Out of the Lab to the Great Outdoors

By Swapna Subramanian (ecology and evolution, anthropology, chemistry)

Working in Assistant Professor Martin Turcotte’s lab was my first experience in research at Pitt. I was looking for professors to do research with and I saw Dr. Turcotte was a new professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. I emailed Dr. Turcotte saying that I was interested in his research, and got involved in the lab.

As I was processing duckweed samples as part of my work in the lab, I found many bugs that were feeding on the duckweed and I started collecting them for identification. This resulted in me becoming more interested in herbivore interactions with duckweed, and we started conducting experiments.

This led to my own self-directed research on the interactions of water lily aphids and three different species of duckweed. I am looking to determine if the aphids have a species preference, if the aphid’s performance differs between species, and how different densities of aphids affect duckweed performance. This research will hopefully shed light on plant herbivore interactions and also help learn more about how duckweed, a very common and dominant plant in ponds, is regulated and affected by herbivores.

Working Side-by-Side with Faculty Experts

Being able to consult with an expert in the field about how to get started in research, and conduct that research, has been very useful to me. Dr. Turcotte and I speak frequently about the progress of my experiments and how to further my research, but also about the intricacies of the organisms I am working with and other important topics in ecology and evolution. I think the mechanisms of the Earth are fascinating and truly enjoy parsing apart why organisms and ecosystems are the way they are. I am very grateful to be able to cultivate this interest at Pitt.   

Being able to do research with him has allowed me to learn more in-depth about the subject than I could have in a class with many students, and also gain valuable experience with the inner workings of research.

Outside the Lab: Research in the Great Outdoors

My research occurs both in the lab and outside in nature. In the lab, I am usually working on controlling and maintaining colonies of my aphids and duckweed, in order to conduct experiments. I am also collecting data from the experiments I currently have running, by counting the aphids and duckweed. I also have set up experiments in the field, at the Pymatuning Laboratory of Ecology, and that consists of wading out into ponds and setting up experiments outside in nature.

Through this experience, I have learned many of the ins and outs of aphids and duckweed, such as their life cycles and how to grow large quantities of them to conduct experiments. But I have also learned much about designing and conducting experiments, in the lab and in the field, which is very valuable experience since I want to go into a career in research.

Hands-on Learning for a Lifetime

Undergraduate research is a great way to gain experience and knowledge in a field you are interested in. It is much more hands on than lecture-based classes and, through this opportunity, one is able to acquire much more in-depth knowledge of the subject matter. I am now much more able to understand the great accomplishments of scientists and their experiments due to having a more thorough understanding of how experiments are designed and conducted, and I have learned so much about this field of study.

I would like to continue in ecology and evolution research after my time at Pitt by going to graduate school for a Ph.D. as well, and be able to contribute to this field and continue learning about the world around us.