Oklahoma's number one blog for natural and cultural history.
“It all started with a Forensic Files episode. They used diatoms to link the assailants and the crime scene, and I just thought they were so beautiful. I love how something so small can have such large applications.”
Shelly Wu’s fascination with diatoms began her sophomore year at Loyola University New Orleans. As a biology major, Wu knew she wanted to pursue a life of science, though lacked a specific focus. One evening at home, Wu stumbled upon the NBC series that would lead her to specialize in diatoms.
Video, Diatoms in Action
Diatoms are a major group of algae that appear in nearly every major body of water. Though small in size, these microorganisms have big applications – like forensics, water quality, even filtering beer. Diatoms often attach to turtle shells and establish themselves as part of a microhabitat, which is of particular interest to scientists.
Currently, only two papers have been published on turtle shell diatoms – both on Amazonian species. But Wu hopes to change that. Thanks to a prestigious summer internship funded by the National Science Foundation, Wu was awarded $4,000 to research diatoms on Oklahoma turtle shells beneath Sam Noble Museum herpetology curator Cameron Siler.
Wu in the field
“During such a difficult time to educate younger generations of researchers about the importance and incredibly broad utility of these collections, it is always exciting to see students develop novel approaches to working in natural history museums,” said Siler.
Through her research, which began in March, Wu hopes to answer three major questions. Do different turtle species support different species of diatoms? Are diatom species on a turtle host selective for particular microhabitats on the turtle’s shell? How do diatom communities on the common snapping turtle and red-eared slider vary across different regions of the US? To answer these questions, Wu is sampling, analyzing and comparing the microhabitats of five Oklahoma turtle species.
Wu studies Oklahoma’s common snapping turtle
“I sample six specific areas of the shell using a brush and circular plastic tube,” Wu explained. “I place the tube over the area, circle the brush 10 times and move to the next spot. Then I use a light microscope to examine the sample.”
In order to access the needed research material, Wu works closely with Liz Bergey from the Oklahoma Biological Survey and museum herpetology collection manager Jessa Watters. As a graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, Wu’s work will also help to develop her master’s thesis on the possible relationship between diatoms, algae dispersion and turtle migration.
“Down the road it would be nice to know which diatoms are on live turtles,” said Wu. “It could help us better understand the relationship between algae dispersion and turtle migration.”
“The only source of knowledge is experience.” – Albert Einstein
Learning isn’t just for the classroom
Think back to your days in elementary school. Can you recall all the stages of the water cycle? Which book your teacher read in the fourth grade? What about the sixth president of the United States?
But you can remember seeing the zoo’s giraffes on your second grade field trip or zipping down the pole during a trip to the local fire department. According to Scientific American, the human brain can hold a million gigabytes of memory. So, what gives? Chances are, some of your most memorable experiences happened outside out of the classroom – and that’s why experiential learning programs are so important.
Experiential learning is an integral part of education
In recent years, Oklahoma schools have faced increasing difficulties obtaining funds for supplemental learning experiences like field trips. Higher operating costs related to energy, transportation and insurance, among others, are forcing many schools to eliminate field trips and other experiential learning programs.
To demonstrate his commitment to the Sam Noble Museum and its educational programs, OU President David L. Boren committed $10,000 to the museum in 2007. These funds established the Fossil Fuel Fund (FFF), which provides scholarships to low-income, high-poverty area schools in Oklahoma.
A thank you note from a FFF recipient
Today, the FFF continues to provide scholarships to Oklahoma schools. Last year alone, 55 schools applied and $12,204.86 in reimbursements was distributed. That’s 2,949 students!
Each scholarship provides an average of $400 in transportation reimbursement to the school, and allows approximately 40 students to experience the top-notch galleries, exhibitions and artifacts found only at the museum.
Students take in the amazing Hall of Ancient Life
The FFF also provides a classroom-based educational program that students can enjoy during the visit. These specialized classroom programs are designed to complement classroom curricula and are correlated to current Priority Academic Student Skills (PASS) learning objectives for the state of Oklahoma.
A glimpse of our PASS-driven educator’s guide
“To see the wonder, the awe, the interest in my students as they viewed the exhibits, to watch them interact and answer the educator, and to experience their growth in social/community skills was so satisfying for me,” said one ninth-grade teacher from Ada Junior High.
Schools who visit the museum on a scholarship need only to provide the discounted student admission fee ($1.75 per student) for their entire field trip experience. In situations where the need is dire, the per student admission fee can be reduced waived. Funds are disbursed on a first come, first served basis.
“As a science museum, we understand that exploration, discovery and direct experience are powerful learning opportunities,” said Jes Cole, head of museum education. “We strive to make the museum accessible to all Oklahomans, and the Fossil Fuel Fund is one important way we can accomplish this goal.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, life, physical, and social science occupations are projected to add 190,800 new jobs between 2010 and 2020 as they grow by 15.5 percent.
With science occupations constituting such a major portion of America’s future job market, it is imperative that we invest in today’s students. If you would like to make a contribution, either on behalf of an organization or individually, please contact Pam McIntosh at (405) 325-5020. Or, if you would like to apply for scholarship assistance, please fill out the application on our website.
Help us make science unforgettable. Contribute to the Fossil Fuel Fund.