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two ICCE students work on photographing the glaciers in the Wind River Range

Central Wyoming College uses the IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE) grant to foster coordination, development, and resource sharing in the expansion of multidisciplinary research.

CWC’s Alpine Science Institute Associate Professor of Environmental Health Jacki Klancher said this grant provides unique opportunities for students in the college’s science departments.

Collectively, the INBRE program helps us to promote hands-on opportunities in field and lab-based biological and microbiological pursuits. The hope is that these opportunities will encourage students to explore academic and career pathways in the fields of biology, medicine and related fields. ”

Alongside Klancher, CWC instructors Tarissa Spoonhunter, Tara Womack, Aaron Bender, and Kirsten Kapp use INBRE funds to enhance the learning experiences of students in their departments.

Alpine Science Institute (ASI)

At the ASI, INBRE funds take students all over the world.

In 2018, the grant funded the Tanzania Scientific Research Expedition. This field-based expedition to East Africa involved students from all over the nation and included partnerships with NOLS and the University of Wyoming. The trip was repeated in 2019, as CWC students Tawna Herrera and Jada Antelope collected soil samples and implemented a high elevation microbial ecology project.

In 2019, the grant also funded two Interdisciplinary Climate Change Expeditions (ICCE) that were closer to home. Klancher said these trips provided unique research experiences for students of multiple skill levels.

“The first expedition was for students newer to field-based sampling and focused almost exclusively on collecting soil samples from hard to reach alpine environments in the Wind River Range,” she said.

These samples were used to address microbial ecology questions and were applied to archaeology and ecology research. 

The second trip gave students the opportunity to conduct similar soil sampling and expanded to include water quality and quantity research. Both expeditions involved classroom preparation and training in DNA extraction to provide instruction on the biological foundations of the fieldwork. This was integral to ensure students fully benefited from the experience in their future science careers.

Health Sciences

INBRE funds recruit and direct students along educational pathways that lead to careers in the health industry. To accomplish this, American Indian Studies Instructor Tarissa Spoonhunter has used the grant to fund her project, “Health Science Pathways on the Wind River Indian Reservation,” for a long time.

“I have partnered with INBRE for six years now,” Spoonhunter said.

For her project, Spoonhunter focuses on various tribal health and community wellbeing topics including diabetes, mental health, water issues, issues involving higher education, tribal community research and bison reintroduction.

Spoonhunter’s team attended the Native American Summer Institute which was a week-long seminar that allowed participants to visit Department of Agriculture-based health and nutrition science programs. 

After participating in the institute, Spoonhunter said her group members were ready to put what they learned into practice.

“We started to do 4-5 hour workshops on health issues facing tribal communities,” Spoonhunter said. “We usually get about 8-14 students and community members at the workshops.” 

Spoonhunter said attending members are typically interested in learning how traditional food and plants help address contemporary health issues. 

INBRE also funds science-based internships for students with health challenges. For example, CWC alumnus Stanley Stowe participated in a botany internship at the University of Wyoming. 

“It was for impaired hearing that I was given the internship,” Stowe said. “They furnished a room, food and I was paid after I completed the two-month internship.”

In addition to enjoying the educative component of the experience, Stowe really appreciated taking part in UW campus life. 

“It is amazing–the complexity and grandeur of the university,” he said. “It was a good experience.”

Spoonhunter said these kinds of experiences not only help participants balance their educational and tribal perspectives, but they also influence the development of her whole department.

“We are currently expanding the health science program to incorporate more tribal worldviews of health, such as clean water environmental science and agriculture and farming,” she said.

Biological/Physical Sciences

Professor of Biology Tara Womack relied on INBRE grant funds to research Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) in American Indian (AI) women in a three-year partnership with the School of Nursing’s Assistant Professor Rebecca Carron. 

“We found that AI women present with different symptoms than nonnative American Indian women,” Womack said.

Womack and Biological and Physical Sciences Instructor Aaron Bender are currently focusing on a pilot test that investigates the connection between mood, circadian rhythm and binge eating. This study will contribute to their research on the relationship between cortisol levels and eating disorders. 

Adam Hoke, one of the students working alongside Womack and Bender, will perform saliva analysis on study participants for this cortisol project. However, he said the process has been delayed due to COVID-19 campus closures.

“We had a late start in the lab,” Hoke said. “Since my peers and I are new to biology research, we have mostly just been familiarizing ourselves with the lab equipment and perfecting our techniques.”

When campus reopens, Hoke is looking forward to analyzing participant saliva.  

“We have samples in the lab ready for testing, but unfortunately we will not be able to run the analysis until we are able to work in the lab again,” he said. 

Microplastics Research

Biology and Math Instructor Kirsten Kapp’s research involves microplastic pollution. With INBRE funding, she hires assistant student researchers who are interested in using fieldwork to focus on the human dimensions of environmental problems. 

Kapp, who has degrees in wildlife management and conservation biology, first zeroed in on this area of expertise in 2014.

“At first my interest was from an ecological and wildlife perspective,” Kapp said. 

Kapp was invited aboard an oceanographic research vessel with an organization her friend and colleague founded called the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean. On the vessel, Kapp worked with volunteers to dissect Atlantic Herring and record the presence of microplastics.

She said this research led to inquiries about microplastics in freshwater trout.

“At the time, little was known regarding if microplastics were present in our freshwater systems and at what concentrations,” Kapp said. “So before trying to understand the potential impacts that microplastics have on our ecosystems, one needs first to determine if they are present and where.”

This observation led to Kapp’s first study on microplastic pollution in the Snake River. She worked with CWC student Ellen Yeatman to chart pollutants as they camped along the river.

In 2018, the pair published their study, “Microplastic hotspots in the Snake and Lower Columbia rivers: A journey from the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to the Pacific Ocean.”

Kapp said results from both this study and from another similar study on the Hudson River conducted by friend and colleague Rachael Miller, revealed a high presence of microfibers. 

“It is now well established that the most common form of microplastics are microfibers,” she said.

For the next phase of her research, Kapp used snow samples for two different studies. She supervised CWC student Mark Star as he collected high elevation snow samples from the Dinwoody Cirque in the Wind River Range.

For the other study, Kapp worked with CWC student Zach Andres, who enrolled in one of Kapp’s biology classes because he was interested in pursuing a wildlife biology career. This class was where he first learned about her INBRE-funded research assistant position.

“Kirsten showed me her previous microplastics research and asked if I was interested,” Andres said. “Of course I was.“

Kapp and Andres worked together to develop a method to sample the microplastics released from dryer vents.

“We agreed that snow would be an excellent medium,” Andres said. “After fresh snowfall, we would run the dryer with synthetic clothing and count the microplastics that spewed from the dryer vent at a distance of five, 10 and 15 feet.”

Andres said he learned a lot from Kapp during their first year of this project.

“I learned how to set up a hypothesis and experiment, develop sample and analysis protocol, and to interpret and present results,” he said. “Kirsten was there every step of the way. Without her, I wouldn’t have had the confidence and knowledge to move forward on the project.”

Andres presented their findings at Undergraduate Research Day at the University of Wyoming.  His work helped form the basis of Kapp’s and Miller’s recent study that addresses microfiber pollution from electric vented dryers which was featured in the October 2020 edition of Forbes.

Andres went on to land a seasonal technician position for Anna Ortega at UW. This turned into a nearly two-year job that involved a variety of big game species, and Andres attributes much of his success to Kapp and his work as a research assistant.

“Without Kirsten and INBRE, I’m not sure I would have landed that job,” he said. “Having that extra research experience and Kirsten as a reference was instrumental in advancing towards a new career.“ 

Both the grant money and its overseeing instructors are vital to the success of students in the various science programs at CWC.

“INBRE has been invaluable in helping advance students interested in making connections between biological foundations from classroom and lab activities to field-based environmental sampling in microbial ecology,” Klancher said.