Grace Hanshaw ’22 has spent the summer growing plants in a greenhouse, conducting field research, and collecting and analyzing samples of leaf segments. It sounds like a typical summer of biology research, except it all takes place at Hanshaw’s home in The Woodlands, Texas, rather than in an official lab on Trinity’s campus.
Like many Trinity students, Hanshaw, a biology major and Spanish and religion minor, is completing her summer research project remotely due to COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic, she had planned to spend the summer working in biology professor Jim Shinkle’s lab doing wet lab work to study how ultraviolet radiation (UV) affects plants, but she was unsure if her project could be completed remotely.
“As soon as we got the email telling us summer research was going to be from home, I thought that was it, and we couldn't do it,” Hanshaw recalls. “I was shocked when [Shinkle] was like, ‘We could probably figure something out.’”
And they did. It took two trips from San Antonio to The Woodlands, but Hanshaw and Shinkle managed to transport the necessary lab equipment so Hanshaw could collect and process her own data samples at home. The equipment includes a chlorophyll meter, a spectrophotometer, and a reflectance meter loaned from biology professor Troy Murphy’s lab.
While relocating a lab might seem daunting, Shinkle found it relatively simple. "Take a step back and say, 'In a normal workweek, what does everybody have to do?' Once we had that list, it was pretty easy to see how we are going to do this [remotely],” Shinkle explains.
Hanshaw has built both a greenhouse and field site in her backyard and transformed her dining room into a space for lab work. She only has to mail Shinkle dried grass samples for weighing, as the scale was too fragile to withstand transport.
Hanshaw’s summer research is funded through Trinity by a Biology Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (BSURF). She is studying how short-length UV-B affects native Texas grasses in a natural environment, or in the case of this summer, her backyard.
UV radiation induces a stress response in plants, as it causes gene mutations that can harm the plant. In response to UV exposure, plants produce a variety of UV absorbing pigments to help minimize the damage, and this redirection of resources thus inhibits the plants’ growth. In other words, certain parts of sunlight can actually stunt a plant’s growth, rather than help it. The amount of UV radiation a plant receives can vary based on a variety of factors including elevation, weather, and air pollution levels. Hanshaw’s research focuses on how UV affects plants in a natural environment, where those factors cannot be as easily controlled as in a lab environment.
Hanshaw is working with inland sea oats and side oats grama, two native Texas grasses. She then places them under three different filters that exclude different wavelengths of UV light: one that lets all UV wavelengths through, one that excludes all UV-B, and one that excludes only short-length UV-B. After two weeks of treatment, she examines leaf absorbance, reflectance, and chlorophyll and flavonoid levels in the grasses to determine the effect of UV exposure.
With Hanshaw and the lab setup currently in The Woodlands, Shinkle misses stopping by his lab to see what his students are working on. “From my point of view, what I do miss is the sort of day to day troubleshooting,” he explains. “Some of the times when I'd wander into the lab, it wasn't because [a student] needed help. It was because I just wanted to know what was going on.”
Remote research has made some aspects of communication difficult, but it has not stopped Shinkle from helping Hanshaw work through bumps in the research process. He met Hanshaw in a Whataburger parking lot in Schulenburg, Texas—the halfway point between San Antonio and The Woodlands—to help solve issues Hanshaw had experienced with some equipment and her laptop. They were able to fix the issue, but, without that meeting, “I don't think we would have come to that conclusion with such confidence,” Shinkle says.
Hanshaw, who is attending Trinity on a Murchison scholarship, finds that conducting research independently has helped her grow as a scientist. "I'm learning so much doing this on my own, even though there's been a struggle and a big learning curve," she explains. “It was really cool to start learning things for myself.”
Even though the format of her research this summer is unconventional, Hanshaw has found the experience rewarding and relevant to her career goals–she plans to attend graduate school to study plant science or fire ecology once she graduates from Trinity. “I'm getting a first-hand experience with science and doing something that I'm interested in,” Hanshaw says. “It's been really fulfilling."