Building Nature Research Partnerships
A visionary partnership between NC State and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences aims to improve education and research opportunities at both institutions.
By David Kroll
On New Year’s Eve, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences welcomed its one-millionth visitor since opening its new wing — the 80,000-square-foot Nature Research Center — just eight months earlier. With the addition of the NRC, the museum now ranks as the No. 1 visitor destination in the state, bypassing the Biltmore in Asheville and the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. Building on the museum’s 134-year heritage and a collection of over three million specimens, the new center showcases the scientific discovery process in action: “How Do We Know?”
The NRC is best recognized by the giant globe sitting high above West Jones Street: the SECU Daily Planet theatre, a 70-foot diameter Landsat representation of the world. Its three-story interior serves as the nerve center for immersive multimedia programming, from highly produced nature footage to live presentations and interviews with scientists here and around the world. Brian Malow, a “science comedian” and seasoned science communicator, serves as curator of the Daily Planet and hosts these and other outreach programs, such as the museum café’s wildly successful Thursday night public events.
Research laboratories represent the broad topical ground of natural sciences: astronomy and space observation; biodiversity and earth observation; genomics and microbiology; and paleontology and geology. Together with a central instrumentation laboratory, the research spaces feature floor-to-ceiling glass walls that allow the public to view original scientific research in action. In addition, the Window on Animal Health features museum and NC State veterinary staff performing surgical procedures, such as the implantation of radio frequency identification tags. Two-way audio communications allows visitors to ask questions as veterinarians and veterinary students explain their progress. It is just one of the many partnerships between the NRC and NC State.
NRC Director Meg Lowman is a pioneering tree canopy biologist and conservation scientist who also serves as a research professor of natural sciences in the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences at NC State. Lowman and former museum director Betsy Bennett have worked jointly with the university’s deans and faculty to recruit directors of several of the new laboratories, who also have faculty appointments at NC State.
“With the critical NC State partnerships forged with Dean Dan Solomon, Dean Jeff Braden, and Dean Mary Watzin, the NRC becomes a giant laboratory for NC State students and faculty, as well as other University of North Carolina system partners,” says Lowman. “We hope this will facilitate training NC State students and also sharing science with youth, citizens and policymakers.”
Solomon, who heads the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, notes that the museum will now jointly administer The Science House, a K-12 outreach program which, for over two decades, has partnered with the state’s math and science teachers to bring the excitement of discovery to the classroom.
Solomon says the university’s partnership with the NRC not only helps educate the next generation of scientists, but also opens the door to better communication between researchers and the public.
“We cannot bemoan the fact that much of the public does not well understand climate change and the prospects for sea-level rise, nor vaccines, nor genetically-modified foods if scientists are talking only to each other,” he says.
Broadly speaking, Lindsay Zanno’s work addresses many questions about the dinosaur heritage of birds. Director of the NRC Paleontology and Geology Research Laboratory and research associate professor of biology, Zanno came most recently from the Field Museum in Chicago.
Zanno’s specific expertise in theropod dinosaurs is influenced by her graduate work at the University of Utah where she pioneered the study of Falcarius utahensis, a 126-million-year-old species found at Crystal Geyser Quarry in eastern Utah. Falcarius, Latin for “sickle-maker” to describe the dinosaur’s large hand claws, is thought to be the missing link between predatory dinosaurs and plant-eating therizinosaurs.
Zanno’s continuing work in Utah is only one of six ongoing field projects in the lab and her research program has a wide reach also, spanning the gap between conservation biology, geology, ecology and paleontology.
Zanno has two NC State graduate students and serves on the committees of two others. One student is decoding the evolution of Triassic apex predators. Other projects involve using phylogenetic methods to identify ecomorphological correlates in bird beaks (living dinosaurs) and modern proteomics techniques to study ancient crocodile teeth. Zanno’s team is applying other contemporary technology such as CT scans of a duck-billed dinosaur skull in preparation for an NC State student project on dinosaur beak preservation.
A dozen NC State undergraduates also gain experience through lab internships each year in fossil preservation, science communication, or research capitalizing on the museum’s rich collection of zoological and fossil specimens. This summer the laboratory is offering a six-week summer field school in paleontology for NC State students. Last year, the group travelled to the Okavango Delta in Africa to film instructional videos for biology classes.
Paul Brinkman, assistant director in that lab, not only teaches laboratory and field techniques to students, interns and volunteers but also serves as a bridge to the humanities. Brinkman is a historian of science focusing on the geology and vertebrate paleontology of the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly in the American West. With an appointment in the NC State Department of History, he is working on the O.C. Marsh Correspondence Project to document the work of the scientist he calls, “one of the pillars of American dinosaur paleontology.”
Bridging the sciences and the humanities is just another of the shared goals of the NRC and NC State. The laboratory team documents the wide scope of its work on its website: expeditionlive.org.
Trapping and Tracking
Roland Kays directs the NRC Biodiversity and Earth Observation Research Laboratory. A wildlife biologist, Kays is research associate professor of fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources of the College of Natural Resources.
Joining the NRC from the New York State Museum, Kays has been an avid adopter of technology to track animal migration and the effects of habitat fragmentation on the range of species. But Kays is equally devoted to simple technology that citizen scientists can use to make their own observations. One of Kays’ first projects here was the Great Chicken Coop Stakeout. Kays launched a website to recruit Raleigh chicken-keepers to mount motion-activated camera traps in their yards to document wildlife drawn to chickens.
In collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, Kays has been expanding these efforts with the eMammal project (facebook.com/eMammal). Scientists and the public can use camera traps to contribute information and images to a central repository that can help biologists understand the range, abundance and diversity of mammals. This year’s participants included students running projects in South Mountains State Park and Game Lands, Stone Mountain State Park and Thurmond Chatham Game Lands. For 2013, Kays and his research teams will expand these efforts to the Uwharrie and Great Smoky Mountains.
Kays also takes some of these techniques worldwide. Last summer, his team traveled to the living laboratory of Mpala Research Centre in Kenya to examine social networks among baboons. Kays’ team gently captured and outfitted 30 baboons with high-resolution GPS collars that recorded movement of the pack at one-second intervals.
As biodiversity assistant director, Michelle Trautwein runs other projects in Kays’ laboratory as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Entomology. She works with Brian Wiegmann on the evolutionary history of insects and flies.
Both Kays and Trautwein are gifted science communicators. Kays has written for The New York Times’ “Scientist At Work” series while Trautwein appears regularly on local television and radio, such as Frank Stasio’s “The State of Things” on WUNC.
In addition, Trautwein leads the laboratory’s efforts on the Arthropods of Our Homes project with NC State biologist and NRC advisory board member Rob Dunn. Holly Menninger, Dunn’s director of public science, is a fixture at the NRC not only on these research projects but in giving public presentations and mentoring students and volunteers.
Dividends of Proximity
Julie Horvath, director of the NRC Genomics and Microbiology Research Laboratory has her faculty appointment in the Department of Biology at NC Central University. Nevertheless, the short distance to NC State and the frequent traffic of NC State faculty and students has led her laboratory to also participate with Dunn’s group on an extension of their microbiome work.
Following from the Dunn lab’s Belly Button Biodiversity Project, the team is investigating the role that microbial diversity of the axillae (armpits) plays across primate species, particularly with regard to mating behavior. Armpit odors don’t come from us directly by rather from resident bacteria metabolizing chemicals in our sweat. Examining the biodiversity of those microbes inhabiting our armpits might reveal more about our social patterns than our more obvious physical and personality characteristics.
Horvath’s assistant director, Julie Urban, worked with NC State undergraduate Meg Ehlers and Dunn lab postdoctoral fellow Dan Fergus on the pilot phase of the project (#PitStart). Fergus is sequencing marker regions of the DNA of 600 isolates to identify the bacterial species. The project will next examine how deodorant and bathing habits affect these bacterial populations.
Urban is also continuing work here that may initially seem unrelated. She is a specialist in the biology of planthoppers, insects that display unusual head morphology and elaborate plumes. NC State biology major Lexis Hohman is working with Urban to identify symbiotic bacteria living inside of planthoppers.
The location of the Nature Research Center only miles from the NC State campus has created a similar cooperative relationship between two state institutions with distinct strengths and shared goals. Creative relationships such as these are the foundation for NC State as it ventures into its next 125 years.
About the Researchers: