Arkansas State University - Newport

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December 2018

ASU-Newport students gain valuable experience while discovering the environment around them

Science is all around us. It’s something many of us never notice-the tiniest thing making a big difference in our world. While some may believe the important research happens in big fancy labs, significant research is happening at Arkansas State University-Newport.

Dr. Sarah Webb is a leading force in ASU-Newport’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs. She teaches chemistry and biology and has a vast background in the study of endangered species like sea turtles and dolphins. Through her experience, she is inspiring ASUN students to do research as well.

Diatoms inside the A-State lab.
Diatom inside the A-State lab.

By partnering with Arkansas State University, Webb and her students have been able to make great strides in researching diatoms and the roles they play in our environment. As Webb explained, a diatom is algae and plays a major role in the production of oxygen. Diatoms have glass shells rather than calcium and are used to assess environmental health. They are even used in forensics because diatoms can be unique to certain bodies of water.

Sarah Webb working with students in the field.
Sarah Webb working with students in the field. 

Across Northeast Arkansas, there are unknown diatoms. That is what Webb and her students are doing. They go outside to different areas in Craighead County and collect diatoms from streams or anywhere there may be water. They then take the samples back to a lab at A-State to process and study. Thanks to A-State, the students have access to high-tech equipment. ASUN has microscopes inside its labs, but for some diatoms a more powerful microscope is required. Students can access those at A-State. All this research is then cataloged in A-State’s ARCTOS database. If something unusual is found, the team may focus their efforts on that specific diatom and study it further.

“This research is creating a database of what is around us in Northeast Arkansas,” Webb said. “This database will become a resource for years to come. What’s even better is if any of this research is used in the future, ASUN’s name will be attached, which is really cool.”

Though this research is great for scientific needs, it’s also vital for ASUN students.

Biology student Gregory Daniels holding a cardinal
Biology student Gregory Daniels holding a cardinal.

“The goal is to train students how research is done,” Webb said. “From start to finish, students need the experience to take with them.”

The experience can be very versatile. Some students are interested in furthering research while others are pre-veterinarian or pre-medical majors. Whether working towards a PhD or Associate Degree, this research experience is necessary when applying for certain programs or jobs. Webb said it can be uncommon to get this experience in undergrad, but that is why she thinks it’s so important to give students the opportunity if they want it.

Andres Orellana, Timothy Tyler, Aaron Gatewood and Laura Bean looking at diatoms under the microscope.
Andres Orellana, Timothy Tyler, Aaron Gatewood
and Laura Bean looking at diatoms under the microscope.

Students not only conduct their own research, they also add presenting research to their resumes. Webb took several students to present at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in April 2018. The partnership with A-State also helps students build relationships with researchers. It allows them to network and learn from those directly in the field in the case they choose to pursue research as a career down the road.

Laura Bean, Timothy Tyler, Lacey Coggins, Sean Tolbert and Shawn King presenting diatom research.
Laura Bean, Timothy Tyler, Lacey Coggins, Sean Tolbert and
Shawn King presenting diatom research.

Webb expressed gratitude to Dr. Travis Marsico and Dr. Lori Neuman-Lee at A-State for partnering with her class and ASUN. This kind of opportunity can be rare for smaller colleges, and Webb appreciates the partnership.

This experience has even inspired students to start their own club. Students created the Arkansas Conservationist Club modeled after the Sierra Club. The student ran group is working to curate ideas to how they can better impact the environment and community. Webb said this research will continue for years, and she is excited to see more and more students become interested in the environment that surrounds us every day.