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Waldorf College biology majors conduct soil research in Peruvian Amazon

Waldorf College

Forest City, Iowa – Two Waldorf College students have returned from the Peruvian Amazon and will conduct in-depth studies of microbial life in soil samples they obtained on their journey.

Biology major Ashley Lutrick (left) examines a plant type from the Amazon region.

Biology major Ashley Lutrick and biology education major Samantha Sylvara participated in a research expedition arranged by EarthWatch, an international non-profit organization, in Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. For eight days, Lutrick and Sylvara studied the area’s eco-system and biodiversity to serve the larger goal of developing sustainable conservation measures for the region and its inhabitants. Their field research involved studying the effects of human activity and unprecedented flooding on the habitats of birds, including macaws, and of aquatic animals such as caimans and river dolphins. These studies help conservationists to develop strategies to protect indigenous animal species and their food sources and habitats.
Lutrick and Sylvara traveled to Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian rainforest, with a diverse group of biologists, teachers and students. “It was neat to hear different opinions and thoughts on the research being done,” said Sylvara who plans to teach high school biology after graduating from Waldorf next year.“This expedition was about working with the indigenous culture and showing them how to use and conserve resources.” Lutrick, also a senior, is preparing for her medical entrance examination this summer. She also plans to base her senior thesis on the fieldwork done in Peru. “I always wanted to do a study-abroad program,” she said.  “This was a great observational study in which we examined how healthy the eco-system is in the rainforest.”
They brought back 16 soil samples, each ranging between five to 10 milligrams, from the reserve. Fromthese samples, Sylvara will study the effect of time spent under the flood plain on soil microbe diversity. Lutrick, on the other hand, will work on two research projects from her findings in the Amazon. Her first project will focus on biodiversity differences of soil microbes in pristine rainforest versus deforested areas. “I’m trying to question what are we killing when we deforest the rainforest? What happens to the soil? Can we remediate the effects of deforestation on microbe biodiversity?” said Lutrick. Secondly, she will look for species of bacteria of the order actinomycetales in the samples. Members of this order produce roughly two thirds of the antibiotics currently in use. Lutrick hopes to discover antibiotic-producing microbes that are effective against antibiotic resistant Staphylococcus aureus.
The soil samples will not only help these two students in their senior thesis, but also have a larger impact on the biology lab of Waldorf College. “This soil is different from any found in all of North America, let alone Iowa. It has microbes that don’t exist here or, probably anywhere else.” said Dr. Paul Bartelt, professor of biology and department chair. “As we come to learn more about these microbes, our students will be able to compare them to local soil microbes and better understand the differences in soils, soil fertility and ecology.”

Ashley and Samantha dance with the Cocama children, the people who live in the upper Amazon region.

Dr. Bartelt added that Lutrick and Sylvara are strengthening the growing tradition of undergraduate research in the department, an aspect of the program that has been promoted for years and continues to thrive. “They are showing others what it takes to ‘go wherever they need to’ to satisfy their curiosity, and to demonstrate the discipline necessary for good research,  that is, carefully collecting good data, analyzing the results and answering their questions,” said Dr. Bartelt. “They will be good additional examples for other students to follow.”
Dr. Gary Coombs, assistant professor of biology and Lutrick’s advisor for this research, said students who participate in hands-on research earn better grades and are more competitive when seeking entry to graduate programs than others. “This trip to Peru was a life-changing experience for our students. We will give them an opportunity to share their enlightening experience with others at Waldorf,” he said. “Having research experience and a venue to present their discoveries helps students acquire and polish skills they will need in both graduate studies and their careers.”
Students funded this trip with the help of biology lab grants, Waldorf College Student Senate, fundraising events organized by the biology club, and their own finances.