NE EPSCoR 2020 programs pivot to sustain mission amid pandemic

August 27, 2020

As 2020 began, Nebraska EPSCoR had planned more #STEM-themed summer camps and #REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) placements than prior years. These efforts carried the momentum of the final year of the Center for Root and Rhizobiome Innovation’s (CRRI) funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

By March, new camps in the Young Nebraska Scientists (YNS) program were forming at central Nebraska’s Prairie Plains Resource Institute,  at Bellevue University, and other sites. Five REU students had committed from multiple universities across America. Their University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) mentors were equally excited for these summer-term additions to their labs.

Crop experiment outside on corn stalk
Image: Remote Researchers, high school students funded by Nebraska EPSCoR,
conduct backyard science including plant soil microbiome studies

When the coronavirus pandemic all but closed campuses throughout the nation, many STEM outreach endeavors were stopped in their tracks – but Nebraska EPSCoR teams creatively pivoted to alternative offerings:

CRRI REUs and mentors shared their preferences, and all favored virtual experiences rather than cancelling placements. Zoom connections and adjusted research plans to accommodate remote participation were applied, in order to implement as many planned events as possible. CRRI was one of three REU programs at UNL that fulfilled its REU commitment; nine other REU programs could not make this shift. The REU students in CRRI’s Summer 2020 cohort decided to conduct weekly online group sessions to discuss their learning across their areas—almost as if they were living in Lincoln as planned. UNL Graduate Studies convened online gatherings of its REU participants to share content— goal-setting, leadership training, and science communication —with an interactive workbook guiding their summer’s professional development. The experience culminated in the REU students’ individual presentations at UNL’s Summer Research Symposium, with a poster session conducted via Zoom. Every CRRI participant conveyed their summer’s research focus and growth. The talk by Cailin Smith (from Indiana’s Goshen College, and mentored by UNL Biochemistry’s Kasia Glowacka) earned the judges’ award for Top Presentation of the event.

  • Young Nebraska Scientists (YNS) High School Researchers typically work for a summer on-campus in the labs of CRRI scientists. Circumstances required implementing Zoom for mentoring and check-ins. Students were paired with UNL PhDs led by Rajib Saha (Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering), Sabrina Russo (Biological Sciences), Chi Zhang (Biological Sciences), Jinliang Yang (Agronomy and Horticulture), and Toshihiro Obata (Biochemistry). These teams completed tasks that included: utilizing a computational tool for Qualitative Genetic Circuit Design for Eukaryotic Organisms; exploring the correlation between prairie plants and soil microbes in the Sandhills of western Nebraska; enhancing the understanding of biological systems by designing complex and efficient models to integrate genome sequences and expression profiles in molecular interactions; and researching the potential of recreating optimal plant microbiomes to yield larger crops in agriculture.

Even more innovative was a new set of YNS opportunities for high schoolers:

  • Nebraska Remote Researchers: Crop Root Microbiomes in Your Backyard. This summer program was created by CRRI’s investigators Karin van Dijk and Jinliang Yang, and led by  CRRI PhD candidate Michael Meier and other grad students. Those leaders developed kits including tools and protocols for growing maize and sorghum cultivars in 10’ x 10’ plots created and maintained by high school students throughout the state. Ten high schoolers from across Nebraska completed weekly Zoom calls and a final data workshop (analyzing microorganisms from root samples the youths collected at their plots), and each earned a $400 stipend . These youth also gained  hands-on experience amid experiments that served both CRRI and a related collaborative project (also NSF EPSCoR-funded) with the UNL Department of Agronomy and Horticulture, the Center for Plant Science Innovation, and the Nebraska EPSCoR’s Young Nebraska Scientists --along with several participants from Alabama, affiliated with the Hudson-Alpha Institute.

“Realizing that we couldn’t do business as usual, I am very proud of these CRRI researchers and grad students,” said Matt Andrews, director of Nebraska EPSCoR. “They devised a novel experience to provide our Nebraska high school researchers with an interesting and important project that could be safely implemented in the COVID-19 era.”

Remote Researcher and Pender High School junior Alexis B. commented:
Coming from a small town in Northeast Nebraska, I have spent my entire life surrounded by agriculture ... (but) this research program shed some light on the more complex aspects of farming I had never given thought to. This entire research project centered around microbes in the soil, something that we can only marvel at through a microscope.

My agricultural education advisor, Mr. Bartlett, brought this opportunity to my attention. Living in a rural location often means that I am at a disadvantage in terms of opportunities to engage in research, camps, and other events at the university. Researching remotely allowed me to satisfy my hunger for knowledge with equipment and guidance provided by UNL. It was exciting to ask questions and work with knowledgeable faculty. I was able to complete the research on my own time while also collaborating with others. Most of what I learned during the project was based on research methods and how to properly use lab equipment and follow procedures. I could not have asked for a better mentoring relationship with all of the UNL professors and personnel.

The ability to engage in meaningful research was extremely exciting to me as I am eager to learn more about the field of scientific research. Before this project, I was pretty sure that I wanted to spend my career in a lab. But, I was never one hundred percent sure. I had no way to see if that type of work brought me joy. The rush of adrenaline and enthusiasm that I experienced on the day that I prepared and collected samples solidified my plans for after high school. My passions lie in learning about human nutrition and sustainable agricultural practices.  I am now more motivated than ever to pursue research opportunities in college. Again, thank you for an outstanding research opportunity.