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Connecting academics to research

Students’ class project results in published paper

Contact: ​Jeff Johnston

​Students in the first cohort of the earth and ecosystem science doctoral program at Central Michigan University are influencing change in how scientists approach coastal research.

In what began as a class project, the inaugural group of six CMU students examined how scientists across all environmental science fields have researched Great Lakes coastal systems over the past 20 years. Traditionally, scientists worked and communicated within their own fields, but the EES investigation revealed an increase in multidisciplinary and cross-disciplinary research.

Deric Learman, '03, is an associate professor of biology who was among the faculty who helped oversee the students' project. He said such an effort demonstrates how education in the classroom and research in the laboratory are so closely connected.

"The goal was to get the students more exposure to scientific writing, as it is very important for scientists to be good writers," he said. "We also wanted our students to think about ways they could collaborate and use other fields of science to help them examine and solve complex ecosystem issues. Just biology, geology or geography alone cannot solve our issues of today and tomorrow."

"Cross-disciplinary research is where the rubber hits the road, and scientists can begin to answer some really unique and interesting questions."​ -- Dean Horton, EES student

The students met multiple times, researched hundreds of articles, and spent countless hours writing and editing their collective manuscript, which they turned in for a course grade when their class finished in May 2015.

But they knew they were onto something bigger than a final grade.

"After we finished developing the manuscript draft for our class, we realized that our results could strengthen arguments for underrepresented disciplines or parameters in Great Lakes research," said Rachel Hackett, a third-year EES student from Mount Pleasant, Michigan. "It needed more work, but we decided to meet periodically and put in the extra effort to make it publishable and submit it to a journal, whose readers would most benefit."

The paper, "Researcher disciplines and the assessment techniques used to evaluate Laurentian Great Lakes coastal ecosystems," will appear in the February 2017 issue of Journal of Great Lakes Research.

"We thought that scientists would benefit from seeing what research had been accomplished on coastal zones, how that research was accomplished and what gaps in knowledge have yet to be filled," said Dean Horton, a third-year EES student from Massillon, Ohio. "Cross-disciplinary research is where the rubber hits the road, and scientists can begin to answer some really unique and interesting questions."

Lessons in interdisciplinary learning

Pursuing such a topic was a perfect fit for this cohort of the earth and ecosystem science doctoral students from different research backgrounds, ranging from geology to genetics, Antarctic invertebrates and wetland biology. It also ties in with the EES doctoral program — which concentrates on evaluating the physical, chemical, geological and biological structure and function of various natural environments — and CMU’s Institute for Great Lakes Research.

“The students immersed themselves in the literature, and this forced them to experience and struggle through the scientific publication process firsthand,” said Don Uzarski, director of IGLR and professor of biology. “We can explain the scientific process to the students, but experience is the only way to truly learn it.”

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