Undergraduate research takes student’s love for birds to new heights

Gulls are a familiar sight during seaside strolls, but one NDSU student finds them fascinating and has made the birds the central subject of her undergraduate research.

Nicole Snyder, a junior biochemistry molecular biology and zoology major from Dell Rapids, S.D., has transformed her love for birds into a meaningful research study on Franklin’s Gulls. She also may have discovered her future career path.

NDSU student Nicole Snyder, a junior biochemistry molecular biology and zoology major from Dell Rapids, S.D., has transformed her love for birds into a meaningful research study on Franklin’s Gulls.

Franklin’s Gulls are small, black-headed gulls of the interior North American prairies. They are a common sight for the region during the summer when they breed. During the winter, they migrate to Central America.

“I’m a big bird person,” Snyder said. “I really like studying them. I never knew this is where it would take me.”

Under the direction of Wendy Reed, associate professor and head of biological sciences, Snyder is a member of a research team trying to determine differences present between Franklin’s Gull chicks hatched during early season and late season.

Snyder’s job was to analyze immune system function and the ability of the chicks to withstand diet restrictions. To do this, she ran a comet assay on the chicks’ blood. A comet assay is a sensitive and rapid technique for quantifying and analyzing DNA damage in individual cells. She specifically looked for variances in the amount of cell damage between the two groups.

Both early and late season hatched chicks need to be fully prepared for migration in August despite their age difference. The study is looking at cell damage comparisons to see if late season chicks are giving something up in order to be ready in time.

“I’m still working on analysis, but preliminary data showed that for a certain age period they did show a difference,” explained Snyder. “It’s really cool that we’re getting what we expected.”

In January, Snyder gave a poster presentation on her findings at the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology annual conference in San Francisco. The conference allowed Snyder to share her research, but also network and learn from other science professionals from around the nation.

“There were so many different people there from all different branches of science,” Snyder said. “I learned all the different methods they were using and I was able to find people who were doing similar projects as me.”

As a student-focused institution, NDSU gives undergraduate students the opportunity to engage in cutting-edge research alongside respected authorities in their field. For Snyder, undergraduate research has been a big part of her collegiate experience.

“I have gained all sorts of work and educational experience and I get to be a part of the environment I hope to work in after college.” Snyder said of undergraduate research. “It has made me a more well-rounded student and exposed me to a lot of opportunities I would’ve never had if I hadn’t done this.”

Snyder plans to continue working on ornithology research during her undergraduate years at NDSU and hopefully conduct future avian projects as a graduate student. Overall, her experience has been a rewarding one.

“Undergraduate research has made my college experience exciting,” Snyder said. “It’s no longer ‘Oh I’ve got to go to work now’ but rather ‘I wonder what new or interesting thing will happen today?’ ”

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