• Students Megan Rice and Allyson Plantz helped Biology Professor Romi Burks (right) write the proposal for the grant she re...
    Students Megan Rice and Allyson Plantz helped Biology Professor Romi Burks (right) write the proposal for the grant she received from the National Science Foundation. Rice, at left, is now in medical school.

Southwestern University Biology Professor Romi Burks did not have the opportunity to conduct research abroad until she was in graduate school − and even then she felt lucky. 

Now, thanks to a grant Burks has received from the National Science Foundation, Southwestern students will be able to gain valuable international research as undergraduates.

Burks has received a $72,075 grant from the NSF’s International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) program. The grant, which was a cooperative proposal between Southwestern and the University of Hawaii, will enable five undergraduate students a year to conduct research abroad for the next three years along with one Ph.D. student to help guide the mentoring process. Two faculty members from the University of Hawaii, Ken Hayes and Rob Cowie, received an additional $77,000 to support their students.

The research projects funded by the grant will use the freshwater gastropod family Ampullariidae – apple snails – as a model system to provide international research experiences for students in Uruguay and Brazil. Apple snails are the largest freshwater snails and a major component of freshwater diversity in tropical and subtropical environments. In their native ranges, they are key consumers, preferred prey items and act as indicators of wetland ecosystem health. Several apple snail species have become invasive globally. This connection with invasion biology makes understanding their biology particularly tangible to beginning undergraduate researchers. They also host parasites that cause at least three human diseases, making them of interest to medical researchers.

“This research project has the potential to discover new species, redefine our understanding of evolutionary relationships and provide key life history data on invasive species in their native range,” Burks said.

There are more than 150 species of apple snails. Brazil harbors the greatest number of these species, while Uruguay supports the two most serious invasive species. Burks and her colleagues have developed a list of possible research projects that students could do involving the snails. Each of the students will be responsible for developing their own project and contributing to the overall goal of learning more about this important group of snails.

“Having students develop their own experimental plans provides the key component of ownership and allows students to really invest in the work,” Burks said.

While some other international opportunities do exist for undergraduates through the IRES program or the NSF’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, Burks said the grant she received means that Southwestern students will not have to compete with students from other universities to gain one of those coveted experiences. 

The first group of students – three from Southwestern and two from the University of Hawaii – will go to Uruguay and Brazil for six weeks this winter. While there, they will work with host scientists at Universidad de la Republica in Uruguay and the Instituto de Oswaldo Cruz in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“Having this level of exposure as an undergraduate to what it means to be a scientist in a global setting will give these students an incredible advantage in their future career plans and change their world viewpoint of how science works,” Burks said.

To read the summary of the project, go here.