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Plant Pollination Research Blooms with Discovery

Jul 06, 2018


Ellis Mumford and Nick RuppelOn the Randolph-Macon College campus, nestled at the corner of Smith and Henry Streets, is the Brian Wesley Moores Native Garden. The space is brimming with life: butterfly weed, blazing star, purple coneflower, bee balm. This summer, visitors to the garden are likely to see Ellis Mumford '20 kneeling amid the flora as she studies plant pollination.

Mumford, an environmental studies major and biology and Spanish minor, is participating in R-MC's Schapiro Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. SURF offers students the opportunity to conduct 10 weeks of research under the guidance of a faculty member. Mumford's SURF mentor is Biology Professor Nicholas Ruppel, whose research for the past several years has focused on the interplay between local species and natural ecosystems.

Abundance and Diversity
Mumford's goal is to measure the efficacy of a native plant garden in bolstering urban pollinator populations. Her research involves measuring and comparing the abundance and diversity of pollinators (flies, bees, butterflies, etc.) on native plants and their non-native counterparts in the Brian Wesley Moores Native Garden.

"Abundance is measured by watching a plant and its non-native counterpart for 10 minutes and recording how many pollinators interact with the plant," explains Mumford. "Diversity is measured by taking pictures of and recording each species that is seen on a plant in a 10-minute window. I spend part of the workday identifying species, developing a website and planning ways to reach out the Ashland and R-MC communities to raise awareness about my project."

Community Engagement
Asked what inspired her to apply to the SURF program, Mumford says, "I was interested in Professor Ruppel's ongoing research in the Native Plant Garden and how studying native plants can contribute to the fields of environmental studies and biology. I recently learned about 'citizen science projects'—activities sponsored by organizations so non-scientists can meaningfully contribute to scientific research—as well as the environmental benefits of green spaces in urban areas. I was excited about the chance to develop a project that can build community engagement."

A Central Database
To achieve this goal, Mumford is setting up a platform in which residents can submit their own pollinator observations from the garden or the Ashland area to a central database.

"I hope that information about the garden will spread to local citizens at farmers' markets, nurseries, and schools and inspire people to visit the garden and submit their photos," she says. "This will help me accumulate a larger pool of data."

Mumford catches up with Ruppel every day, either in the garden or in a lab in Copley Science Center.

"Collaborating with Professor Ruppel is a great opportunity to learn a lot from someone who is very knowledgeable," says Mumford, whose SURF experience is supported by the Morton and Spapperi Family Foundation. "He encourages me to come up with new ideas and find answers to questions, especially relating to the citizen science aspect of the project. I'm gaining hands-on experience doing fieldwork, which teaches me about different research and data collection techniques. It's also a chance to study in-depth a field I might not otherwise come across in my major, and I'm able to study in a cross-curricular environment that combines elements of environmental studies and biology with elements such as technology and communication."

"Working with Ellis has been fantastic,” says Ruppel. "She really has fit into the project seamlessly, contributing both to our long-term plant-pollinator monitoring study in the garden, and bringing in some of her own unique interests with the outreach efforts. I'm excited to see where her efforts lead."

Peer-to-Peer Learning
Mumford is also learning from a fellow Yellow Jacket, Saunders Riley '19, who performed a similar project in the garden for her 2017 SURF research. Riley is back this year as a research assistant with Ruppel.  "This demonstrates the collaborative nature of science and the importance of peer mentorship," says Ruppel.