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Undergrads Study Endangered Plant Species During Zoo Internship

Undergraduate students Omer Donmez and Jill Bailey performed genetic research on the Todsen’s pennyroyal plant during an internship at the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

Date: 1/18/2012 12:00:00 AM
By: Omer Donmez and Jillian Bailey

UC ingot   For the past seven months, Omer Donmez and Jill Bailey, undergraduate students in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences' Environmental Studies program, have taken part in an internship at the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

The internship focuses on examining the genetic diversity of different populations of the endangered plant, Hedeoma todsenii, commonly known as Todsen’s pennyroyal. This plant is found at specific altitudes in the Sacramento and San Andres mountain ranges in south central New Mexico. Several of the populations are on the US Army’s White Sands Missile Range. The Army is funding this work to further the research of the total species population and the subpopulations growing on its range. The plant qualifies as an endangered species because of human intrusion on its habitat; low population sizes and low genetic diversity; grazing from animals; droughts; disease; and other unpredicted events which could have devastating effects on the plant. Dr. Doug Winget, a former University of Cincinnati professor, is the project supervisor.
Undergraduate students Omer Donmez and Jill Bailey work together in the lab at their internship at the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden.

Winget and other CREW staff have taught Donmez and Bailey vital skills for daily laboratory maintenance and the process of researching the conservation of plants and animals, specifically using plant genetics. The process starts by extracting DNA from plant tissue that has been propagated through tissue culture by other CREW staff members. Next, the interns run the samples through a polymerase chain reaction to randomly amplify the DNA. This is then run through a process called gel electrophoresis, which produces a gel with distinct bands of DNA. The differences in these bands represent the differences in the genetic make up of the plants. The interns apply this genetic information to create computer-generated phylogenetic “family trees.” Preliminary analysis shows differences in genetic material from plants that were collected in different areas of New Mexico.  

Bailey, a fifth year undergraduate student in environmental studies and psychology, said the internship has helped her realize working in conservation is a legitimate option for her professional future.

“Being a graduating senior, I was shocked to find that I had much to learn outside of school,” Bailey said. “This internship has helped me learn about the workings of an active research lab.  I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to work with individuals who have been where I am and have made it to the top of the profession and consequently made huge differences in conservation science. This has been an experience that I am sure not to forget as I grow as a professional and carry out my dreams.”

Donmez, a second year undergraduate student in environmental studies, noted the hands-on nature of the internship stoked his interest in genetic research.

“I came into this experience knowing that my future was in a scientific field but never knew the exact path,” Donmez said. “Working under Dr. Winget has allowed me to gain tremendous insight into the genetic research field. The hands on experience that I gained along with the understanding of the workings of a specialized scientific laboratory have intensified my curiosity to further delve into this field. This internship has focused my decision to pursue a career in genetic research. As a second year undergraduate my options are still open. But my curiosity in science has been unleashed.”

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