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Sun, June 16

Project creates faster way to identify wildlife in river system
ERAU student works with DNA sequencing

Embry-Riddle student Courtney Turner-Rathbone collects water samples from the Verde River Jan. 16 for an ecological survey project that led to a new method of identifying fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals through DNA sequencing. (Courtesy)

Embry-Riddle student Courtney Turner-Rathbone collects water samples from the Verde River Jan. 16 for an ecological survey project that led to a new method of identifying fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals through DNA sequencing. (Courtesy)

The first research to come out of a collaboration between two new programs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) reveals a cheaper, more efficient, and less invasive way to identify and assess wildlife communities.

Undergraduate student Courtney Turner-Rathbone’s project involved drawing water samples out of the Verde River, and extracting and analyzing the DNA present in those samples using sophisticated sequencing methods.

The experiment was based on the observation that all organisms, from bacteria to humans, leave a genetic footprint in their environments. Data analysis identified many vertebrate taxa, including fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals – results that echoed and even improved on traditional survey results in which biologists literally count members of certain species in the wild. Such traditional ecological surveys can stress the species being assessed.

Turner-Rathbone grew up on a farm. She said her interest in biology began with a high school class that provided in-depth explanations of the natural world.

“Everything just clicked. All of the things I knew about were explained in more detail,” she said. “And everything new I learned absolutely fascinated me.”

That curiosity led Turner-Rathbone to a class with Dr. Hillary Eaton, ERAU chair and forensic biology assistant professor.

This past summer, Eaton approached Turner-Rathbone about becoming a research assistant on the biodiversity assessment project, an opportunity available for only graduate students at many universities. She chose Turner-Rathbone because of the student’s valuable research skills acquired in freshman and sophomore science classes, and also because Turner-Rathbone demonstrated punctuality, good attendance, an ability to meet deadlines and a positive attitude.

“Courtney excelled at all of these,” Eaton said.

Also involved in this project were Dr. Catherine Benson, Professor Matthew Valente and another undergraduate student, Mitchel Haug. Their involvement and Eaton’s guidance were crucial, Turner-Rathbone said. She learned the molecular techniques necessary for the research as the project proceeded.

ERAU is building relationships with the U.S. Department of Forestry and Arizona Game & Fish in which the school’s programs can provide a research and service laboratory for wildlife forensics and in which to employ undergraduates from both majors, Eaton said.

Such research opportunities also create significant advantages for students. “It is always valuable for students to work in a service or research lab so that they can see how what they are learning in their classes is actually applied in the real world,” she said.

Students like Turner-Rathbone who present their research have the opportunity to travel and network with other professionals in the field, Eaton said. This opens doors to places of higher learning and employment, and sets them apart from everyone else at their level, she added.

For more information about Embry-Riddle’s Forensic Biology and Wildlife Science programs, visit http://prescott.erau.edu/college-arts-sciences/biology-chemistry.

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