By Kristen Kilker, Indiana State University
Winter in Indiana: if you’re not in the woods trying to catch a deer, you’re on the road trying to avoid them.
Rusty Gonser, professor of biology, has been conducting research since 1998 into the white-tailed deer’s genetic variations and bottlenecks from hunting controls. Gonser’s primary interest is conservation of species due to habitat loss or fragmentation — a problem that affects the area’s deer, and once led to their scarcity in Indiana long ago.
It was estimated that when the European settlers came to America, there were 12 million deer across North America. By 1900, the estimate was reduced to 100-500,000 deer across North America.
Habitat destruction and unregulated hunting led to a number of species’ extinction. The deer began to return to Indiana when Teddy Roosevelt began conservation efforts in 1900s, restricting hunting to “antler-deer” and establishing state parks and reserves. Agricultural improvements and vegetation in subdivisions also aided the migration of white-tailed deer back to Indiana. By 1996, the deer population reached 26.5 million — more than twice what it was before European settlers.
“White-tailed deer may be the single most successful conservation effort in the history of the U.S.,” Gonser said. Since the growth occurred and such a short time span, Gonser and others wonder how going “through the genetic bottleneck” impacted the population.
“One thought in conservation biology is that when populations get to lower numbers, their genetic makeup won’t be diverse enough to survive and thrive,” Gonser said. “Did the genes also diversify as the population grew in size? That’s where we’re coming at it.”
Along with studying deer movement and deer-vehicle collisions, Gonser’s research also aims to avoid problematic deer-aircraft collisions. Gonser studies a closed deer population that originated in Maryland. Studying this population will help minimize deer-aircraft interactions at the Tucson Naval War Airbase in Maryland.
“That’s why you see big fences around airports. Deer get on runways the same way geese do,” Gonser said.
Other locations, such as some state parks, are using the Maryland population as a model to curate their harvest. The degree of population reduction should keep the deer population healthy while reducing deer-vehicle collisions.
Gonser considers the white-tailed deer research to be a good “training ground” for student researchers, because everyone is familiar with white-tailed deer.
“Particularly in a rural community — a lot of our students are rural in this area — hunting has been a part of their culture,” Gonser said. “For some communities, it’s big revenue. All the people who are drawn to those areas to go hunting are spending money and making an economic impact on the towns.”
While research on some other species forces Gonser and his researchers to work with “a very finite sample,” Gonser and his students can count on new deer tissue every year from hunting. Gonser says as the students become more efficient, they can start working with more difficult.
Since much existing research has been done on deer, Gonser’s student researchers can focus on skill building instead of designing experiments or DNA primers.
Biology major Brianna Wells of Rockville has participated in the white-tailed deer study since the summer and until the end of this semester.
“It was my first experience researching in my field of study,” Wells said, aside from her mandatory lecture-laboratories. “Working in the lab helped me to apply the scientific knowledge from my lecture courses.”
Eric Hibbets, a senior biology major from Monticello, has helped Gonser’s research project since the summer of 2014.
“When I first started the white-tailed deer project, I had no idea what to expect,” Hibbets said.
Like Wells, the white-tailed deer harvest study was his first research experiment in a lab setting. Evolution has always fascinated Hibbets, and the white-tailed deer project explored the important aspects of evolutionary biology — the founder and bottleneck effect, which white-tailed deer experience very year.
Wells and Hibbets helped to study the effects of the bottleneck and founder effects of a controlled white-tailed deer population in the Patuxent River and Webster Field Annex naval bases in Maryland. The two students extracted DNA samples from the deer tissues and organized and inventoried the samples for test-preparation, as well as using buffers and detergents to clean the samples. Wells and Hibbets also ran “PCRs” on the extracted DNA samples to analyze specific samples, which Wells says was more difficult, but Gonser, Hibbett, and Sarah Ford were always nearby for help. The also presented weekly to the rest of the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience participants.
“Some days we would read research papers and discuss them with the Gonser research lab, other times we would use a spreadsheet to check which samples we had in the freezer,” Hibbets said.
Wells learned a lot about proper safety precautions to take when working with biological material and properly handling temperature-sensitive chemicals and solutions.
“This was a two day process and pretty rewarding to know that I could isolate genetic material from a recognizable tissue sample,” Wells said.
The white-tailed deer project helped Hibbets to understand the importance of research papers, having all research materials ready and the importance of less stimulating tasks like reading those papers and labeling containers and tubes — all crucial to the research project.
“Originally I did not know if the research was for me,” Hibbets said. “At first, I only wanted to study the big cats — tiger, lion, jaguar, leopard and snow leopard. But after the first summer of research, I began to realize that I cannot isolate myself in the field of research.”
Hibbets said Gonser’s research helped him in his own personal research and in his classes.
“Research is not for everyone, and working on this project for the past couple of years has gravitated my career on the research track,” Hibbets said.
Indiana State University 21st Century Scholars (from left) Tyler Pfaff and Katlyn Sherrrill and Sycamore Service Corps/AmeriCorps member Brandon Hoskins were on hand in Indianapolis Dec. 2, 2015 as Theresa Lubbers, Indiana’s commissioner for higher education, presented Josh Powers, the university’s associate vice president for student success, with a Scholar Partner Award. Also pictured are Jack Schroeder, 21st Century Scholars coordinator at Indiana State, and Mike Licari, the university’s provost and vice president for academic affairs./Submitted photo
Indiana State University
As part of the 25th anniversary of Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars program, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education has recognized Indiana State University for its support of the initiative that helps low-income students complete a college degree.
Indiana State is among 10 organizations to receive the Champion Partners Award in recognition of their impact on the program.
Indiana State serves the largest number and the highest percentage of 21st Century Scholars on a singular campus, which provides full tuition scholarships for students who sign a pledge in grade 7 or 8 to avoid drugs, alcohol, and criminal activity and to maintain a 2.5 grade point average or higher on a 4.0 scale.
“We are very humbled to be recognized with the 21st Century Scholars Champion Award,” said Josh Powers, associate vice president for student success at Indiana State. “So many at ISU have a deep commitment to our 21stScholars and recognize the importance of stewardship given how many such students we serve. It is a privilege to work with these students and help them to succeed. We constantly look for ways to improve what we do in support of their success.”
Indiana State launched ScholarCorps in 2012 to build pride and aspirations to achieve among 21st Century Scholars. Today, it is among the university’s most vibrant student organizations, with students highly engaged in leadership positions throughout campus and in the community, Powers said. As a result of the effort, retention of 21st Century Scholars has risen 2.5 percentage points faster than non-Scholar retention and the percentage of freshmen and sophomores staying on-track for on-time degree completion has doubled, he noted.
“The 21st Century Scholars program is a national model for providing students financial assistance to access higher education in combination with the support they need to be academically prepared and successful once they get there,” said Theresa Lubbers, Indiana’s higher education commissioner. “The legacy of this program truly is written in the lives of the students who worked hard to qualify for this scholarship and complete their degrees.”
Many 21st Century Scholars are the first in their family to attend a college or university.
”It is gratifying to receive the Champion Award on behalf of all the faculty and staff who have assisted our 21st Century Scholars,” said Jack Schroeder, 21st Century Scholars coordinator. “It is truly an ISU award that involves so many people.”
In addition to Indiana State’s Champion Award, ISU graduates Tonya Collier Hall of Terre Haute, Chantelle Hendry of Fort Wayne and Leroy Lewis III of Indianapolis, were among 25 individuals recognized as Outstanding Alumni of the 21st Century Scholars program.
Evan Bayh, former Indiana governor and U.S. senator, and Stan Jones, former state legislator and higher education commissioner, were recognized for their role in founding the program. As governor, Bayh made the scholarship a top legislative priority in 1990 and then-state Rep. Jones authored the bill that established the 21st Century Scholars program.