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An Up-Close Look at Pollination Ecology

Conducting independent research has been one of the most valuable experiences of my undergraduate career. Being able to work independently on a project of my design has allowed me to gain a much deeper understanding of my field of interest and has further inspired me to pursue graduate studies. My research, which I conducted with the Tarpy Lab in NC State’s Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, focused on using the identification of pollen grains to document pollinator visitation within agricultural ecosystems. The goal of this project was to evaluate a pattern of ‘pollination spillover’ to see how pollinator conservation strategies impact the foraging behaviors of bees in adjacent cropping systems. Studying pollination ecology has important implications for both conservation ecology and human well-being because the majority of flowering plants, including many of the crops we rely on, are dependent on insect pollination. Intensive agricultural operations put pollinators at risk by depleting floral diversity and eliminating their natural habitat along with pesticide use.

I spent the past summer processing pollen samples collected from flowers and bees and identifying them using light microscopy. This process was challenging at first but soon became easier after hours of practice. Learning to identify pollen was a lot of fun and it was fascinating to see the variation in morphology between different plants. I utilized cellular dyes to stain the pollen grains before preserving them and mounting them on slides for analysis. I also worked on creating visual resources for others to use for pollen grain identification. The data that I collected this summer while I was completing this project will be incorporated into a larger work examining pollinator community dynamics in agricultural ecosystems within North Carolina. I am very excited that the results of my project can contribute to our understanding of pollination ecology and conservation.

Covid-19 introduced many challenges to my work during this time by restricting my access to the lab on campus. I was able to overcome this by using my CNR Enrichment Fund award to acquire the resources and equipment I needed to collect data remotely. While this transition was difficult, I was able to adapt to working independently and meeting virtually with my research mentors and collaborators. Once campus opened back up in the fall, I was able to utilize on-campus resources again and collaborate with other labs such as the Cellular and Molecular Imaging Facility.

This research experience has allowed me to gain important knowledge and skills that I would not have been able to gain within the classroom. Each step of the research process has been valuable to my education, from conducting a systematic literature review and critically analyzing previous research to designing and carrying out a procedure and interpreting the results. I have also had opportunities to share and present my project as well as communicate with other researchers in the field. This project has enhanced my undergraduate experience and has further inspired me to pursue research on pollination ecology in the future.