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Source: Jesse Nippert 785-532-0114, nippert@k-state.edu
Photos available. Download Orozco's photo at http://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/feb11/215orozco.jpg
Download Culbertson's photo at http://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/feb11/215culbertson.jpg
Download photo of both at http://www.k-state.edu/media/newsreleases/feb11/215labtechs.jpg
Pronouncer: Teall is pronounced like the color teal. Graciela is Gray-see-ella and Orozco is Or-ozs-coe.
News release prepared by: Stephanie Jacques, 785-532-0101, sjacques@k-state.edu

Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011

STUDENTS FIND UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH PAYS OFF IN OPPORTUNITIES

MANHATTAN -- Teall Culbertson and Graciela Orozco admit they took their jobs as undergraduate research technicians at Kansas State University for the paycheck, but they know now the hands-on experiences they've gained will pay off more in the future.

Culbertson, senior in biology, Arkansas City, and Graciela Orozco, junior in animal sciences and industry and biology, Kanopolis, both work for Jesse Nippert, assistant professor of biology, in his research lab on campus.

"I didn't know what to expect in terms of workers when I started my lab at K-State," Nippert said. "I had no idea just how much enthusiasm undergraduates would have for research, but they are critical to everything I do in the lab."

While the paycheck first drew Culbertson and Orozco to Nippert's lab, both have developed a strong interest in conducting their own research in addition to assisting with Nippert's research.

"Jesse suggested that doing some research would be good for me," Culbertson said. "I wanted to do research that's applicable and meant something; I wanted it to have an influence."

Culbertson is investigating where bison drink the majority of their water on Konza Prairie Biological Station by measuring stable isotopes levels in fecal samples. Stable isotopes are variations of chemical elements, such as oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, and contain additional neutrons in their atomic nuclei, often used as biological tracers.

By measuring changes in the stable isotopic signature of the fecal samples, Culbertson can compare them to the levels of the stable isotopes found in local water sources, identifying where the bison are drinking.

Nippert believes that Culbertson's research experience with bison will be as valuable to her future career as anything she has learned through traditional classroom education. She has earned early admission to K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine and wants to study large animal medicine.

"Performing my own research project with guidance from a real scientist like Jesse is a unique experience; plus there's the possibility that I could get a paper published before I'm even out of college," Culbertson said.

Culbertson and Orozco have found that working in the lab increases their understanding of the scientific process, aiding retention of concepts discussed in their classes.

"I think working in the lab has helped me in my classes," Orozco said. "I'll recognize things in class because we talked about it in the lab. I have a better understanding of the research process, and can even apply it to my personal decisions."

Orozco's research is similar to Culbertson's, since it also uses stable isotope analysis of samples gathered from bison. However, Orozco is focusing on a bison's diet by comparing the stable isotopic signature from tail hair to the signature of vegetation on Konza Prairie. Like a tree ring, hair records the diet of the consumer over time, allowing for diet reconstruction using stable isotopes, Nippert said.

"I'm using tail hairs from bison to do an isotopic analysis so that I can look at their diet variation over time," Orozco said. "I want to see how they change over the seasons, what they consume more of, and if there's a difference in what the females consume versus what the males consume."

Orozco collected the tail hairs last fall and hopes to analyze her data this spring. She's been selected for K-State's McNair Scholars program, which prepares undergraduates for successful careers as graduate students, professors and professional researchers. The program gives her the opportunity and funding to continue with her current research project or to develop a new project in an area of her choice. The McNair program also supports her in preparing for the Graduate Record Examination and applying to graduate schools.

"I think it's been a good experience to see everything that goes into research, and I think it's been a motivating factor for both of them to continue on to professional school," Nippert said.

Working in the lab together has given both Culbertson and Orozco more than just an educational experience; the two have developed a close friendship.

"Since we had to work closely together in the lab, we found out that even though Teall and I may be similar people in some ways, we're also different, but those differences complement each other," Orozco said. "Teall is not always that outgoing, but I can get her to do things that she wouldn't normally do. In that sense, I'm kind of a risk taker, and she's my voice of reason."

"Their best qualities as research technicians are that they're really independent and are great at problem solving. I don't have to check in on them, which is good because I don't like to micromanage," Nippert said. "They're also pretty funny and a fantastic asset to my lab."