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NSF grant funds UW-Eau Claire student-faculty plant pollination research in South Africa

| Gary Johnson

Photo caption: Three biology students worked with Dr. Nora Mitchell, an assistant professor of biology, in South Africa this summer collecting research data on plant pollination in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

Dr. Nora Mitchell, an assistant professor of biology, and three University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire biology students spent a month in South Africa this summer collecting research data on plant pollination in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.

Chase Fillion, a senior ecology and environmental biology major from Hastings, Minnesota, called the immersion a once-in-a-lifetime experience that went “way beyond what a course or textbook could offer.”

Nora Mitchell South Africa research

From left, Dr. Nora Mitchell, an assistant professor of biology, and students Anna Fregien, Chase Fillion and Carolyn Hanson.

“I love doing field research and the opportunity to do it in a place so far from home was incredible,” Fillion says. “I knew that UWEC had a lot of undergraduate research opportunities, but I did not expect to leave the state, let alone the continent, for those projects.”

Mitchell was awarded a nearly $300,000 National Science Foundation Building Research Capacity in Biology (BRC-BIO) grant to study plant pollination syndrome evolution in the Western Cape province of South Africa.

The South African location also gave the students — Fillion, Anna Fregien and Carolyn Hanson — an opportunity to experience a different culture and learn the history of the country’s human diversity as well as its plant diversity.

Nora Mitchell South Africa research

Fregien, a senior majoring in ecology and environmental biology, says she values the personal connections she made with lab mates and the South African collaborators.

“I never expected that I would be traveling to South Africa for research,” says Fregien, of Apple Valley, Minnesota. “I figured that I might get the opportunity through research to possibly travel throughout the U.S., but I never expected to fly halfway around the world.”

The research project, titled “BRC-BIO: Understanding the Role of Species Interactions in Evolutionary Radiations Through the Evolution of Non-flying Mammal Pollination in the Iconic Plant Genus Protea,” will last three years. Mitchell and the student researchers plan to return to South Africa in January 2024.

Protea plant

The research focuses on better understanding different pollinators in a group of plants called Protea in South Africa and how the plants evolve to use different animals to assist in their reproduction. Mitchell did her doctoral research on Protea leaf form and function in South Africa, so she says extending her studies to pollinators was a natural progression.

“The southwestern portion of South Africa is a so-called biodiversity hotspot, with many, many different species and many species that are found nowhere else on Earth,” Mitchell says. “This makes the area a perfect place to study questions about the evolution of biodiversity.”

The Blugolds collected data in the wild to bring back to UW-Eau Claire for analysis. They collected leaf samples for DNA extraction and analysis that will help the researchers to understand how the plants are evolutionarily related to each other.

Nora Mitchell South Africa research

“This type of field experience is invaluable to students in terms of literal boots-on-the-ground work in difficult conditions,” Mitchell says. “The immersive nature is also important for students exploring whether they are interested in a career in biology, or a career involving outdoor work more broadly.”

The grant funds will help with costs for sequencing and computer work associated with the data analysis. The researchers will use the Blugold Supercomputing Cluster for analysis, and Mitchell hopes to use the data in the new bioinformatics major at UW-Eau Claire.