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Clarkson Student Splits Summer Researching in Panama and Rockies

[A photograph for media use is available at]

Although John K. Best, a junior Environmental Science and Policy major at Clarkson University didn't get to put in many idle days skiing or lounging at the beach, he had what many would consider dream winter and summer vacations. Actually, the experiences began in February with Best spending 12 weeks researching wind-driven seed dispersal research on the canopy crane in Parque Metropolitano in Panama. His summer was spent studying the impact of dust on snowmelt in Colorado's Rocky Mountains. john_best

As part of a National Science Foundation funded program Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU), Best worked at the Smithsonian Tropical Institute (STRI) in Panama. A bureau of the Smithsonian Institute, STRI provides a unique opportunity for ecological studies in the tropics for more than 900 visiting scientists from academic and research institutions each year. The institution is dedicated to understanding biological diversity.

His study focused on organisms dispersed by wind, which comprise approximately 25% of canopy tree species and 50% of liana (vine) species on the island. He studied the wind speed thresholds required for separation of seeds from plants, a process known as abscission, and their implications for dispersal. The study also looked at how horizontal vs. vertical wind speeds impact seed release in Aristolochea maxima, a fruit found in abundance in Panama. "The mature fruit of an Aristolochea maxima dries to form a basket shape which makes seed release due to only horizontal winds unlikely," remarked Best. "Our initial analysis indicated that significant more seeds were released under vertical winds."

From Panama, Best traveled back to the U.S. and spent 10 weeks measuring snow melt in the Rocky Mountains. This research experience was also funded by the REU program through the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEBIO) department of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Best was advised by Alan Townsend, assistant professor in the EEBIO department, and Fellow and associate director of the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).

A significant dust event occurred in the Front Range of Colorado in February of 2006.

Best was able to help researchers determine the effects of the increased dust load on Colorado's alpine snow pack. In the spring when the snow had melted to the level of the dust event, researchers marked and scraped alternate plots free of the dust. Best tracked the melt rates and found that unscraped plots melted faster, in spite of expectations otherwise. This was likely due to re-accumulation of dust on the surface of the snow. After melt-out, soil moisture was monitored and also indicated no significant differences between the scraped and unscraped plots.

The REU programs Best participated in supports active research participation by undergraduates in any of the areas of research funded by the National Science Foundation. REU projects involve students in meaningful ways in ongoing research programs or in research projects designed especially for the purpose.

Clarkson University, located in Potsdam, New York, is a private, nationally ranked university with a reputation for developing innovative leaders in engineering, business, the sciences, health sciences and the humanities. At Clarkson, 3,000 high-ability students excel in an environment where learning is not only positive, friendly and supportive but spans the boundaries of traditional disciplines and knowledge. Faculty achieves international recognition for their research and scholarship and connects students to their leadership potential in the marketplace through dynamic, real-world problem solving.

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Annie Harrison, Director of Media Relations, at 315-268-6764 or]

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