Pepperdine Voice Magazine
Natural Wonder: The Seaver College Biology Department Takes Learning out of the Classroom and into the Field
By Emily DiFrisco
On a hot summer day, Dr. Lee Kats takes seven Pepperdine biology students trekking through the Santa Monica Mountains and into a freshwater stream called Trancas Creek. There students record the dimensions of the water and survey the area for animal life. Upon turning over stones and sifting the water with nets, they find over a dozen members of the same invasive species: Procambarus clarkii, or the red swamp crayfish.
The students inspect previously set traps—baited with dog biscuits, as crayfish will eat anything—and toss the crusty creatures into a large plastic bag. Within 30 minutes, they have almost a gallon of crayfish—good eatin' to some folks, menacing predators to others.
The abundance of crayfish shows Kats and his group that the stream is changing; crayfish, which reproduce rapidly and can survive in a crack of mud, eat and destroy native Pacific tree frogs and California newts. But Trancas Creek isn't a lost cause. "This is a stream in transition; it's a battle to save the natives," says Kats.
On the day I joined Kats and the students, the group was thrilled to find several signs of native animals including Pacific tree frog eggs, tadpoles, and two newts or water lizards. "The fact that we found some tadpoles and newts is encouraging," Kats says.
The newts, plentiful before humans accidentally introduced the crayfish into the freshwater ecosystem, are now a "species of concern" in California. One of our newts, held in the palm of a student's hand, had "war wounds" or nips taken from his nose and tail from a fight with a crayfish. The newt is nearly powerless against the crustacean and was lucky to escape. Nonetheless, the fact that it is alive is a credit to the group's diligent removal of crayfish.
Kats has studied this stream for 15 years and has removed crayfish for four. Over those four years, he estimates they have removed between 3,000 and 4,000 crayfish from the Trancas Creek stream. Caught crayfish are frozen and recycled as food for other animals.
Knee-deep in the stream, Kats calls himself "just a farm boy from Indiana," but at Pepperdine he serves as the Frank R. Seaver Chair of Biology and associate provost for research. A member of the Pepperdine faculty since 1990, he has written about animal diversity, integrated zoology, and the behavior of amphibians.
Kats and his colleagues in the Seaver College biology department emphasize the value of conducting and engaging their students in hands-on research. Drs. Stephen Davis, Tom Vandergon, and Karen Martin have each received recent grants to facilitate undergraduate research in biology. Acclaimed biologist Rodney Honeycutt is the newest member to join the biology faculty. He and Kats recently led a student research expedition in Argentina (see page 17).
With the help of their faculty mentors, Pepperdine students roll up their sleeves and enter the field to study ecosystems surrounding the Malibu campus. Seeking to protect native species, the biology program works with the Mountains Restoration Trust in nearby Calabasas to study stream health. Using state-certified protocol, they collect samples of macro-invertebrates in the water and send the samples to a lab to be analyzed. Because streams run near homes, roads, and oceans, its health is crucial to the community.
Along with testing streams and removing invasive species, faculty and students work hard to educate the community about their local ecosystems. They plan different presentations based on the age group targeted, and present to classrooms, community groups, and local boards. Armed with an interactive slideshow presentation and live animals, the group engages people in a discussion about the health of local freshwater streams. To date, they have presented to over 30 groups.
Pepperdine students roll up
their sleeves and enter the
field of study ecosystems
surrounding the Malibu campus
Research students Trevor Thurling, a senior, and alumna Shannon Rollert (B '07, SC) enjoy seeing others develop an interest in their local ecosystems. "The program is beneficial because it not only educates both children and adults about the negative effects of invasive species, but also provides an opportunity to get involved and help restore the streams," says Thurling. Because they leave teachers with follow-up materials, the discussion can continue after the classroom visit.
Unique to small research programs like Pepperdine's, students gain experience in writing grants and preparing presentations and articles for conferences and scientific publications. Structured opportunities for Pepperdine biology students include SURB (Summer Undergraduate Research in Biology), the honors research program, and international research voyages. Geared specifically to undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in biological research, science education, environmental science, or biotechnology, SURB includes a two-week research orientation workshop, on-site field research, and individual faculty-mentored research projects. Students learn the uses and limitations of specific research tools and techniques while pursuing projects in cell biology, developmental biology, molecular biology, neurobiology, or plant ecology.
Similarly, the honors research program aims at providing students with insight into how scientists design experiments, collect and analyze data, and communicate their results to the scientific community. Students develop research proposals in close consultation with a faculty member, engage in full-time data collection and analysis, and compile the results of their experimentation in thesis form. Other research opportunities take students farther afield, like tropical rainforest ecology trips in Costa Rica or Kats and Honeycutt's field course in Argentina.
"This is a stream in transition;
it's a battle to save the
Rollert appreciates the opportunities her undergraduate research gave her. "Being able to conduct research as an undergraduate is an invaluable experience—many universities do not allow this kind of work with such a prestigious professor at the undergraduate level," she says. Rollert also gained a comprehensive understanding of local ecosystems and the need worldwide to prevent invasive species from destroying them. "Working in the ecology lab has spurred on my passion for conservation," she says. So much so that upon graduation, Rollert took a full-time position with Heal the Bay, a conservation nonprofit in Santa Monica, California, where she works in development. Heal the Bay focuses on the areas that flow into Santa Monica Bay, and works to clean up the ocean, streams leading to it, and polluted cities themselves.
For students like Rollert, a career in biology begins with a careful scientific eye nurtured and honed in the Malibu ecosystems. "As biologists, what we see in the campus area is perhaps different than what others see," says Davis. "We have so many ecosystems—ocean, mudflat, coastal bluff. They are natural with a relatively low impact from humans, and it's all five minutes from campus."
The nearby natural environments give students the opportunity to dirty their hands, to study an ecosystem in depth, and to help save a "species of concern" along the way.
Pepperdine Takes an Argentinean Adventure
The sighting came as a surprise. It was winter in subtropical northern Argentina, a season when reptiles aren't known to prowl. Yet there it was: Drs. Lee Kats and Rodney Honeycutt, along with six Pepperdine students, found themselves facing a 14-foot, giant yellow anaconda.
Throughout this summer's unique three-week field course on animal ecology, the group traveled through the most remote areas of Argentina, witnessing native species from the anaconda to the cuis, a wild guinea pig, and another pig-like animal called the capybara—the world's largest living rodent. They saw long-legged endangered species of deer; viscacha, a cousin of the chinchilla; and Geoffrey's cat, a wild cat the size of a domestic cat.
In the Patagonian region of the country they observed penguins, whales, wild llamas, and the ranaca, a camel-like animal, and encountered a troop of about 50 brown capuchin monkeys—an astonishing sight. In addition to the many mammals, the group saw over 115 species of birds.
Facilitated through Pepperdine's Buenos Aires international program, the students explored the area alongside local guides and their own specialists—Kats, an expert in amphibians, and Honeycutt, widely regarded as one of the world's leading experts on mammals.
Students observed the animals, wrote in their field books, and were subjected to "jungle quizzes," on the fly. Fortunately, being so close to the animals aided their memorization. "The students were remarkable; they were real troopers," says Honeycutt.
Honeycutt enjoyed having four students who were non-science majors in this course. "If you're only going to take one science course it's almost better to take one like this because it's an experience. The students will never forget it."
Throughout the trip, the group learned from Argentineans. They explored alongside local guides and ate with the natives, some of whom had never seen people from the United States before. The local experts gave the Pepperdine group insight into the area, its cultures, and the resulting effects on ecology. "The local guides knew the area very well," says Honeycutt. "I think the students learned hands-on environmentalism. They learned about conservation in the context of another culture."
The guides were thrilled to meet Honeycutt, whom they recognized as a bit of a science celebrity. Honeycutt has studied the ecology of Latin America and South America, specifically Chile, and works extensively in evolutionary biology, mammalian evolution, molecular evolution, population genetics, and quantitative phylogenetics.
Throughout the trip, whether hiking deep in the jungle or breaking bread with experts, the students learned ecology through experience. "No textbook compares to actually being there," says Kats. "That's the beauty of the field course."