Vietnam and honey fuel undergrad research

April 27, 2016

Next time you’re shopping for raw, unfiltered Colorado honey and decide the hefty price tag is well worth it, think about senior Ashley Bouck and CU Denver’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). When you learn what Bouck discovered during her UROP-funded research, you may put that jar back on the shelf.

UROP is a competitive program providing funding to support research projects for CU Denver undergraduate students. The grants range from $1,200 for a single student to $3,600 for three or more students and can be used to fund everything from lab supplies to travel. Students are mentored—some might say inspired—by individual faculty members like Christy Briles, PhD.

“Doing research helps undergraduates in so many ways,” Briles said. “They learn project management skills, which are important to employers. They become better critical thinkers, they participate in the process of generating novel information, and they see opportunities that exist beyond the classroom.”

Asteraceae pollen under microscope
Ashley Bouck with daughter June

The beekeeper

An experienced beekeeper with an interest in food policy, Bouck met Briles when she took a course in weather and climate in the Geography and Environmental Science (GES) Department of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Bouck helped Briles set up her paleoecology, palynology (the study of pollen) and climate change lab. In return, the professor helped the student write a grant request for UROP around her passion for bees.

Bouck analyzed 15 samples of Colorado honey labeled “raw and unfiltered” to see if, in fact, the honey lived up to the label. “It was really fun,” Bouck said. “And, I’m not going to lie, sometimes it was not that much fun.” To collect data, she examined and identified hundreds of individual pollen grains under a microscope — tedious and painstaking work.

“I just had to persevere,” Bouck said. “We had a hypothesis and I saw the entire scientific process in action. You appreciate what it means to create a data set and analyze it. It’s a whole different way of thinking.”

Bouck’s results were a revelation. Eight of the 15 samples she tested were different from what they claimed to be on the label, some with below-average pollen concentrations and others with pollen from outside Colorado (e.g. Australia), leading Bouck to suggest that Colorado enact more stringent labeling protocols and better regulations to protect consumers.

“This was such an enriching experience,” Bouck said. “I was able to expand my interests in a scholarly way.”

Drawing sediment cores from junk boat in Halong Bay
Olga Serenchenko doing research in Vietnam

The sediment analyzer

 Olga Serenchenko spent two years studying sediment cores from Halong Bay in North Vietnam without ever imagining she would someday visit the country she was studying. She started as Briles’ student as a sophomore and transitioned into a role as lab assistant doing analysis of sediment cores to support Briles’ research reconstructing vegetation and history in North Vietnam. “Vietnam has such a long history of human occupation,” Serenchenko said. “Analyzing sediment cores tells you about the past—how did people live, what did the land look like and how did humans impact that landscape?”

Sediment cores from Vietnam in Briles’ CU Denver laboratory

Serenchenko wanted to take her participation in the research one step further, so she applied to UROP for funds to travel to Vietnam with Briles to extract additional cores from isolated coves and island estuaries in Halong Bay. In December 2015, they flew into Hanoi, to join other United States researchers and local archeological researchers from the Vietnam Institute of Archeology.

From Hanoi the research team traveled to several islands in Halong Bay with the permission and help of the Vietnamese government and local people. They used a vibrating coring device with an attached aluminum tube to collect intact sediment cores up to 3 meters long from junk boats or in mangroves at low tide. Serenchenko talks with enthusiasm about what she has learned from her research, discussing how the presence of charcoal and rice pollen in the sediment cores provides data to compare with historical information about the area. She presented her research at a recent Association of American Geographers conference.

“What’s rewarding for me is that I have learned how research is done in an academic field—how you apply for funding, do field work, analyze samples, collect data, write it up and draw conclusions,” Serenchenko said. “You don’t get that in a classroom setting.”

‘A big step’

 CU Denver sees UROP as a way to offer students engaged teaching-and-learning experiences. “Undergraduate research, which includes all forms of scholarship and creative activities in all disciplines, is one of the nationally-recognized High-Impact Practices (HIPs),” said Associate Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Experiences Jeff Franklin, “National research shows HIPs contribute to student engagement, enjoyment of learning and academic success.”

Students who receive UROP funding are required to present their findings at the annual Research and Creative Activities Symposium, held annually in April.

Briles has a personal reason for supporting UROP as a faculty advisor. As a first-generation college student, she was given the opportunity to do research. “The reason I am doing what I do today is because of that opportunity,” she said. “It takes students a big step beyond what they can do in the classroom.”