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National Science Foundation Awards Elms College $31,700 Grant

CHICOPEE — The College of Our Lady of the Elms has received a research grant of $31,700 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will provide for international and domestic travel, field work, and collaboration with colleges across the U.S.

The funding will allow Nina Theis, associate professor of Biology at Elms College, to travel to Peru with two undergraduates to study tropical cucumber species in the field, as well as peacock flies — a type of true fruit fly that feeds on these cucumbers — and wasps that feed on the flies. It also will allow Elms students to attend national and regional conferences, as well as a workshop in Georgia. “This is an exciting time to be a science major at Elms,” Theis said.

The Elms project is part of a larger collaborative study of biological diversity, evolution, and speciation — the evolutionary process of species origination — in the tropics. The NSF funding for the entire project totals nearly $2 million, representing one of only 10 grant packages awarded by the foundation’s Dimensions of Biodiversity program this year. Marty Condon of Cornell College in Iowa is leading the research team, which includes participants from Elms College, the University of Iowa, the University of Georgia, and North Carolina State University.

Theis’ piece of the project focuses on her specific area of expertise; she studies fragrance in flowers and the effect of fragrance on insect attraction. Her component of this project will focus on the cucumber odors that attract the herbivorous peacock flies as well as the wasps.

In previous work, Theis has studied the fragrance in, and pollinator and herbivore attraction to, a variety of plants in the cucumber family. “We’re going to analyze the fragrances of the flowers and see if we can find out how these insects are attracted,” she said. Then she and her team will determine whether fragrance is a driver in host detection and specificity, or why specific flies and wasps are attracted to specific parts of the flower.

The field work will mean traveling to Peru, which is a valuable opportunity for Elms students. “Research is a great experience for any student,” Theis said. “It requires a lot of diligence and a lot of independence, and in order to get into graduate school these days, you have to have research experience.”

In addition to the field work, the grant includes funding for Theis to hire students to analyze the fragrance data over the summer. Two Elms students will also be invited to attend a bioinformatics workshop at the University of Georgia. Bioinformatics involves the techniques and software that analyze and interpret large biological data sets; the workshop will train these students in the latest methods, and that training will give them valuable experience in a fast-growing field of study. The students also will have the opportunity to attend scientific meetings and conferences.

Theis also is the director of the ElmSTEMs program, supported by a separate NSF grant of $620,620. ElmSTEMs awards scholarships to full-time Elms students majoring in fields such as biology, computer information technology, chemistry, or mathematics. The first group of ElmSTEM scholars started at Elms College this fall, and applications are being accepted for fall 2016.

“We have this STEM grant — it’s an educational grant: scholarships, money for students to get experience in STEM — and it’s really great synergism to have the STEM grant and the research grant at the same time,” Theis said. “Two of the things our STEM grant promises are that there will be scholarships and that our students will get research experience. And now we have the money to give our students paid jobs doing research on campus and a very high-quality tropical research experience.”

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