Independent Research for Undergraduates

Mitchell Lab:

Welcome to my Student Research idea page. My goal is to give you an idea of some projects that might suit your needs as a prospective student researcher.

Research in my lab is centered on the relationship between plants and their pollinators. I list four projects below – some well thought out and in progress, others very new and unproven, and most everything in between. All of them have elements that would be suitable for your participation and input. We encourage students working on these projects to develop their own sub-projects that they would develop and lead. And if you have an idea of your own that I could help with, that’s fine too!

1)  Urbanization and plant-pollinator interactions. Geographic variation in interspecific interactions is a topic of growing interest, but there is surprisingly little empirical information on this, and even less on how this mosaic is affected by human activities.  This project involves determining the extent to which interactions between plants and pollinators vary in space and time. Penstemon digitalis is one of several likely species for this study (most of my work focuses on Mimulus ringens, a wetland plant of eastern North America, but it doesn’t start flowering until July, too late for the REU program. Because different bee species differ in pollination behaviors, areas with differing pollinator faunas may have different mating systems, and the nature and quality of the mutualistic interaction may vary in response to human activity.

This investigation requires quantification of pollinator faunas in several plant populations throughout the Cuyahoga River Valley across the urban-rural gradient. At each site we will observe and collect visitors to Mimulus, and in the lab will pin, identify, and curate those specimens. Students will also learn to identify common bee species on the wing. We will quantify variation in both plants and bees, measuring floral morphology in the field with digital calipers, and insect morphology in the lab with an existing digital imaging system. We will collect a sample of fruits from each population for later counting in the lab. I will encourage students to develop independent research interests  for example, comparing nectar production of different populations, testing for pollen limitation as a function of pollinator abundance, and so forth. We will be alert for possible range extensions and new records like those my students have documented for non-native bee species .

2) Differences in foraging behavior between individual pollinators. Recent work indicates that bumble bees and other pollinators often follow consistent routes through fields of flowers. These traplines may have important effects on both pollinator foraging success, and plant mating patterns. Students can study this by marking bees with numbered tags and then recording their foraging behavior moving through a mapped population of plants. This is a field-intensive study, with some lab work.

3) Effects of grassland management strategies on plant-pollinator interactions. Human management practices such as mowing and fertilizing can affect the abundance of insect-pollinated plants in grasslands, which should affect the pollinator community. Utilizing an existing set of replicated experimental plots we will continue work to document these changes. This project involves both field work (pollinator observation and collection, plant inventory), and lab work (specimen curation, identification, and data entry). This is one of several parts of the Human-mediated effects on energy flow in a grassland system project that I work on with Dr. Pan and Dr. Smith at the University of Akron Field Station.

4) Wetland Ecology and restoration.  The UA Field Station and I manage and are associated with several wetland projects and restorations, and there are many potential projects involving  plants, insects, hydrology, and other topics..Many other projects are possible, depending on your interests.

Please contact me for more information about any of these projects!