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Keep up with what the students are doing in the College First and Science First programs.

No Day at the Beach: Summer Meant Research for REU Participants

Field research + skilled mentorship = next generation of plant scientists

Amy Spungen —  September 9, 2015 — Leave a comment

On a recent day in Chicago, with the sun beating down and temperatures climbing into the 90s, many college students idling through their last week at home headed for the beach. Lounging about was not on the agenda for the undergraduates gathered at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Illinois, on August 14, however. Instead, they stepped into the cool interior of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center to present their summer research findings.

Thirty college students were at the end of their ten-week Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, and 22 of them were scheduled to talk about it. Far removed from beach banter, they spoke the language of population genetics, plant diversity, arthropods and fungal pathogens, and the floral preference of bees, among many other topics.

Funded primarily through a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, with additional funding from Northwestern University and others, the REU program is held each summer, and hundreds of hopeful candidates from colleges and universities throughout the United States apply to the program. Based at the Chicago Botanic Garden for the past ten years, the program enables a motivated group of undergraduates to explore a diverse array of topics related to plant biology and conservation. NSF-funded participants receive a stipend of $5,000, plus an additional subsistence and travel allowance.

Though the stipend is much appreciated, the main benefit of the REU program is professional: these young scientists perform detailed research out in the field and within sophisticated laboratories, under the skilled mentorship of senior scientists and doctoral and master’s students. At the Garden, participants have access to the nine laboratories of the Plant Science Center. Some REU participants use these labs while they serve as research mentors for teens participating in the Garden’s College First program. (College First brings talented Chicago Public Schools students who are African American or Latino—both underrepresented demographics in the professional science field—to the Garden in summer for a range of learning opportunities that introduce them to professional and academic options.)

PHOTO: Jannice Newson.

Jannice Newson

“The REU program was really interesting—I learned so much,” said Jannice Newson, now a sophomore majoring in environmental science at the University of Missouri. She stood before her poster in the Plant Science Center before presentations began. When prompted, Newson, who evaluated 242 species of shoreline plants over the summer, described a typical day in the program; by the time she patiently finished laying out the daily process, the magnitude of her accomplishment was clear.

“From a scientific perspective, I’m so proud of how Jannice developed her research skills over the course of the summer,” said her mentor, Bob Kirschner, director of restoration ecology and Woman’s Board Curator of Aquatics at the Garden. “Her commitment to the environment—and her now-refined desire to prepare for a career in the applied aquatic sciences—bring a huge smile to my face!“

The Science Career Continuum and near-peer mentoring

As hard as the work was, the experience invigorated Newson. “I would love to come back and do more of this work,” she said. “It was such a great group of people!” She previously participated in  College First and is an example of how students can move along the Garden’s Science Career Continuum. The continuum allows the Garden to connect its own programs for middle- and high-school students (Science First and College First, respectively) with those offering internships and mentoring for college and graduate students.

Jazmine Hernandez, now a sophomore majoring in health sciences at DePaul University, was both a Science First and College First participant. She hopes to go beyond the walls of the Plant Science Center and explain her population genetics research at a conference this fall.

PHOTO: Jazmine Hernandez.

Jazmine Hernandez

“I am so grateful to have been accepted into the REU program,” she said. “I heard about it through the Garden’s peer mentoring program, and then my College First advisor e-mailed me to suggest I apply.” She smiled and threw her arms wide. “Science First prepared me for high school; College First prepared me for college; REU is preparing me for life!”

“The near-peer mentoring that the REU program makes possible is incredibly important,” said Anya Maziak, the Garden’s director of foundation and government relations, who helps secure funding for the continuum and was reviewing the posters. “High-school students are mentored by undergraduate students who are mentored by graduate students and so on, offering all participants relatable models who encourage and support them as they pursue plant science careers.”

Hernandez noted that her REU mentor, Jeremie Fant, Ph.D.—a Garden conservation scientist and manager of both the molecular ecology lab and the REU program—covered much more than research throughout the summer, such as ethics, publishing papers, and preparing a resumé. “It’s just a great experience,” she said. “When I returned to the Garden for the REU program, all I could think was, I am home! I love it here.” Hernandez, whose poster was titled “Population Genetics during a Manrove Range Expansion,” plans to become a plant pathologist.

Winners among winners

A team of three Garden experts—Andrew Bunting, assistant director and director of plant collections; Greg Mueller, Ph.D., Negaunee Foundation Vice President of Science; and Eileen Prendergast, director of education—evaluated the posters and selected several for special honors. Taran Lichtenberger’s poster, “Functional trait diversity in prairie plant species,” was deemed Best Poster. Best Presentation went to Lisa Cheung, who elaborated on her poster, “Molecular markers distinguish hybridization patterns in Castilleja.” Evan Levy, whose poster was titled “Floral preference of bees in a Montane Meadow in Flagstaff, Arizona,” won the title of Best Overall.

Official honors aside, it was clear through the detailed research posters, the enthusiastic and articulate presenters, and the beaming faces of family, friends, and mentors that every REU participant was a winner.

“As a first-time judge, I was extremely impressed with the posters,” said Prendergast. “Every one of the students and mentors should be really proud of their work this summer.” (See summaries of each poster here.) Prendergast raises a good point in citing the mentors as well as their students, because it takes time, energy, and patience to work with even the most highly motivated and intelligent students—and there are no slackers in the REU program. “Mentoring REU students does take some time out of Garden scientists’ rather hectic summer schedules,” said Kirschner, “but the rewards to both the Garden and the student are just incredible.”

“Days like this remind me of why I’m here,” said Dr. Fant, who has managed the REU program for the past four years. He nodded toward the clusters of presenters and excited visitors. “It can be challenging to manage the program, but every year, seeing what these students have accomplished reassures me that among the next generation of scientists, there are many talented enough to take our place.”

The number of REU applicants rises yearly, and Fant expects the number accepted into the program to increase to as many as 40. (That’s about as much as the Plant Science Center and staff can accommodate.)

It’s not hard to see the attraction. As Dr. Mueller said, “The REU program provides a potentially life-changing experience by giving these undergraduate students research that can help them figure out what they can do with the rest of their lives. They work hard, and they have a good time.”

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

On any given day, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s science laboratories are bustling with activity. Some of the researchers are extracting DNA from leaves, analyzing soil samples, discussing how to restore degraded dunes—and talking about where they’re going to college. The young researchers are interns in the Garden’s College First program, studying field ecology and conservation science, and working side by side with scientists, horticulturists, and educators.

PHOTO: Orange-shirted middle schoolers examine palm trees and take data in the greenhouse.

Science First participants gather data in the Greenhouse.

PHOTO: Two high school girls wearing blue "College First" tshirts and latex gloves examine samples in the lab.

Two College First participants work on analyzing samples in the Garden’s plant science labs.

The Science Career Continuum consists of five programs:

  • Science First, a four-week enrichment program for students in grades 8 through 10.
  • College First, an eight-week summer internship for high school juniors and seniors with monthly meetings during the school year.
  • Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), a ten-week summer research-based science internship supervised by a Garden scientist and funded through a National Science Foundation grant. In 2014, three College First graduates will participate.
  • Conservation and Land Management (CLM) internship, offered through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and held in 13 western states.
  • Graduate programs in plant biology and conservation, offered jointly with Northwestern University for master’s degree and doctoral students.

The program is part of the Science Career Continuum, which is aimed at training the next generation of dedicated land stewards and conservation scientists. The Continuum engages Chicago Public Schools students from diverse backgrounds in meaningful scientific research and mentoring programs from middle school through college and beyond. “Each level of the Continuum challenges students to improve their science skills, building on what was learned at the previous level and preparing them for the next,” said Kathy Johnson, director of teacher and student programs.

College First is a paid eight-week summer internship for up to 20 qualified students. Isobel Araujo, a senior at Whitney Young High School in Chicago, attended the College First program in 2011 and 2012. As part of the program, she did research on orchids and learned how to estimate budgets to fix hypothetical ecological problems. “It was definitely challenging, but it was awesome,” said Araujo, who plans to major in environmental studies.

During the school year, College First students also attend monthly meetings that help them select colleges, complete applications, and find financial aid to continue their education. More than 94 percent of College First graduates attend two- or four-year colleges, and many are the first in their family to attend college. Three students, including Robert Harris III, received full scholarships to universities beginning in fall 2013.

Harris is a freshman at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. As a junior and senior at Lane Tech High School in Chicago, he made a three-hour daily round-trip commute to the Garden for the College First program. During his internship, he learned to extract plant DNA and study genetic markers in the Artocarpus genus, which includes breadfruit and jackfruit. Harris said the program was a great experience. “You get out of the city and experience nature close up,” he said. “The Garden itself is one big laboratory, and it was a lot more hands-on than in high school.”

PHOTO: An intern carries a quiver full of marking flags, and takes notes on her clipboard.

Science First and College First programs lead into other graduate and postgraduate programs. Visit to find information on these programs.

PHOTO: A group of about 50 people pose at the end of the Serpentine Bridge.

Conservation and Land Management (CLM) postgraduate interns for 2013 pose for a group photo at the Garden. Visit to find out more about this program.

Because of funding restrictions, enrollment for the Continuum programs are limited to students from Chicago Public Schools. For more information, visit or call (847) 835-6871.

This post was adapted from an article by Nina Koziol that appeared in the spring 2014 edition of Keep Growing, the member magazine of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Ants, trees, soil, and more: REU presentations conclude summer of science

Garden and Field REU interns gather at the Field Musuem for research finale

Amy Spungen —  September 17, 2013 — Leave a comment

To some people, gathering in an auditorium on a bright summer day for a packed schedule of science presentations might not seem exciting. I will confess that once I was among those poor, unenlightened individuals. Now, I know better.

PHOTO: The REU group gathered in front of the brontosaurus skeleton on the grounds of the Field Museum.

REU interns from the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Field Museum gathered at the museum on August 16.                  All photographs are by Stephanie Ware, Field Museum research assistant.

The reason I know better is because recently, I attended the Fifth Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium at the Field Museum in Chicago. There, college students participating in the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the Chicago Botanic Garden and at the Field revealed some intriguing research findings about plants and animals.

For example, who knew that hormones likely determine the rigid caste system of those scary army ants? (“Scary” was not a scientific term used in the presentation, but trust me, they are.) Or that some species of tropical trees in the Yucatan Peninsula access water by sending their root systems through the tops of underground caves, enabling them to survive drought? And that native plant restoration helps fight air pollution? (How, you wonder? It improves carbon sequestration, a process in which carbon dioxide is transferred from the atmosphere to the soil—do not even think “dirt”thereby removing the air pollutant.)

Funded through National Science Foundation grants, the REU program is held each summer, and hundreds of hopeful candidates from colleges and universities throughout the United States apply to the programs at the Chicago Botanic Garden and the Field Museum. Selected participants number only in the teens, and this fortunate group explores a diverse array of scientific topics related to plant and animal biology and conservation. They receive a stipend of $4,500 for the ten-week program, plus an additional subsistence and travel allowance.

PHOTO: Garden REU intern Christopher Wright

Garden REU intern Christopher Wright

Though the stipend is much appreciated, the main benefit of the REU program is professional: these young scientists perform detailed research out in the field and within sophisticated laboratories, under the skilled mentorship of senior scientists and doctoral and master’s students. Along the way, they gain meaningful professional experience that will help them as they pursue further education and careers. At the Garden, for example, participants have access to the laboratories of the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center, equipped for research in ecology, soil science, genetics, reproductive biology, GIS, microscopy, population biology, geochemistry, isotopic analysis, and other areas of investigation. Some of the Garden’s REU participants use these labs while they serve as research mentors for teens attending Chicago Public Schools and participating in the Garden’s College First program.

PHOTO: Ben Girgenti

REU intern Ben Girgenti describes his project at the poster presentation.

“The REU internship program is a human infrastructure development initiative funded by the National Science Foundation. What better way to introduce students to doing scientific research than immersing them in it over the summer?” said senior scientist Patrick S. Herendeen, Ph.D., co-director of the Garden’s Division of Plant Science and Conservation and director of academic partnerships. “We select applicants with an interest in the science that we do here at the Garden. Many of them have not had an opportunity to participate in research, so the internship is a great opportunity for them, and for us too! When the interns return to their colleges and universities for their senior year, we keep in touch and provide guidance as they consider the next steps in their career path.”

On August 16, after a rigorous summer of scientific exploration, the REU graduates gathered at the Field Museum to lay it all out.

Kenneth Angielczyk, Ph.D., curator at the Field Museum, introduced the combined group of 17 presenters. “This symposium is the capstone experience of the REU program,” he said, noting that for many students, it was the first time they presented a talk in a scientific context.  Dr. Angielczyk warmly welcomed the Chicago Botanic Garden REU participants, who traditionally have made their presentations separately, at the Garden’s Glencoe campus. “I hope this is the beginning of an ongoing collaboration going forward,” he said.

PHOTO: Rosalba Herrera

REU intern Rosalba Herrera explains her research at the poster presentation.

One by one, the speakers stepped to the stage and described their work. The breadth of their research, and the significance of what these undergraduates concluded, was startling. (See the agenda, which lists their topics.) Through the focus of research varied widely, the subtext of climate change provided a sobering backdrop to many of the presentations.

After a couple of hours my focus began to waver, but only because my caffeine levels had dropped. Fortunately, Stephanie Ware, Field Museum research assistant and REU symposium coordinator, had arranged for coffee and pastries between sessions.

PHOTO: presenters and audience mill around posters and chat.

REU interns, families, and mentors take a coffee break and review poster presentations.

Soon I found myself perusing the poster presentations in the lobby, coffee in one hand and muffin in the other. (There may have been some healthy snack offerings, too, but if so I trotted by them too quickly to notice.) Nearby, REU participants, their families, and the scientists who mentored them mingled, and I overheard phrases like “mediated plasticity,” “fungal partners,” “phylogenic attributes,” and “bryozoan morphogenesis.” Then it was back into the auditorium for another round of presentations.

At the event’s conclusion, conservation scientist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., the Chicago Botanic Garden’s molecular ecologist and laboratory manager, and coordinator of the REU program at the Garden, thanked the participants. He encouraged the students to consider presenting their summer work at other meetings. “Mentors and audience members alike are impressed with the caliber of your presentations today, which are worthy for presentation at any national science meeting,” he said.

Meet the Chicago Botanic Garden’s 2013 REU interns.

The REU program begins accepting applications in January 2014 for next summer’s program. If you are an undergraduate student passionate about plant science and conservation, consider applying to the Chicago Botanic Garden’s REU program. The Field Museum’s program also offers unique collections-based research opportunities. Both enable students to get involved in what Dr. Angielczyk described as “the real scientific process” through meaningful mentorships. 

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and