Author Archives: Ali Pagliery

Does the inquiline micro-community found in Sarracenia purpurea vary across latitudes?

Ali Pagliery

Mentors: Richard Wong, Katrina DeWitt, Justin Wright, Ph.D.

Department of Biology 

Sarracenia purpurea is a species of carnivorous plant with pitcher-like structures that collect rainwater. Inside the pitchers lives an inquiline micro-community of organisms that help break down prey that lands in the pitchers, providing the plant with nutrients. S. purpurea ranges from southeast U.S. to Canada, but it is unknown how the micro-community and its importance for the plant’s nutrient uptake varies across latitudes. We hypothesized that S. purpurea from lower latitudes will rely more on digestive enzymes for nutrient uptake, while S. purpurea from higher latitudes will rely more on the micro-community. We will take fluid and leaf samples from plants across a latitudinal gradient. We will study enzyme concentrations, the organismal composition of the micro-communities, and perform a nitrogen analysis to study nutrient uptake. We expect that the plants at lower latitudes will have a higher enzyme concentration, a more diverse inquiline community, and a higher degree of nutrient uptake than plants further north. The plants at higher latitudes will likely have a lower enzyme concentration and a less extensive inquiline community, but they will largely rely on this community for acquiring nutrients. Our findings can be applied to similar aquatic systems that exist on a macro scale.

Baboon Behavior

I particularly enjoyed Colby’s talk about his work in the Alberts lab, which deals with variations in baboon social behavior. I have always found animal behavior to be a very interesting topic, so I was excited to learn about one of the ways in which this type of research is conducted. 

I was somewhat surprised to find out that his work deals mostly with models, which I have very little experience with. Because of my lack of familiarity in this type of work, I was interested to hear about the years of compiled data and the many models that are involved in studying animal behavior.

I was also interested in learning about some of the challenges that come with conducting this type of animal research. For example, I was particularly fascinated by the fact that there are many years worth of data regarding the roles that genetics play in establishing baboon social structures, but there is relatively little data regarding the roles that environmental/non-genetic factors play in determining these social structures simply because it is difficult to control for their natural environment. All types of research have different limitations and I think it is interesting to hear about how different researchers work around these challenges.

Days Spent With Plants

A typical day at the Wright lab usually starts early in the morning. I get dressed in long sleeves, thick pants, and hiking boots and meet up with the two graduate students I am working with who pick me up around 8:00 am. We then drive a few hours until we reach the particular site we are surveying that day. We have been visiting various locations where the pitcher plant Sarracenia purpurea are found. Depending on the site we visit, we may spend a few hours walking through longleaf pine savannas searching for these plants, or we may just take a short walk along a path and find several plants fairly easily. We often drive to multiple areas within the same sites, taking gps coordinates of the plants we find. Once we have thoroughly searched that day’s site for purpurea, we drive back to Durham where I am dropped off at campus. I then head to my dorm where I make sure to check for ticks.

For the past several weeks, we have only been surveying the sites we’ve visited. However, we will soon return to these sites, where we will take fluid and leaf samples of these plants, which we will later study and analyze in the lab.

On the days I don’t do field work, I usually read papers that cover a broad range of topics, from Sarracenia purpurea morphology, to the organisms that are found in the pitcher’s fluid, to concepts of food web ecology and how they apply to these plants.

Two Unique Experiences, One Interview

This summer, I have been working closely with first year graduate students Richard Wong and Katrina DeWitt. I was able to interview them together to discuss their experiences in the science field so far. A shortened version of the interview is posted below.

Where did you complete your undergrad studies and what were your majors/minors?

Katrina: “I went to Rutgers University Camden for my undergraduate and master’s where I earned a B.S. and M.S. in Biology. I also minored in Chemistry.”

Richard: “I studied at University of Massachusetts Boston where I earned a B.S. in Biology and a certificate in Environmental Biology.”

In regard to your goals, how have they changed throughout the years and what do you wish to accomplish?

Katrina: “When I started my undergrad, I thought I was going to enter the medical field. Rutgers had this very specific program centered around cardiovascular technology but it got shut down during my first semester. I actually almost dropped out of college, but eventually the biology department reached out and offered some students shadowing opportunities. I ended up applying to shadow one of the labs and that ended up being the lab I stayed in for both my undergrad and my master’s. Once I started shadowing in the lab, I realized how much I enjoyed it and I just threw myself into the science field. I started applying for grants and participating in internship programs and I quickly became sure that I wanted to earn a PhD. I also discovered that I really love teaching, so I will likely pursue a position centered around teaching once I’ve earned my PhD.”

Richard: “Since I was a kid, I always loved the outdoors so I started my undergrad knowing that I wanted to study ecology. I actually thought I wanted to study marine biology at first, so I pursued aquarium work for a while. I started interning at the New England Aquarium during the summer after my first year, but that evolved into a volunteer position once the internship was over. I kept being involved with the aquarium but I also started interning as a field tech for a research lab at my school. I was working in salt marshes and I realized how much I love field work and how much I love discussing big questions, even if there aren’t any definite answers. I kept working with this lab and eventually decided that I wanted to earn a PhD. I also realized that I love talking about plants even more than I love talking about marine science, so I began to shift my focus towards plants, which is what I’m studying now. I hope to one day establish a lab and mentor students who show a true passion and curiosity towards science.”

What has been your teaching experience so far?

Katrina: “I taught during my master’s program, so I’ve done about 3 years of teaching now. I taught two classes a semester, both of which where always labs. I also had to take over a lecture class for about half a semester, so I’ve done a lot of teaching compared to a lot of other first year grad students and I even helped develop a new course at Rutgers. I honestly thought I was gonna hate teaching. I was pretty scared my first time teaching, but after the first class I absolutely loved it. This actually shaped my career path, because I’m now planning to get a teaching based job in academia.” **Follow-up question: What type of teaching do you prefer?** “I like teaching labs because it’s hands-on and it really helps students better understand what they learn in lecture. I like lecturing but I just think lab is way more fun.”

Richard: “I tutored a little during my undergrad, mostly gen bio, genetics, and ecology, but I’ve never officially taught anything yet. I’ve unofficially mentored some undergrads when I was working as a lab tech, but this is my first time having an official mentee. I really like mentorships and I look forward to having a lab later in my career where I can interact with my students.”

What has been your grad school experience in areas that aren’t related to academics? What is your life like when you aren’t woking?

Katrina: “Well, this past year was really weird, for obvious reasons, and Richard is actually the only grad student here I really know right now. But even putting the Covid situation aside, it can still be pretty hard because a lot of your free time is still dedicated to your work. That being said, we’re here because we genuinely like what we do. We often struggle with a work-life balance, but we’re often still satisfied with this. Of course, there are still times where you can plan ahead and make the effort to get together with other people or even take little trips, but a lot of the time you really are just trying to focus on your work while also finding time for yourself.”

Richard: “I make an effort to set time aside for a bunch of my hobbies. I love rock climbing, fishing, diving, hiking, and also just hanging out with friends. I like talking to other students after all our seminars, but I still feel like this past year we’ve missed a bunch of opportunities to make a lot of the connections we usually would have made.”

What do you love about working in science?

Katrina: “It is very rewarding. You feel a fantastic sense of accomplishment when your research finally works. This really big reward balances out a lot of the lows you experience while conducting research. I also love learning in general, and you’re always learning something knew in the lab.”

Richard: “I like asking questions and trying to figure them out. I just love the search for knowledge, even if you don’t find any answers. It’s like a fun puzzle.”

What would you change about the science field? 

Katrina: “I hate mansplaining in academia. I also wish people were slightly more helpful. A lot of professors feel like they don’t have time to really help, so you often find yourself on your own, which can be very frustrating.”

Richard: “I hate how big people’s egos can be sometimes. I think some people get caught up in trying to make a name for themselves and they can often lose sight of what’s important when it comes to research and just searching for knowledge. They can be very closed minded and reluctant to listen to the questions and ideas of others. The field is also very male dominated and very white dominated.”

What are your most memorable lab moments/disasters?

Katrina: “I was on a trip to the Florida Keys for a marine field ecology class to study sharks, and my professor got bit by a nurse shark. He wasn’t seriously hurt and he kept making jokes about it, but it was definitely memorable.”

Richard: “When I was working in the salt marsh ecology lab, we were out at like 4 am to collect fish during a night time high tide. We finished taking our samples and, the second we were done, we saw lighting strike right above our metal boat, which was loaded with gasoline. We all just dropped everything and started running towards the forest, which was about a mile and a half away. No one got hurt, but we had to wait in the forest for like an hour and a half until it cleared up. That is probably one of my most memorable lab moments.”

More Than Meets the Eye

My research project involves studying a particular type of pitcher plant called Sarracenia purpurea. These carnivorous plants have leaves that form pitcher-like structures that are able to collect water. This water, however, hosts a community of microorganisms that digests any prey that falls into these pitchers. The waste excreted by these organisms can then be taken up by the plant. 

This research project involves taking trips to various locations where these plants are found. We will be taking samples of the fluid in the pitchers as well as taking clippings of the leaves. The fluid will be studied to see what types of prey the plants are catching, what organisms live in the water, and what enzymes are present. Furthermore, nitrogen analysis will be conducted on the plant’s leaves. So far, we have visited and surveyed about half of the sites we will be sampling from, and we will soon begin sampling and studying these complex plants.

Although these plants may seem simple and uninteresting, there is much more to them than initially meets the eye. Within these plants lives an entire food web, and, even though the interactions within the food web will be studied on a small scale, learning about these interactions can help us understand those that occur at a much larger scale.

The Unfamiliar World of Plants

For my entire life, I have been interested in all things related to biology. I grew up fascinated by animals, the environment, the relationships that exist between different organisms, and the human body, along with a variety of other topics related to life on Earth. One particular branch of biology that I never became well aquatinted with, however, is that regarding plants. This made me all the more excited to join the Wright Lab and help with a research project dedicated to studying a particular species of plant.

Because my knowledge of plants is not very extensive, I am entering this project almost as a blank slate, ready to learn everything I can from those I am working with and from conducting some work myself. I don’t have any experience working in a research lab setting, but I was always drawn to the idea of conducting field work. When I found out this project involves collecting samples and data directly from the field, my excitement intensified. I honestly don’t know what to expect from these trips, but I think that is part of the fun. I just plan to absorb everything I can and make the most of this hands-on experience. That being said, I do hope to learn about various methods of sample/data collection as well as the proper way to analyze these samples back in the lab.

While the world of plants is mostly foreign to me, I can’t help but face this research project with a sense of excitement. Everything about this experience is very new and I can’t wait to take advantage of every opportunity presented to me.