Undergraduate's Biology Thesis Published
Three “generations” of CC biologists collaborated on research conducted in the mountains of Colorado, with the result being an undergraduate’s thesis published in a major scientific journal.
“Revisiting Darwin's Hypothesis: Does Greater Intraspecific Variability Increase Species’ Ecological Breadth?” was published in the January issue of the American Journal of Botany, one of the premier botanical journals in the world. Listed as authors are three generations of CC biologists: Colby Sides ’12, Brian Enquist ’91, and Colorado College Biology Professor Jim Ebersole.
Sides spent much of the summer of 2011 collecting and analyzing plant samples from six different communities ranging from 9,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation in the area around Crested Butte. His work tested a key Charles Darwin prediction: “In the mid-1800s, Darwin hypothesized that those species which show larger variation should be found in broader environments. That had not really been tested or proven,” Ebersole said.
Sides measured the area, then dried and weighed to evaluate the mass of each leaf sample from 20 different species. These measurements allowed him to calculate specific leaf area which correlates to other plant traits. His results showed that those species with more variation in specific leaf area occurred at a wider variety of elevations.
Sides worked out of the nearby Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, where Enquist, now a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has run various experiments for the past 10 years.
Ebersole, who was Sides’ advisor, also was Enquist’s advisor in the early ’90s. Ebersole connected the biology student with the alumnus because of shared interests.
“The data demonstrate the importance of within-species variation that has been left out of some models,” said Sides, noting that many studies focus on the average measurement of a trait for a species, not its variability. “It’s really incredible how variable a species can be, and if they vary a lot they can spread themselves over a bunch of different environmental conditions. It can determine where a species can exist,” he said.
“It is really a nice piece of work,” said Ebersole, who has published 12 scientific papers with 15 different Colorado College student authors in his 26 years of teaching at CC. One of those students was Enquist, now a noteworthy scientist with a lengthy list of awards, accomplishments, and prestigious publications, who had his senior thesis published under Ebersole’s supervision.
Enquist, in turn, routinely works with students of all levels both as a professor and as a research mentor. He and Ebersole have worked together with numerous CC students in addition to Sides.
Colorado College is particularly equipped to facilitate students participating in primary research, Enquist said, citing the Block Plan as a reason. It allows “more focused projects,” and the college’s “small size and excellent teachers, with one foot in academia while also doing research, encourage the hands-on work,” he said.