Scientific research with plenty of buzz

One June day, as Danielle Horne '16 collected wild bumblebees for the Oregon State University lab where she was interning, she noticed a bee with a paper tag glued to its back. Looking closer, she realized the tag indicated that she had collected this bee days earlier and transported it more than a mile away. Somehow the bee had escaped its new home in a greenhouse and found its way back to the same spiraea bush.

The realization made Horne wonder: How many bees do this, and how far are they willing to travel in order to return to a known food source? That sparked a line of study that consumed Horne's next several weeks.

Scientific inquiry like this is at the heart of the Raiser Environmental Fellowship. This annual study-travel program is awarded annually to NCS juniors, funding a self-directed research program in particular fields over the summer. The students then present their work to the Upper School.

The 2015 fellows -- Horne, Caroline Gibson '16 and Elizabeth Crowdus '16 -- made their presentations on Jan. 6 in Hearst Auditorium. Horne reviewed her study of the bumblebees' homing ability and loyalty to food sources. Gibson detailed her examination in China of how a widely used pesticide affects microorganisms such as bacteria in various conditions. And Crowdus discussed her experiment with turning cafeteria food waste into a biofuel.

"It was very validating to see real-world applications of what I’d spent so much time learning about," Crowdus told the students. "And also to see that lab work is something I actually enjoy."

Indeed, all three students recalled their summer work with a sense of joy, even when recounting how they ran into obstacles: For Gibson, it was learning the hard way that reportable results required doing the exact same thing, over and over again, for every sample; and Crowdus found that her equipment had a pH level that was killing the bacteria she needed to process the food waste into methane.

Horne's challenge was weather-related: Her project focused on worker bees, but an early spring season in Oregon meant that the queens in her colonies were producing no more workers by the time she arrived. So she had to collect wild worker bees, which led her to the spiraea bush where she made her happy discovery.

"I really think that what I ended up doing was much more interesting and informative than my original plan would have been," Horne said.

All three students worked under the guidance of university professors, and Crowdus said sending the initial email to University of Maryland professor Stephanie Lansing "was so intimidating."

"To my surprise and excitement, Dr. Lansing invited me to come talk to her and tour her lab," she said.

Crowdus had been looking for a project that involved alternative energy sources, and Lansing's research focuses on turning agricultural waste into energy. "I asked if I could join in."

Crowdus's spin on the research was to start with cafeteria food waste. "Thanks to NCS Green Board’s composting initiative, I’ve thought a great deal about food waste in cafeterias. As cafeterias are hubs of food waste, there would be an easy, centralized access to food waste in cafeterias, potentially making a very efficient version of the process."

Horne worked with Sujaya Rao, a professor of entomology at Oregon State University. "When I saw Dr. Rao's bio and what research she had done, I was immediately drawn to her [as] a remarkable woman scientist and environmentalist," she said.

The Raiser fellowship funds study in environmental science, biodiversity, conservation, or the impact of environmental degradation or pollution on human life. It was established in 1998 by NCS alumna Skye Raiser '85, who was in attendance for the students' presentations. "I didn't establish this so that people could go study science necessarily," she said, but rather so that the students would discover "how amazing you are."

Her hope, Raiser said, is that the fellows will "inspire other girls who'll say, 'Look at the cool things that she did. Maybe I could do that, too.' "