Case Studies

Plant Physiology

Pepperdine University

Dr. Davis has been a professor at Pepperdine since 1974 and first became familiar with LI COR instrumentation in the 1980s. Dr. Davis learned of the LEEF program from a former student and Pepperdine has since added two LI 6400XT Portable Photosynthesis Systems and two LI 6800 Portable Photosynthesis Systems. He understands that using a research grade instrument can be intimidating, especially for first year students. Junior student, Samantha Fiallo, says her initial thought when Dr. Davis brought out the LI-6400XT was, “I don’t want to touch that. I am going to break that.”

However, Dr. Davis found a way to help students become more comfortable with the instruments. He does not want students “to use any instrument as a black box.” Before they ever begin lab, Dr. Davis assigned several groups to investigate a different characteristic of the LI 6400XT. Each group then researched its assigned characteristic and explained it to the class. This allowed students to understand and feel confident using the LI-6400XT.

Dr. Thomas Vandergon, who has been at Pepperdine University for more than 25 years, also understood that familiarity can help eliminate fear. In his approach, he divided his course into two separate labs. In their first lab, students performed several small experiments to become familiar with setting up and running the instrument. In their second lab, they developed hypotheses of their own that use the LI-6400XT to test.

Both Dr. Davis and Dr. Vandergon used a similar approach to introduce the LI-6400XT. Each instrument was connected to a classroom local area network, and groups were then split up for each instrument. Students stayed engaged with and had a chance to operate their assigned LI-6400XT. Dr. Vandergon found that the available LI-6400XT app and the LI-6800 touchscreen provided an approachable learning curve. His students quickly navigated the instruments in just two or three instructions.

While implementing LI COR instruments has gone well for the professors at Pepperdine, both Dr. Davis and Dr. Vandergon urge others to keep trying to find new ways to incorporate research-grade instruments into their classrooms. They want other researchers to understand that “research quality instruments for scientists in the field can be utilized even by first year students with little background.”

Dr. Davis asks, “Do you have your kids memorize glycolysis? How about the Krebs cycle? How about the light reaction of photosynthesis? How about the dark reaction?” Of course, the answer is always yes, but Dr. Davis presses further: “Have they ever seen it? Have they ever put it together in a whole plant? Have they ever convinced themselves it really works that way?”

Dr. Vandergon agrees, stating that “everyone teaches photosynthesis in theory, but this makes it real.” The effect on students is real, too. Fiallo gained the confidence from the classroom to use the LI 6800 in her own research on resurrection ferns. She hopes to marry both her communication and scientific abilities to bring the latest research to the general public or to a classroom of her own.

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jason Kilgore, Washington & Jefferson College.

Dr. Davis using the LI-6800
Samantha Fiallo using the LI-6800

Washington & Jefferson College

Dr. Jason Kilgore, an associate professor of biology at Washington & Jefferson College, has been using top-notch research instrumentation to enhance undergraduate learning. As a member of the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN)—a collaborative network of schools that are primarily undergraduate institutions—Dr. Kilgore and other EREN faculty incorporated an LI-6800 Portable Photosynthesis System into his coursework and student research.

While attending the Botanical Society of America conference, he noticed an LI-6400 Portable Photosynthesis System at the LI-COR booth. Familiar with the LI-6400 from grad school, Dr. Kilgore demonstrated how to perform a light response curve to one of his students. After the conference, Dr. Kilgore began to pursue a LEEF grant.

With institutional funds to match the LEEF grant, Dr. Kilgore had everything he needed for a new LI-6800 and appreciated the improvements in the technology. “The response time is amazing, it’s easy to download data, and the batteries are lighter and last longer. The LI-6800 starts up and is ready to go, whether in the field or lab.”

Abigail Pristas, a student in his forest ecology class, used the LI-6800 for an independent research project related to the emerald ash borer. This invasive insect has been threatening ash trees in the eastern United States. Pristas noticed that there were a lot of ash seedlings near the forest edge but not in canopy openings or deep in the forest where most of the dying ash trees were located. She investigated whether the light compensation points depended on if the seedlings were exposed to light or shade during the day. Dr. Kilgore noted that this was an interesting question because “usually people classify adult trees as shade tolerant or intolerant. Rarely do they think about how shade affects seedlings.” With the LI-6800, they measured ash seedlings and found that they reach light saturation by 200 µmol m-2 s-1 of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR), which is quite shaded.

Dr. Kilgore was also using the LI-6800 for teaching photosynthesis in labs for a plant diversity class. He has discovered that students understand the concepts with greater depth when they experience scientific concepts firsthand. Before getting the instrument, teaching the concepts of photosynthesis was abstract and mostly theoretical. He then let students work with the LI-6800 to see how certain variables—such as CO2 concentration and light levels— cause plants to react in real time.

“My students were very excited that they could watch the net assimilation rate instantaneously change with these variables,” said Dr. Kilgore.

By using the LI-6800 in the classroom and the field, Dr. Kilgore’s students had a greater understanding of photosynthetic concepts. “The LEEF grant provided more opportunities for my students to understand carbon dynamics and plant responses to their conditions, and thus effects of climate change on plants.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Jason Kilgore, Washington & Jefferson College.

Measuring a small ash seedling in an undergraduate course with the LI-6800.

Fort Hays State University

Keri Caudle, a biology undergraduate student at Fort Hays State University, used the LI-6400XT Portable Photosynthesis System over the course of her undergraduate studies in Dr. Brian Maricle’s lab. “This instrument has been essential in obtaining photosynthetic results which has been the keystone involvement in my research and essential in obtaining data to later be published in scientific journals,” stated Caudle.

Results and data from her research have been presented at regional, state, and national conferences through both poster and oral presentations. “Without having access to a LI-COR (LI-6400XT), I would not have been able to fully accomplish my goals in plant eco-physiological research,” said Caudle.

California State University - Bakersfield

When Dr. Brandon Pratt, Assistant Professor at California State University (CSU), first began looking for instrumentation, he knew he needed the LI-6400XT Portable Photosynthesis System. "I needed an instrument that undergraduates could pick up quickly, that would be robust to getting abused, and provide accurate data. Especially for undergraduates, the LI-6400XT has features that are really desirable. It also has features for more advanced research. So you really get the best of both worlds. It is so easy to use. Students can start asking interesting questions right away. It works great!" Pratt said.

Dr. Pratt used his two LI-6400XT Systems, both of which were acquired through LEEF, in all of his classes. "For my Intro Biology class it provides a rich intro to C3 and C4 plants. We do a lot of light response curves and the data is always beautiful," he said.

In addition to his own classes, Dr. Pratt also made the instruments available to others—including two high school students, a high school teacher, and one student from a nearby community college. Sponsored through an NSF CAREER Grant, they come during the summer to do about a month of intense research followed by presenting a poster on their findings. "The high school students performed respiration measurements after only a brief introduction to the LI-6400XT. They learned the instrument pretty quickly and the data they got were beautiful! The instrument is really ideal for these situations," said Dr. Pratt.

The instruments have also been used in a number of research projects by undergraduates. Haley O'Mara, Courtney Traugh, and Mark DeGuzman, undergraduate students at CSU, have conducted research with Dr. Pratt via generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The research has given them an excitement and appreciation of science.

"During one class we were doing a study on carbon assimilation. My leaves had an irregular shape, so I measured leaf area afterward. When I downloaded the data in excel, I started going through and typing the correct leaf area for each plant. As I entered leaf area, all the measurements automatically recalculated. Seeing photosynthesis and respiration rates change right there as a result of area... that was fantastic!" O'Mara stated before adding, "Doing research and getting to use the LI-6400XT have given us, as students, new opportunities and the tools to get answers for our questions."

Courtney Traugh graduated in May 2009 with a BS in Chemistry. As an undergraduate, Traugh presented her research at the Ecological Society of America conference in August 2009 and co-authored a paper. Being able to work with research-grade instrumentation has created opportunities for Traugh and given her confidence.

"You get to be part of something bigger. I am a contributing member of the science community," stated Traugh. "Having used these instruments and done this research, I now understand a lot more about what scientists do. I kind of figured everyone becomes a doctor or works in a pharmacy. I thought if I did research my only options were water treatment or oil fields. But after doing these research projects, now I know how many opportunities I really have."

Haley O'Mara graduated in May 2010. Originally wanting to be a vet, she got involved in research through Dr Pratt. In addition to working as a full time student and conducting research with Dr. Pratt, O’Mara worked as a Naturalist at a preserve. "It's the most amazing and satisfying job ever! I get to teach science to kids by taking them on hikes through the preserve. It's exciting to learn how to conserve these areas and how to best preserve what is there."

O’Mara used the LI-6400XT Portable Photosynthesis System to complete independent research and presented her findings at the Ecological Society of America conference in August of 2009. "Doing research has been really fun and has led me to other opportunities. I love research. It's meaningful," stated O’Mara.

Courtney Traugh
Dr. Brandon Pratt, Assistant Professor at California State University (CSU)
Haley O'Mara

San Jose State University

Maria Bangal took her undergraduate research straight to the ESA 2010 annual meeting after using the LI-6400XT to study crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM) photosynthetic rates of Dudleya caespitosa, a succulent of California's coastal dunes. Bangal’s project investigated whether flowering in D. caespitosa triggers facultative CAM photosynthesis. She measured a number of indicators of CAM photosynthesis—including nocturnal carbon uptake, acid accumulation and integrative water use efficiency. With the LI-6400XT, she also measured in situ diel carbon uptake.

Her advisor, Dr. Susan Lambrecht at San Jose State University, acquired an LI-6400XT through the LI-COR LEEF program. According to Dr. Lambrecht, "When students use the LI-6400XT, the concept of photosynthesis is transformed from an equation that they memorize into a dynamic process." She added that "Not only is the LI-6400XT fairly straight forward to use, the ability to control environmental conditions within the chamber and the rapid response of the LI-6400XT to changes in those conditions help to demonstrate the process of photosynthesis."

University of California - Santa Cruz

Dr. Jarmila Pittermann began her career at the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) in April 2008. Along with Dr. Ingrid Parker, Dr Pittermann set out to expand their Plant Sciences curriculum with ecology and evolution by incorporating a basic understanding of plant physiology.

UCSC is highly dedicated to involving undergraduates in research. Plant sciences major requires an independent study, which often leads to a senior thesis. Past undergraduates have been co-authors on papers in the American Journal of Botany, Evolutionary Ecology Research, and Conservation Biology.

As Dr. Pittermann stated in her LEEF Ecophysiology application, "Clearly, the addition of an LI-6400XT Portable Photosynthesis System would significantly improve the curriculum by allowing students to creatively train in the methods of photosynthesis and fluorescence within the diverse environs of UCSC. Because of the LI-6400XT's flexibility and ease of use, we imagine that many of our undergraduate researchers will be able to make the most of this advanced research tool as they embark on their projects in plant biology and ecology."

Awarded in 2008, UCSC incorporate the LI-6400XT in classes and research projects. In the summer of 2009, Dr. Pittermann used the LI-6400XT and its new Lighted Conifer Chamber to teach students how to measure gas exchange of remote conifers. "The instrument was used to generate some light curves, but mostly A-Ci curves and spot measurements, and worked flawlessly. We measured gas exchange at flow rates ranging from 300-600 depending on the amount of foliage we were accommodating and achieved consistently good data." Pittermann said.

"Overall," Pittermann added, "without a doubt, the addition of the LI-6400XT to the Department of Ecology and Evolution is a terrific leap towards a bright future of plant sciences at UC Santa Cruz."

Nebraska Wesleyan University

In January 2009, undergraduate students at Nebraska Wesleyan University used the LI-6400XT Portable Photosynthesis System in Belize.

University of North Carolina - Asheville

Ashley Hanes investigated the photosynthetic physiology of Piriqueta carloliniana at several populations in Florida. She collected seeds from P. carloliniana and other species to start a common garden at the University of North Caroline (UNCA). The garden was used to design future courses in the plant physiology and population genetics courses.

Jenna Hamlin investigated plasticity of growth and photosynthesis of the invasive exotic liana Celastrus orbiculatus from different populations in the Asheville, NC region. Her work was presented at the Ecological Society of America in August 2010.

Karissa Kean investigated the abiotic and physiological characteristics—including photosynthetic capacity—associated with the production of bioactive ginsenosides in the medicinal plant Panax quinquefolius.

Alfred University

The Portable Photosynthesis and Fluorescence System has enhanced research. A long-term project with the American Chestnut Foundation has been initiated in collaboration with a faculty member at Alfred State College. Together, both groups have planted American chestnuts, Chinese chestnuts, and hybrids in varying densities. Gas exchange rates and fluorescence were determined as a baseline. This research was presented at the 2010 ASPB meeting in Montreal. The parameters are to be monitored over time until the trees are inoculated with the chestnut blight fungus to determine sensitivity or resistance.

University of North Carolina - Asheville

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a rare but important plant species that is renowned for its medical uses. Collection from the wild, however, has placed the species at risk throughout its native range. Therefore, research that improves the quality of cultivated ginseng plants is valuable for both the commercial product and for conservation.

The most commercially valuable ginseng plants are those that have grown long enough to accumulate a significant quantity of bioactive ginsenosides in the roots, leading to difficulty in agricultural production and ongoing overharvest of wild plants. This prompted Karissa Keen, an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, to study the influence of light levels on the production of ginsenosides.

The University of North Carolina at Asheville received a LEEF grant for the LI-6400XT Portable Photosynthesis System. Using the LI-6400XT, Keen studied how different populations of ginseng plants respond to different light levels then relate that and other variables to ginsenoside content and composition. Her research had the potential to make ginseng production more viable, thereby easing pressures on wild populations.

“My classmates and I are privileged to be able to work with such exceptional equipment,” she says. “Due to my work with LI-COR equipment, I have an increased understanding of plant physiology.”

John Carroll University

This is a guest contribution to NewsLine provided by Elise Wygant. Wygant began her studies in plant physiology under Dr. Rebecca E. Drenovsky, a LEEF grant recipient at John Carroll University. Inspired to pursue science, she became a doctoral student in Dr. Lisa Donovan’s Evolutionary Ecophysiology lab at the University of Georgia. Discovering a passion, Wygant started a PhD program in plant physiology after learning about the field as an undergraduate student.

I am a plant biologist. Of course, I didn’t always know this. I started out in the pre-dentistry track through John Carroll University’s Biology Department as an undergraduate. I fully planned to move on to dental school, followed by orthodontistry. Like everyone else in the various “Pre” programs available, I was still required to take the prerequisite classes to prepare me for moving on to more advanced classes offered. The first two semesters of the three semester set of classes included information about molecular and cellular biology and physiology of animals and plants. Well, at the time I didn’t care about the plants. Despite this, Dr. Rebecca Drenovsky, who was teaching at the time, invited me to work with her in her plant ecophysiology lab as a part-time undergraduate worker. Automatically I felt that this would be a great thing to put on a resume, so I gladly accepted the offer.

My second year started, and I was in the third and final prerequisite course, which had an emphasis on biodiversity with a small emphasis on global climate change. As I sat in that class, I became more aware of the intricacies of biodiversity, and the importance of species conservation. I was hooked, I got the bug, and interestingly enough, I fell in love with plants. How did Dr. Drenovsky know that I was bound to study plants? I guess I’ll never know.

During the winter holiday that year, I informed my parents that I no longer wanted to go to dental school, and instead I just wanted to study biology, specifically plants. They were floored and worried about my future. Of course they still supported me, but I know they were afraid I was making a big mistake. Regardless, I began to immerse myself in ecology courses, plant physiology courses, climate change, and summer flora classes; I really gained a passion for these topics. I even began to take environmental science classes to double major in Biology and Environmental Science, hoping this would please my parents. When it became time for me to start thinking about what I wanted to do after graduating, Dr. Drenovsky recommended that I look for Master’s programs in the plant sciences. So with Biology and Environmental Sciences degrees in hand, I began searching for the right program.

My searches led me to Dr. Lisa Donovan’s Evolutionary Ecophysiology lab at the University of Georgia. During the fall of 2010, I began my Master’s program and I started teaching in a basic organismal ecology lab through the biology department. It was tough balancing research, classes and teaching, but after seeing my potential, Dr. Donovan gave me the option of switching to the PhD program. With much consideration, I am proud to say that I am a 2nd year PhD student in UGA’s Plant Biology Department. My research will be focusing on water relations of a threatened species of sunflower, Helianthus porteri, and its two closest relatives, Helianthus agrestis and Helianthus carnosus, which is rare in Florida. I will also be incorporating a teaching component to my dissertation to include my new interest in teaching.

I am excited to find out what the next four years bring as I delve into my research and focus on my teaching skills. I will always be grateful to Dr. Drenovsky, for mentoring me and guiding me to where I am today. Furthermore, I look forward to my coming years working with Dr. Donovan, who I know will continue to provide the support needed to accomplish my future endeavors. My hope is to one day return to an academic institution similar to John Carroll University where, as a professor, I can encourage undergraduate students to become more interested in biological sciences. Who knows, perhaps one day, I will find someone who was just like me once, and it will be my job to unearth unknown passions for the study of plants.

Discovering a passion, Elise started a PhD program in plant physiology after learning about the field as an undergraduate.
Elise collects gas exchange data with the LI-6400XT.

Soil Flux

University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Not every researcher wears a hard hat and works around dynamite. But Dr. Holly Dolliver of the University of Wisconsin—River Falls embraced the unique parts of studying soil at a frac sand mining site. Wisconsin law requires that land used for mining must be reclaimed, so Dr. Dolliver became part of a five-year research program to see how soils react to being stripped, stockpiled, and respread. “Our emphasis is to understand holistically how the soil responds to disturbance, identify which soil properties are most impacted, and examine how soil properties change over time.”

Dr. Dolliver applied for the LI-8100A Automated Soil Gas Flux System package, which measures CO2 flux from the soil. “I needed an instrument that was robust and could collect high-quality data, but also easy enough for my students to use in the field. This was the only piece of equipment that met that criteria.”

In addition to the research program, Dr. Dolliver also taught a soil physics course. She implemented a flipped classroom format, which has worked well for maximizing valuable class time. Students watched videos for background information before coming to class. The students learned concepts on their own then applied their knowledge by connecting with equipment, gathering data, and conducting research.

Through Dr. Dolliver’s program, students applied what they learned in the field. Stella Pey, a student in Dr. Dolliver’s class, stated that “We get real data out of the ground. It’s not like a textbook or conventional lecture.” Pey studied how carbon flux, biological parameters, and soil physical parameters change over time on Conservation Reserve Program lands. “The more time you spend with it, the more you get into the concepts behind what’s going on in the chamber,” stated Pey.

The LI-8100A has been useful to teach hands-on concepts. Having a dedicated instrument available changed what Dr. Dolliver taught in the classroom. “Before the LI-COR, I didn’t have any equipment to measure gas flux from soil. With the LI-8100A, I have been able to develop a high-quality unit on gas flux that not only teaches the concepts but provides students with applied learning opportunities as well.”

Dr. Dolliver credited the LEEF program for the alterations in her curriculum. “It’s really the only way I could have gotten the equipment. Funding is a huge issue as I had only a modest budget for equipment. I knew I wanted one piece of signature equipment that would stay with me and be something that would distinguish what we do from other research groups. The LI-COR LI-8100A was that. The LEEF program provided the financial assistance. For an undergraduate institution to have a piece of equipment like that is pretty great.”

Photos courtesy of Dr. Holly Dolliver, University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

Dr. Holly Dolliver (left) with Amanda French, an Environmental Science undergraduate student.
Stella Pey, a Crop and Soil Science undergraduate student, uses the LI-8100A.