Baker University students and faculty began on July 1 a three-year research project at the Baker University Wetlands supported by a National Science Foundation Infrastructure Innovation for Biological Research grant. The grant will assist in the collection of tardigrades from birds and habitats.
The NSF awarded $256,849 for the project, titled Cross Departmental Development of an Automated Species Identification System for the Phylum Tardigrada Found on Birds. It is a collaborative effort between Scott Kimball, associate professor of biology; Randy Miller, director of research; Robert Schukei, assistant professor of computer science; Mahmoud Al-Kofahi, professor of physics; Irene Unger, associate professor of biology and director of the Baker Wetlands; and Lynn Kimsey, professor of entomology and director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology at University of California, Davis.
“We thought we had a great project and were thrilled the award committee agreed to fund the full scope of our project,” Kimball said. “This is a competitive process. Schools the size of Baker generally do not have the research infrastructure to support a project of this scope nor do they generally prioritize research and scholarship at the undergraduate level to the extent that we have at Baker.”
In recent projects that involve collecting large numbers of samples of tardigrades, the main inefficiency has been in the preparation of specimens on slides and the accurate identification of specimens, Kimball said. Baker researchers plan to make the collection process more efficient.
“Our group will engineer an automated process of preparing microscope slides of tardigrade specimens collected from any of several sources,” Kimball said. “The second objective is to design a species identification software application that will use computer learning processes to create efficiencies in the identification of specimens. All of this will be used to answer biological questions related to the geographic dispersion of tardigrades, specifically as it relates to the relationship between tardigrades and the birds in their environments that may serve to disperse them across the landscape.”
During the spring 2020 semester, Baker’s preengineering students began building tabletop robots to assist with slide-handling automation. More students will be recruited to participate in the project part time throughout the academic year and full time in the summers through 2023.
The project was conceived and designed to incorporate explicit collaborations among biologists, engineers and computer scientists.
“Our argument was that by creating an interdisciplinary approach to this project, the students involved will be cross-trained in multiple disciplines, gaining experiences, skills and training that should provide them a more comprehensive understanding of the ways that science works,” Kimball said.
Baker President Lynne Murray appreciated the faculty’s efforts in securing the grant, which provides research opportunities for undergraduate students.
“Baker University is proud of the real-world research experiences it offers students and the role the Baker Wetlands will play in this interdisciplinary project,” Murray said. “Our faculty consistently show creativity as they actively seek learning opportunities outside the classroom.”
The Baker Wetlands Discovery Center and the Baker Wetlands, encompassing 927 acres and one of the most diverse habitats in Kansas, will serve as the field station throughout the project. Since the center opened in 2015, Baker undergraduates already have discovered and described three species new to science. The new housing and research spaces at the Wetlands will be critical to efficiency and productivity as students work part of the day in the field and also process samples in the indoor facilities.
Baker faculty believe the project will lead to the discovery of new species of tardigrades to Kansas and to the planet.
“We will be sampling the state of Kansas’ tardigrade community more thoroughly and intensively than perhaps ever before,” Kimball said. “Because tardigrades have been poorly surveyed throughout the world, this level of sampling will almost guarantee that new species will be discovered, and our students will be authors on these papers of discovery.”
Students will gain valuable experience in field and laboratory data collection, research design, development of research questions and collaborative troubleshooting.
“As the project progresses, students will gain opportunities to present their work to the public and scientific communities through outreach experiences and through participating in scientific meetings,” Kimball said. “Students will also potentially leave the project as authors on scientific publications or conference presentations.”