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SCALE lab allows biology students to sample a variety of research projects

SCALE lab allows biology students to sample a variety of research projects
The SCALE lab exposes students to a variety of science research projects to find where their interest lie.

The idea for a research laboratory came to University of North Georgia (UNG) professors David and Jessica Patterson when they were sitting in the driveway of their Athens, Georgia home in 2017.

David, an assistant professor, and Jessica a lecturer, both in the biology department, wanted the opportunity to give back, to help students navigate the post-graduate world of science and academia, and to better prepare them for the real world.

"We want the students to be able to conduct research they are most interested in that we are also knowledgeable about," David said. "Luckily we have diverse but overlapping backgrounds in research to facilitate that."

The lab, Study of Community And Landscape Evolution (SCALE), provides students a unique opportunity for undergraduate research experiences.

"In the SCALE lab, the students come to us, and they talk about what kind of research they want to do," Jessica said. "We have four projects going on now between David and me. One student takes the lead on the project and is assisted by other students. Through the course of their research all the students gain a diversity of skills."

The Pattersons' goal is to expose the students in the SCALE lab to a variety of research projects to find out where their interests lie. They have the students do extensive literature reviews, write grant proposals, create budgets, and prepare for presenting at conferences.

They also hold sessions on how to write abstracts, prepare resumes, fill out applications for graduate school, and conduct mock job interviews. It is everything students need to know to function in the real world, but aren't typically taught in the classroom.

David Patterson received a 2018 Presidential Summer Incentive Award for one of the projects, "New Insights into the Global Extinction of Late Pleistocene Mammals Through Renewed Explorations in Coastal Georgia."

The objective of the project is to use newly collected and existing mammal fossils from coastal Georgia to better understand the environmental dynamics of the region during the late-Pleistocene extinction event. The project will allow Patterson to mentor students in excavation of fossil materials, creation of a database that includes new and existing fossil collections, application of geochemical analyses to the collections and reporting the findings.

Another project is a proposal the Pattersons submitted for a UNG Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (CURCA) mini-grant titled "Unlocking Ancient Carnivore Ecology with Contemporary Feeding Experiments."

The research involves how the wolves and lions at the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve in Dahlonega, Georgia chew their food, comparing markings on contemporary cattle bones to ones from ancient bones found in the marshes of coastal Georgia. Comparing the chewing patterns helps determine the types of predators and prey that roamed those areas in the past. The project allows the students to perform volunteer work at the preserve, and in exchange the preserve provides an environment for the group to perform specialized research.

Jasmine Williamson, 21, a senior biology major, was assisting another student's research project studying fish to determine the effects humans have on the health of Hurricane Creek in Lumpkin County. Williamson loves salamanders and discovered that southern Appalachia has one of the highest and most diverse salamander concentrations in the world.

Williamson set up traps in two areas—one was a pristine forest of old hardwoods, the other a nearby area clear-cut to harvest the timber that had been replanted with pine trees. Her research project's goal was to determine if the differences in the two ecological systems affect the number, size and variety of the salamander population.

Every day, Williamson checked the traps, counted and measured the salamanders and then checked the temperature, moisture and pH levels in the soil. She plans to conduct research throughout the year before reporting her findings.

"The Pattersons' allowed me to be part of a lab with like-minded individuals and take the initiative of my own research project, one that I'm passionate about," Williamson said. "A lot of the research I do couldn't be done by one person, which is what makes this lab experience so great. We learn from each other by helping each other out, and at the same time we have a chance to do the research we love."

Students interested in learning more about the SCALE lab can contact David or Jessica Patterson.

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