Research Experience Shortens Learning Curve for Grad Student

Posted: October 27, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By David Driver

Kristen Baird has never been to the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, but she knows its plants in the genus Cordia inside and out.

In fact, while she graduated from Mason with a BS in Biology only last January, she was able to present a research poster, “Progress in a Phylogeographic Study of Galapagos Endemic Cordia,” at a conference at California State University, Chico, over the summer.

She presented the same poster on Oct. 19, but this time she did not have to travel so far. Now a student in the master’s program in environmental science and policy (ESP) at Mason, she joined a formal session of other graduate student researchers at the Johnson Center on the Fairfax Campus.

One of Baird’s professors in Mason’s ESP department, Cody Edwards, has done extensive research at the Galapagos and hopes to take Mason students there in the future to do research. For her research poster, Baird worked with Andrea Weeks, another ESP professor, on seven different plants from Galapagos: four that are endemic, two that are native and one that is exotic.

Kristin Baird with poster
Kristin Baird with the research poster she presented at a conference this past summer.
Photo by David Driver

Baird wrote that “preliminary findings indicate that the four endemic Cordia species are more closely related to other Cordia species not found in the Galapagos than they are to each other. This further indicates that these species arose from two or more long-distance dispersal events from the mainland to the Galapagos. This is unusual because, as long-distance dispersal events are typically rare, most congeneric species endemic to the Galapagos result from one dispersal event and are thus more closely related to each other than to other species.”

Baird and Weeks are wrapping up the study this semester and are very interested to see if their initial findings are supported.

“I am glad I have been able to spend the last year doing research,” says Baird. “That is the reason I am going to Mason for grad school. Having been in the lab, I have my learning curve out of the way. I learned molecular techniques in the lab.”

Baird says the research experience will help her figure out what she wants to focus on in the future, and also gives her some impressive credentials that will aid her when it comes time to apply to a doctoral program. She adds that she was welcomed into the graduate school community at Mason even before she was officially accepted into the program.

“The time I’ve spent in Mason labs this past year gave me an opportunity to experience the research and administrative sides of the ESP and MMB (Molecular and Microbiology) departments,” she says. “A regular undergraduate only sees the academic side of a department. My research experiences gave me a more complete picture of what graduate students and researchers experience at Mason, and that is why I decided to stay here for my master’s degree. When you first begin to do molecular research, it takes awhile to become proficient at all of the techniques.”

Baird is also doing contract work through the Smithsonian Institution at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Working with Vicki Funk, research scientist and curator, Department of Botany, Baird is compiling an online catalog of flora in the Marquesa Islands in the south Pacific.

Baird has done field work at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia. She helped set up scent stations (using urine from a bobcat) on Friday evenings, then would go back Saturday afternoon to see what animals had been through the previous night. Raccoon, deer, fox, coyote and bobcat footprints showed up in the sand near the scent stations.

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