Young Nebraska Scientists researchers work at Doane

July 31, 2017

YNS High School Researchers help university research and grow their careers

Describing their scientific summer in under 25 words would be challenging for Crete High School seniors Luke Schroeder and Danny Tran, and sophomore Sam Ragorshek. As Young Nebraska Scientists’ High School Researchers, they worked for Doane University’s Biology Department Chair and Associate Professor Tessa Durham Brooks and Biology Department faculty member Erin Doyle and their teams with Nebraska’s Center for Root & Rhizobiome Innovation. CRRI is funded by the National Science Foundation via Nebraska EPSCoR, for crop improvement to help feed the world.

The CRRI project includes study of how nitrogen supplements affect corn plants’ root exudate growth: to better manage resources in precision agriculture. Durham Brooks and collaborators developed a method for measuring exudates and growth of living seedlings using nihydrin paper as a blotting sensor and analyzing images of seedlings and ninhydrin paper at regular intervals over several weeks. This method to measure root exudate production also helps Doane Bio expand the experiences of students in an introductory inquiry laboratory course Durham Brooks is designing around this project for the fall. In addition, it has contributed to the expanding computational biology curriculum in the department.

Luke, Danny and Sam agree that working as a YNS High School Researcher digs deeper than the average summer job. They applied through Nebraska EPSCoR and were chosen by the science team for their intellectual curiosity and fit with biology work, including computational aspects.

Danny’s YNS work focused on coding, an area he’d explored in high school computer science classes. Durham Brooks said an important part of modern biology involves using code to answer biological questions, and image processing is an especially new area. Doane Bio had a coding camp in early summer for its undergrads; Danny was unable to attend but used the camp materials to learn basic Python skills, then joined faculty and a team of undergraduates using image processing in their research to help develop code to analyze ninhydrin paper images. Luke and Sam also learned basic image analysis techniques to calculate root growth from the seedling images.

Luke had attended YNS Algae Biofuels Camp at Doane and said he plans to study science in college. As a High School Researcher, he enjoyed working in the lab and in a test field on the Doane campus, with insights from one site enhancing the other.

“This has been an interesting project and it’s given me a better understanding of science processes,” Luke said. “I’d love to do more with this.”

The trio attended Doane Bio’s weekly code review sessions, presented their work at a department meeting, and helped prepare a paper about the nihydrin innovation, which was submitted for publication in a science journal.

In addition to the pay ($9/hour for 35-40 hours per week for two months), all three youth gained a sense of camaraderie with Doane Bio group. As Danny summarized, “The science experience is worth a lot.”

Photo: YNS High School Researchers Luke Schroeder and Danny Tran discuss root pattern imaging with Tessa Durham Brooks (center) at Doane University. This work was funded by a National Science Foundation grant (#1557417) to Nebraska EPSCoR, for research on crop improvement to help better feed the world.

Young Nebraska Scientists' High School Researchers work with Doane University Biology Professor Tessa Durham Brooks