CHEYENNE – Scientists, science teachers, students, Native Americans and many other individuals may see advancements in their lands or work areas thanks to research and efforts by the University of Wyoming.
This fall, UW’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) team received a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s EPSCoR Office for a five-year microbial ecology project. The NSF awarded the grants to five states this year.
Emily Stewart Vercoe is the education, outreach and diversity coordinator for EPSCoR. She said the grant, called “Mapping the Microbial Ecology of Wyoming,” is different from much of the current microbial research.
Vercoe said microbial research is a fairly new scientific field, and much of the research has been focused on how microbes affect the human body, such as gut health.
“This is an opportunity for us, as a state, to take what is being done in humans and really translate it into the air, water and soil,” Vercoe said.
Brent Ewers, professor of plant physiological ecology at UW, said there are more microbes in a human body than there are human cells.
“Microbes are very important to how life works, but it’s very difficult to characterize them,” he said.
Ewers explained that microbes often look the same but perform different functions. Scientists characterize microbes through DNA sequences, he said.
“We can grab a sample of soil, and we can extract the microbes and then extract their DNA and sequence the DNA and find out which microbes are there,” he said.
He added that the ability to sequence DNA quickly is due to a microbe scientists found in Yellowstone National Park, right here in Wyoming.
Ewers said Wyoming is an ideal location to study microbial ecology because of the wide difference in landscapes the state features – from mountain ranges and lakes to vast prairies.
Trent McDonald, senior manager and statistician for Western Ecosystems Technology Inc., said scientists sometimes find that transplanting microbes from one location to another can change the ecology of the second location.
“If you leave it, in many cases, that place where you put the dirt will start to look like where you took it from. In some cases, not all, that field in Florida will start to look like grasslands in Wyoming,” he said.
Vercoe said the EPSCoR office is coordinating about 18 different projects, all stemming from this grant, but they can mostly be categorized into four areas.
Vercoe said UW students and students from Central Wyoming College in Riverton will participate in research expeditions across the state to help with collecting data on microbes.
The EPSCoR office at UW is partnering with Jacki Klancher, an associate professor of environmental health at Central Wyoming College.
“She has been a really big advocate for integrating community college into our EPSCoR funding,” Vercoe said. That includes taking students into the Dinwoody Glacier to sample the environment and then analyzing their findings.
“Our intention is to grow the microbial ecology research projects at all the community colleges over the five years,” she said. “It’s trying to add that relevance into their science education, as well as computer science education.”
She said computer science education will be a large part of the education portion of the grant because students will be learning to handle the data that are collected during the research.
“While we’re sampling soil, water and air across the state, we have to do something with all that data,” she said.
Expanding these efforts through all of education, starting in K-12, will be an ongoing process, however.
Andrea Burrows, an associate professor of secondary science education at UW, said she is teaching future science educators how to incorporate microbes into their curricula. She is leading one of several educational outreach divisions within the EPSCoR grant.
During the summer, Burrows is working with K-12 teachers who obtain professional development through UW. She said this coming summer, she will take those science teachers throughout the state to collect microbes.
She also runs a summer camp called The Artful Craft of Science (TACOS) for kids.
“One session focuses on microbes. I started that last summer once we realized we were potentially going to get funding for the EPSCoR grant,” Burrows said.
During the fall, she’s applying microbe education to her students who hope to become K-12 science teachers. This fall, teachers did a project in which they researched a microbe and then projected it on a silk screen.
“We discussed how they would use the content, but also how they would use this art project to get students engaged with the microbial world,” Burrows explained.
She said she also is hoping to send some student teachers this spring into classrooms to teach about microbes.
Burrows also will be helping students learn to analyze the microbial data collected by scientists during the coming years.
“We’re really targeting teachers who teach K-12, students in K-12 and future science teachers who are going to teach K-12,” Burrows said.
McDonald of Western Ecosystems said his company will be doing a lot of the workforce training portion of the grant, including bringing on student interns from UW.
“The grant is paying a portion of their salary, and (Western Ecosystems Technology Inc.) is paying a portion of their salary. They’re getting an education, and we’re getting a little bit of work out of them,” he said.
McDonald said he hopes to host three to five interns a year.
“We will give them training in data science – how to analyze data. And we will give them some practical experience – real-world data they might not get at the university,” he said.
The interns will do data analysis of any data sets the company receives from clients. In particular, this could involve some work the organization has been hoping to get to but never finds time to tackle.
McDonald said his company also will train some professors or other interested individuals in statistics. He has 35 master’s-level statisticians on his staff.
He will personally help with necessary statistical tasks of the microbial research, including determining where and when to take samples across the state. He said the scientists will need to use statistics to determine the locations in order to be most effective.
“Ultimately, we need to be able to convince a reader we didn’t bias the samples by going where we thought there were certain microbes,” McDonald said.
He said he is thrilled for the opportunity to bring on interns and teach more people the importance of data science, which he said is a continually growing field.
“Google, Amazon, Netflix – all the way down to the app on your phone that allows you to see your high school students’ grades – all that is data science,” McDonald explained.
Vercoe said a large part of the EPSCoR grant work will take place on the Wind River Reservation in northwest Wyoming.
Jennifer Wellman, the Wind River Project Coordinator for Wyoming EPSCoR, said she can’t speak yet about what research projects may occur on the reservation under the NSF grant because the Eastern Shoshoni and Northern Arapaho tribes have control over those decisions.
“Ultimately, we want to respect sovereignty and make sure the tribes have authority over the project themselves,” she said.
Wellman explained that the tribal councils of the two tribes will determine their priorities and bring those plans to the university.
“We’re partnering with the reservation and have to check in with their research goals and objectives, which will be decided as we move forward with this project,” Wellman said.
Her staff has worked with the school districts on the reservation, as well as in Lander and Riverton, to design a program that will work with the schools to create small grants for students and community members to study the microbiome in the area, she said. Those opportunities could be to study the soil, air or water. They might also include composting ideas or student science projects.
Wellman said her staff has talked with the tribal councils about possible research in the riparian corridor, regarding the gathering of ceremonial plants, etc. The councils will make those decisions before any action is taken.
“Tribal members just have an implicit understanding of their local environment and how the shape of that environment is impacted by certain activities. They’ve lived here for thousands of years,” Wellman said.
She said the university and the EPSCoR project will partner with the Wind River Advocacy Center to organize and administer those microbiome mini grants.
“Great ideas come out of small grants,” she said.
The money from the NSF grant will be funneled through the university to the tribes for the any research.
Vercoe said the grant allows EPSCoR to offer at least two seed grant opportunities across the state. Individuals or organizations can apply for economic development grants around microbial research. Much of that work is in collaboration with the Wyoming Technology Business Center.
“Their role within this project is to foster some seed challenges but also work with our researchers as we develop some strategies that may be marketable or partnerships that might benefit the state,” Vercoe said.
The center also can look for ways to use microbes to improve or support the mining, agriculture, ranching and microbrewery industries.
Dave Bohling, assistant director of the Wyoming Technology Business Center, said the center will run two entrepreneurial competitions in the third and fourth years of the grant.
“It’s really to spur entrepreneurial thinking or spinoff from the EPSCoR technical program area,” he said. Those proposals likely will be focused on biology, zoology, ecology and similar areas.
Ideas that people submit could become great businesses that help develop the state’s economy, he said.
“If you come up with a really cool idea, it’s probably worth a lot of money to somebody,” Bohling said.
He said he hopes to run those competitions statewide.
“I’m very confident that we will get somewhere between 3 and 6 qualifying companies at the end of the four-year process,” Bohling added.
Vercoe said microbreweries might find microbes that contribute to creative ways to clean brew lines, or they might isolate yeast that could better serve the brewing process.
Ewers added, “It gives the microbreweries in our state potentially a leg up to learn about these technologies.”
“What we really want is to inform, support and learn from industry and business in the state because in the end, we all win if we do that,” Vercoe said.
Kristen Landreville, director of graduate studies in UW’s Communications and Journalism Department, is creating a new science journalism course for undergraduate students in the department. She took a sabbatical this fall to design the course with the hope of offering it in the spring.
“It is an opportunity to make science and scientific projects a little more palatable – to present them in a manner that journalism students can grasp and appreciate and see as a potential venture for them as they move forward in their career,” Vercoe said.
She added that the effort would involve six internships every summer in which communications and journalism students would work with media outlets throughout the state, doing science journalism and learning about local matters.
She said those interns could possibly share back information about what problems and messages are important in the various communities.
“They’re our canaries to help us start a dialogue with the communities,” Vercoe said. “I think we’re all realizing that we have to justify our science a little more these days.”
She said Landreville also hopes to sponsor some science reporting awards for journalists through the Wyoming Press Association.
Vercoe said art also will be incorporated into this grant, despite its basis in science. That work will include workshops and exhibitions based on the scientific findings.
“The scientists that are out in the field will provide or share back with us images of different families of microbes. Then we are partnering with two local artists. These artists will receive these microbes as a prompt,” she said.
Renee Williams is one of those artists. Vercoe said Williams already is planning workshops in which participants make cheese and then create art around that process.
Ewers said it’s common throughout history to have artist create work around scientific discoveries, including star explosions or dinosaur discoveries, because it helps the community understand the significance of the discovery.