Research / Science / Technology and Health

Collaborative science research provides undergraduates with research opportunities

Written by Dean Forbes

November 19, 2020

Biology students and professor
Students and Associate Professor Kristin Hultgren, PhD, at a Puget Sound shoreline collecting data for a study on seagrass ecosystems. From left: Logan Ossentjuk, '21; Carolyn Fish, '19; Professor Hultgren; and Karyssa Miller, '19

Collaborative research is the norm in many scientific disciplines. It becomes especially rewarding when faculty researchers involve their students, says Kristin Hultgren, PhD, associate professor of biology.

“It allows students to see themselves as participants—rather than just observers—in the community of science,” she says.

Hultgren studies marine species diversity, using both ecological and evolutionary tools. Locally, she is involved in several studies examining ecological patterns in crustacean biodiversity in the Puget Sound.

Globally, Hultgren works on a group of mega-diverse, primarily tropical snapping shrimps, examining species diversification from an evolutionary point of view. A 2017 collaboration with colleagues in the UK discovered a new species of snapping shrimp they named after the rock band Pink Floyd for its striking bright pink claw. Synalpheus pinkfloydi, discovered on the Pacific Coast of Panama, was a science media darling for a time.

“Collaboration with other scientists has been a very critical part of my research program and it’s really fun, especially when I get to involve students,” she says. “For example, I’m collaborating with a scientist at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration) to analyze crustacean biodiversity from a set of sampling devices set out all over the Puget Sound. Students in my spring 2019 biodiversity research class helped me on this project by generating DNA barcodes for a large set of samples, helping us identify the specimens.”

Hultgren’s snapping shrimp research also relies on collaborators from Tennessee and Brazil. They correspond regularly over email and Zoom and pre-COVID, would meet up in the field or at museums to work together in person.

A recent multi-scientist project, the subject of a paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution’s Marine Global Earth Observatory program of which Hultgren was a co-author, was a large collaboration of teams conducting the same experiment around the world, testing predation stress and predator biodiversity (mostly fishes) in seagrass beds. 

“My students, Lucas Bartholomew-Good, ‘17 and Angela Moran, ’17, and I conducted our part of the experiment in the seagrass beds at Redondo Beach, near Des Moines in 2016. However, Lucas also repeated the experiment, as part of his own independent research, at several other sites around the Puget Sound to test if it could be a viable method to measure predation locally.”

In summer 2019, Hultgren was involved in another worldwide collaborative project in seagrass beds, again sponsored by the Marine-GEO collaborative, this time examining food webs and the flow of energy through seagrass ecosystems. Students Carolyn Fish, ‘19, Logan Ossentjuk, ’21, Karyssa Miller, ’19, and Piper Klinger, ‘21 helped her collect data in the field.

“Food webs describe the interactions between different organisms in an ecosystem—you can think of it as the network of all of the food chains, mapping what eats what,” says Hultgren. “The seagrass food webs project, which we completed our data collection for in summer 2019, is designed to map food webs in seagrass bed ecosystems around the world and also to estimate how energy moves between different levels in the food web.”

She and her team of students collected data on seagrass density and biomass, the plants and animals that live on and among seagrass and several water quality measurements such as salinity and temperature.

All the work on the two seagrass projects was completed before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. That hasn’t brought research to a halt, however. Hultgren recently started a three-year project, funded by the National Science Foundation, studying snapping shrimp biodiversity worldwide.

“We were supposed to go to the Great Barrier Reef to sample this summer. Although we’ve had to postpone that trip, I’ve recruited three undergraduates to work on another component of this project remotely this fall,” she says.

The students participated in discussing journal articles with Hultgren’s Tennessee and Brazilian collaborators this fall and will present their results on their research at the end of the quarter.

“I’ve often worked on projects with remote collaborators but Zoom makes it much more convenient to meet frequently and it has been especially fun to involve my undergraduate researchers in those conversations,” she says.

One of the students working on the latest project is Shefali Menezes, ‘22. The genus of shrimp she is studying is Alpheus, a diverse group of snapping shrimp that is globally distributed with hundreds of species and a good model to explore marine biodiversity.

During fall quarter she and two other students collected data pertaining to Alpheus size, distribution and morphology, which was overseen by Hultgren.

“In the last few weeks of the quarter we got to work in the coding language R to make graphs from the data we had collected and compare our results to our initial hypotheses,” says Menezes. “Despite not being able to be physically in the lab it was rewarding to create hypotheses and then see if there was any significant correlation at the end of the quarter.”

Another student on the project, Jessica Albert, ’23, says “Working in Dr. Hultgren's lab this quarter has been very rewarding both personally and scientifically. Because we had to collect data without being able to meet in person, I wasn't sure how much data we would be able to collect and if it would lead to a significant result. However, we were able to get quite a few significant results from our data that we are excited to continue researching next quarter.

“My work with Dr. Hultgren has shown me that even when all your plans get thrown out the door, you can still find creative and adaptive ways to continue your projects, even if it wasn't exactly how you had hoped the project would go.”