.

Building confidence in research 

Warners has worked with students on summer research since he began teaching at Calvin.

“One of the reasons I came to teach here is because they emphasize research,” he said. “Undergrads don’t always have the opportunity to participate in research like this.”

Several students said they see summer research as a way to explore fields they are interested in at a much deeper level. “Before this summer, my interest in botany was only just developing,” said Van Donselaar. “As the summer winds down, I find that I see the world differently. Every plant is exciting; each plant has something that makes it special.”

Manni appreciates that the program allows students to explore and flourish in their own way. “There’s not this idea that everyone needs the same experience,” he said. 

At the end of the summer, each student presents their work at a poster session. There are also opportunities for students to co-author papers and present their work along with faculty.

Warners said he loves getting to know students at a different level during the summer and seeing their growth by the end of the project. “It’s almost like watching a kid learn to ride a two-wheeled bike,” he said about the students. “At first, they think, I could never do this, but later it becomes natural.”

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