North Park Student Named Best Presenter at Regional Scientific Meeting

North Park Student Mary Ellis
Mary Ellis, Sisseton, S.D., was named top student presenter at the Midwestern Section annual meeting of the American Society of Plant Biologists in Chicago.

Mary Ellis honored for presentation on pest-infested plant identification

CHICAGO (March 28, 2013) – Mary Ellis, a junior biology major at North Park University, was named the top undergraduate student presenter March 24 at the 2013 Midwestern Section annual meeting of the American Society of Plant Biologists. Ellis's presentation, given at Chicago State University, was based on her research project involving plant species that attract destructive Japanese beetles.

Dr. Timothy Lin, North Park assistant professor of biology, worked with Ellis for nearly a year on the project, and heard her winning presentation. "I am very proud of her," he said. "I knew this project was creative, and she was comfortable in presenting it. I was really hoping she could win." Lin added that Ellis is an "outstanding student with a passion for research, and someone who takes initiative."

Ellis, of Sisseton, S.D., spoke to a room full of professors and plant scientists, the first time she had made such a presentation. Ellis said she felt positive about it afterward, including her answers to questions. She was surprised when her name was announced, she said, because the other student presenters had access to more resources to work on their science projects. Competitors were from large research institutions, such as Michigan State University, The Ohio State University, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. The presentation award was based on knowledge, scientific methods, expression, and creativity, Lin said.

Ellis had little time to prepare her presentation. The abstract for her project was among dozens submitted in advance for the plant biologists' regional meeting. About two weeks before, meeting organizers chose hers as one of only five undergraduate projects to be presented orally. "When I got the email saying I was selected to present, it was during spring break, and I was on a global partnership trip to Appalachia," she said in an interview. "I didn't have any access to my computer, to my phone or anything, so I had to figure it out when I got back. I had one week to come up with this presentation."

The project she and Lin worked on involved the Japanese beetle, well-known to residents in the Midwest and Eastern United States as an invasive pest. Ellis collected diverse plant samples infested by the beetles, as well as plants that were not infested. DNA samples from each were sequenced and analyzed, and an amplified gene was put into a scientific data system known as "DNA Barcode of Life." That system provided a way of identifying the plant species that the beetles infested.

The real purpose of the project was to develop a model that any scientist could use to predict host plants for invasive pests. Ellis said her project also resulted in interesting, preliminary findings. For example, the majority of the plant species attractive to the beetles were originally from Asia, just as the beetle. "Along with the Japanese beetle, basically the plants were introduced here as well…such as roses and Elm trees," she said. Ellis and Lin plan to continue collecting and analyzing plant samples, and hope to publish their findings next year. The project is funded in part by Tri-Beta Research Scholarship Foundation.

In a matter of weeks, Ellis will be working on yet another scientific investigation. This summer, she will study at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, an independent environmental research organization in Millbrook, N.Y. She was accepted into its highly competitive program, Research Experience for Undergraduates, and will work closely with a scientist on research involving the West Nile Virus. After she finishes her bachelor's degree in 2014, Ellis hopes to attend graduate school to train as a researcher in "Alpine ecology," ecosystems at high elevations, she said.

Lin, who joined the faculty in 2008, said he is appreciative of the University's support of undergraduate research projects such as the one in which he and Ellis have collaborated. "The school has been very supportive of undergraduate research. I consider myself lucky to be here at North Park," he said.

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