Jesus Rivas

Jesus Rivas

Las Vegas, N.M. — New Mexico Highlands University science students made a strong showing at the annual New Mexico Experimental Program to Stimulate Research meeting, presenting more research posters than any other university in the state.

The Highlands University science students, most of them undergraduates, presented eight of the 24 student research posters.

New Mexico EPSCoR is a National Science Foundation funded collaborative research initiative that has worked since 2009 to establish the state as a national laboratory for climate change research.

At the Sept. 27 – 28 meeting in Albuquerque, the New Mexico EPSCoR-funded researchers shared their studies, including a spotlight on student research. The other participating universities included the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, and New Mexico Tech.

“The science students at Highlands can certainly hold their own with students from big research institutions in New Mexico,” said Mary Jo Daniel, associate director for New Mexico EPSCoR.  “The Highlands students are producing some very interesting research that contributes to knowledge. They have good access to fieldwork to collect data and tools in the lab for analysis.

“It’s evident that the science professors at Highlands are mentoring their students well, as shown by their students’ success in presenting research posters and publishing. Dr. Edward Martinez has played a strong leadership role in administering the initial EPSCoR grant, and involving his colleagues at Highlands,” Daniel said.

In 2009, Highlands University was awarded a $631,548 EPSCoR grant, and Martinez, a natural resources professor, is the principal investigator. Since then, Highlands was awarded three $50,000 EPSCoR seed grants for student research in various science disciplines.

“The initial EPSCoR grant and the three additional seed grants have had a huge impact on our research capacity at Highlands, especially for supporting undergraduate research,” Martinez said. “Since 2009, more than 40 Highlands University students have participated in EPSCoR-funded research, which is ongoing.

“The EPSCoR grants also helped us purchase additional research instrumentation for our science labs, and provided immediate opportunities for increased cross-disciplinary research collaboration within the science faculty at Highlands,” Edwards said.

Biology professor Jesus Rivas is a principle investigator for one of the EPSCoR seed grants. His students presented five of the eight Highlands University research posters at the EPSCoR meeting.

Rivas’ students conducted a variety of studies focused on how native aquatic fauna responded to the removal of the invasive, non-native bullfrog from a section of the Mora River at Wind River Ranch — now the new Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge near Watrous, N.M. After removing the bullfrogs, the native leopard frog returned in high numbers.

His students’ research brought a wildlife component to the university’s EPSCoR climate change research.

“In the classroom, we teach about conservation and ecology,” Rivas said. “When we do research in the field — like lifting a net of invasive bullfrog tadpoles out of a river — it helps students understand the scientific concepts in a more tangible way, which become part of their personal experience. Fieldwork is a rich exchange of knowledge and ideas.

“We are building future scientists through these kinds of field-based research opportunities. These students will be critical for the environmental challenges facing New Mexico,” Rivas said.

His students also did analysis back in Rivas’ lab at Highlands.

“Dr. Rivas was very successful in getting students engaged in locally relevant research that matters to them,” Daniel said.

Justin Saiz is a 22-year-old junior biology major from Rociada N.M. who transferred to Highlands last year. He was first author for one of the bullfrog research posters and presented at the EPSCoR meeting.

“At Highlands, I was offered the opportunity to work in Dr. Rivas’ lab, which allowed me to conduct my own research with him as my mentor,” Saiz said. “Our research at Wind River Ranch was important because we were studying the predation of bullfrogs on native fauna, more specifically the northern leopard frog.”

Saiz is looking forward to conducting his senior research project at the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge, where he will study the home range of bull snakes with Rivas as his adviser. Saiz said his goal is to become a wildlife biologist who conducts research.

Taos native Anita Lavadie, 30, is a natural resources management graduate student who is studying the nutrients in storm water runoff and soils in the aftermath of the 2011 Los Conchas wildfire that burned 244-square-miles in the Jemez Mountains of Northern New Mexico, including portions of the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

Lavadie, who earned her B.S. in forestry from Highlands, presented her preliminary findings at the EPSCoR meeting. Martinez and forestry professor Sara Brown are her thesis advisers.

 “We’re expecting that the runoff areas with the most severe wildfire will have the highest levels of naturally-occurring phosphorous and nitrogen, which can have adverse effects on water quality at high levels,” Lavadie said. “With the onset of climate change, we can expect a pattern of severe wildfire and its associated effects.”

Lavadie makes frequent trips to the Valles Caldera to collect water and soil samples, returning to Martinez’ lab for the water chemistry analysis. She is also a graduate research assistant in his lab.

“My research experiences at Highlands have given me a diversified knowledge and the tools for an environmental science career. My goal is to be a fire ecologist with an emphasis on wildfire hydrology,” Lavadie said.