Undergrads dive into science at UVA’s Mountain Lake research station

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REU student Abigail Kimmitt works with her mentor Dustin Reichard (front right) and their field tech Joe Welkin (back) at the Mountain Lake Biological Station. Photo courtesy of UVA.

Many undergraduate students aspiring to be full-fledged scientists find themselves facing a roadblock: They’re unable to tackle their own research until their graduate or postgraduate careers begin. But the National Science Foundation’s highly selective Research Experiences for Undergraduates program gives students across the country—including some from UVA—the opportunity to collaborate with mentors and work on their own original projects.

The REU program has sites all over the U.S. and overseas. Now finishing its 20th year, UVA’s Mountain Lake Biological Station in Giles County is not only the nearest one, but also the oldest.

Each year, approximately 10 students are selected from a pool of hundreds of applicants and given a $5,000 stipend to cover the costs of living at the station. During the 10-week program, they collaborate with their mentors, who include graduate students, postdoctoral students, and professors. Half their time is spent working with the mentors on their projects, and the other half on their own original research.

“It’s kind of a capstone research experience for the best and the brightest,” said Butch Brodie, director of the station and a UVA biology professor.

During their time at the station, which sits on Salt Pond Mountain in the Thomas Jefferson National Forest north of Blacksburg, students live and breathe their research. They room together in eight-person cottages, study in two labs, and eat at the on-site dining hall. Because there’s no cell service, there are few distractions. The field station is in a key spot for ecological study, say researchers, because it’s close to the only natural lake in the unglaciated Appalachians, and surrounded by mixed forests, meadows, and other diverse ecosystems.

Rising UVA senior Eric Wice was one of two UVA students accepted into this summer’s Mountain Lake program, which wrapped up at the beginning of August. While there, he studied how female fungus beetles’ egg-laying behavior maximizes the chance their offspring will avoid being cannibalized and survive to adulthood. The program let him strike out on his own and generate data that could lead to a published study, but it also allowed him to get guidance from his mentor, UVA grad student Corlette Wood, who in turn got help from Wice on her own research on wildflower adaptation.

“We put things into action and worked out kinks along the way,” Wice said, which is useful, because in science, “nothing works out as planned perfectly.” The program’s live-here-and-learn-here approach helped foster cooperation, he said. “You get to dine with your professors and learn about them on a first name basis. It’s really informal, which makes it a very conducive and open environment for students to continue their career.”

Janet Steven, a biology professor at Sweet Briar College, also mentored students at the station this summer while studying plant evolutionary biology, and said the program fosters partnership. “I was out there collecting my data while they were collecting their data,” she said. “We all had desks in the same lab so they could ask me questions on what they were working on. It wasn’t as much me telling them what to do as much as it was me being asked questions.”

That kind of interaction was what drew Butch Brodie to Virginia and the job as station director six years ago. His study of evolutionary biology has given him the chance to work in fascinating places. “I’ve worked around the world, literally,” he said. “But I haven’t had a chance to connect my research with the undergraduates. We have a lot of students who are there at UVA, and the REU program is a way to connect the research we do with the science part and the research part.”—Ana Mir

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