COVID-19 Shut Downs, Worcester State Science Carries On

Melanie Meadors explores the challenges that an interdisciplinary science project at WSU is encountering due to the pandemic.

By Melanie R. Meadors

In the quiet of the forest, as the spring rain drips from the trees and the last of the winter snow melts, a little plant grows. It’s a peaceful scene, and, but for a handful of scientists and students at Worcester State University, it’s the cause for some excitement.

For them, this isn’t just any plant. The partridgeberry plant, as this native New England plant is called, is the focus of a unique scientific study proposed by a team of Worcester State University scientists who hope to use an interdisciplinary approach in order to truly understand their subject and its relationship to its environment. The team consists of a biologist, a chemist, and a geologist, as well as some of their students. 

Getting the project started has not been easy, however.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, professors and students alike at Worcester State University have had to learn, almost overnight, how to transfer their teaching and learning experiences to a totally online environment. Carefully planned lectures and learning experiences have had to undergo a complete overhaul. Students are no longer able to come to campus for the lab portions of their classes. Professors can’t show students how to do things as efficiently or effectively as they had hoped, which leads to disappointment on both sides. Yet there are examples from all over the country of research teams, teachers, and students who are determined to not let their carefully planned research fall victim to the virus. They are working hard to make changes and plan their research methods accordingly so their teams can practice science in safety and still have the results they hoped for. The partridgeberry team at Worcester State is one of these groups, and it’s not just for the sake of science. The team sees the COVID-19 situation as a unique opportunity, as well.

“Being able to be involved in research gives you a sense of normalcy—we’re scientists. Research is what we do,” says Dr. Aleel Grennan, a professor at Worcester State and the project’s biologist. “I think it is important for the students to become involved with the project early to help them see how scientists are always working even in the face of adversity. You will always run into some sort of delay or hurdle and you need to find some way to work with the situation you have at hand to move your science forward. You also need to learn there are times that waiting is a way forward.”

Partridgeberry plants are unique in that they reproduce using two types of flowers on the same plant. In the early weeks of summer, the low-growing, trailing plant develops white, trumpet-shaped blossoms from its dense, mat-like growth. Two different forms of flowers appear on different plants: some, called “pin flowers,” have a longer carpal (female plant part) and shorter anthers (male plant parts), and others, called “thrum flowers,” have longer anthers and a shorter carpal.This prevents the plants from self-fertilizing, which makes the offspring plants more biologically successful. In order for the plants to be fertilized and produce the bright red seed-bearing berries that give the plant its name, bees and other pollinators must visit both types of flowers and bring pollen from one type to the other type. 

Why is the research team from Worcester State so interested in studying them? In order to attract the bees and other pollinators in the first place, the plant needs to produce things called “volatile organic compounds,” or VOCs. You’ve probably experienced these compounds as simply the flower’s scent. Just as you might find the sweet scent of hyacinths irresistible in the spring, bees find the perfume of the partridgeberry plant alluring in the early summer. If the flowers aren’t as fragrant, however, the bees don’t visit the flowers as often, and this is what concerns Professors Aleel Grennan, KC Murphy, and Douglas Kowalewski, the leaders of the partridgeberry project at Worcester State.

Think about it this way: When we don’t feel well, it’s hard for us to be motivated to keep up with appearances, maybe even hygiene. When partridgeberry plants don’t feel well—when they are stressed or unhealthy—scientists think it affects their ability to make VOCs, which in turn makes them less attractive to pollinators. This prevents the plants from making seeds, and new plants won’t grow. Because various birds, deer, and other animals eat these berries, this will affect the health of the whole forest. Not only that, but when this plant isn’t healthy, it can also signal that other things in the forest aren’t healthy, either. This little plant is actually pretty important to the whole ecosystem, and that’s why it’s so important to have a team of scientists who are knowledgeable about the entire forest, from the plants, to the soil, to the very chemicals that make up the nutrients the plants consume and the scents they release.

“This project is interdisciplinary, involving environmental science, biology, and chemistry,” says Julia Fitzpatrick, a junior at Worcester State and one of the students on the research team.  “As a student majoring in biology and environmental science, the combination and interaction of these disciplines in this project made me very interested in the project.” 

The partridgeberry team had originally planned on having things like regular team meetings, groups of students going to various research sites to collect data, and gatherings in the computer lab to process and quantify the information the team collected. COVID-19, however, has disrupted the research group’s carefully laid plans. Not only will all meetings now need to be virtual, but social distancing guidelines will also make it necessary to change some of the methods and procedures of research.

“The major challenge is we have no precedent on how to respond to a pandemic like COVID-19,” says Dr. Grennan. “Life as we all knew it has changed, and we are all trying to pick up pieces and reassemble them into something that will work under this new normal. Specifically for the project, we have shifted our Principal Investigator meetings online, which is pretty common anyway in the sciences, and hope to involve students in these meetings soon.”

Couple these changes with the adjustments faculty and students alike need to make with the rest of the semester being online, and the research experience is going to be much different from when the team first visualized it. Not only will methods need to change, but the timing of the project itself is a little slower than first hoped.

“Teaching and learning online is so different that we have not focused much on our project,” says Dr. KC Murphy, who is a chemistry professor at Worcester State as well as a member of the research team. “To prepare for my classes is all-consuming, and it has been a struggle to keep up. I look forward to the end of the semester when I can focus more attention to the project.”

Nevertheless, part of science is being prepared for the unexpected. The partridgeberry plants will bloom this summer despite COVID-19, and when they do, these scientists will be ready to study them.

“Since we are interested in floral traits and pollinator attraction, if we are unable to start the project before the flowering date, the project will need to be delayed until next year,” said Dr. Grennan. “This is an inherent risk of fieldwork in general; you always run the risk of weather or natural disaster delaying or preventing access to your site. We are lucky in the sense that our field sites are local, so if the situation changes, it will be relatively easy for us to get to our sites and start the field observations and sample collection.” 

The students of the team are anxious to get started with the research as well, as Julia Fitzpatrick enthusiastically affirms:

“I am really looking forward to learning and improving on laboratory and field work techniques and skills. This truly is an excellent and exciting learning opportunity. I am very happy to be a part of the partridgeberry project!”

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