Phoenix Spivey: Undergraduate Research Opportunity at Biosphere 2

The tropical rainforest, one of the seven biomes within Biosphere 2.

“You can call me Frog,” my driver hoarsely yelled from the front seat as we drove further and further away from the Tucson International Airport. It was my first day in Arizona and my soon to be friend and I sat excitedly in the backseat of battered white pickup van. Despite how sketchy our driver and his get-up was, it couldn’t distract us from the enchanting view of the Sonoran Desert mountains. During the spring semester of my junior year, I applied and accepted an undergraduate research opportunity at Biosphere 2 in Tucson, Arizona. My new found friend Janie and I were exchanging about how excited we were to be a part of such an amazing opportunity and couldn’t believe we had been picked. The quick whip of a screeching break knocked us back into reality thanks to the careful driving of Frog who thankfully and successfully dropped us off at Biosphere 2. Biosphere 2 is a research facility owned by the University of Arizona that consists of seven artificial biomes for scientists to study as well as provided educational outreach. Janie was assigned to the rainforest biome to study tree respiration rates, while I was assigned to LEO or the Landscape Evolution Observatory with Dr. Laura Meredith. Landscape Evolution Observatory is composed of three artificial landscapes where researchers can study the impacts of plants, water, and microbes on soil formation. For the next ten weeks of my summer, I was to study the microbial communities within the rainwater supply of this community and discover whether they were being unintentionally being introduced into the onto the LEO Landscapes. In addition to that, I would be conducting my own research project using the information I learned from the observatory. Casitas were provided on the research base for us to live within in a five-minute of the job site. Janie and I were the first ones to make it to the casita so we quickly unpacked and eagerly toured our home for the next two months. Slowly, the other nine participants from all over the United States began to arrive.

The first week of this program was spent on expectations, team buildings, and a miniature research project that we would conduct with the help of a mentor different from our own. I had the pleasure to work with Greg Barron and his Argo-Voltaic experiment.

Measuring photosynthesis and respiration of plants during Agrovolatics experiment.

The goal was to determine weather plants and solar panels could co-exist in a mutualistic relationship. The solar panels could provide an environment for plants to productively produce products while the plants would,in turn, cool the solar panel down, thus improving the efficiency of energy capture and promoting sustainable land use. We measured photorespiration and plant productivity using a LI-COR instrument and after presented our findings to our peers and mentors. This mini project served to prepare us for conducting our own experiments while giving us a taste of the other research projects that were being conducted at Biosphere 2. Aside from the project, team building was a huge part of what made my experience in Arizona a success.  We did many icebreakers and trust exercises. The one exercise that stood out the most was the ropes obstacles course, where you depended on others to successfully cross a path that was placed almost hundred feet in the air. Let’s just say I bonded closer to my peers since my life was in their hands. The goal of the exercise was for us to trust and depend on each other for the rest of the summer. If a person was struggling, we were to look out for them and help them in anyway we could because we were a team. This was certainly taken into account because whenever anyone needed help with their research experiment or needed some type of advice, someone was always ready to help. With this support were not only successful in the work we accomplished at Biosphere 2, but we became a family.

Further into the weeks, I began the real work with my mentor. I studied the ins and the outs of the rainwater system to discover which places were connected to what. A big experiment was being conducted at the time, so the landscapes were constantly being supplied water for a source of rain. I would sample the sprinklers systems, the holding tanks, the reverse osmosis system, and other various sites to discover where the possible source of microbes could be. Sampling would take place before and after the rain events while water collected would be filtered to trap microbes onto filter paper. The filters were then collected and sent to a lab where I would then extract and amplify the DNA of the microbes caught. This DNA would later be tested for 16s sequencing to identify what type of microbes were found in the system and its indications. Sampling the system was fun but a long and rigorous process. The system was located in the “technosphere”, a place where all there wiring and piping  for all seven biomes would reside. Basically, it was a huge and complex basement that was really dark and windy. I would spend a good amount of time getting soaked there while collecting water samples for my experiment. Another vigorous part of this experiment was extracting and amplifying DNA. I traveled an hour every day to the BIO5 Institute at the University of Arizona to learn the microbiology aspect of extracting DNA. I had become well acquainted with Nanodrop, Qubit, and PCR.  I learned how meticulous I had to be while preparing the samples. One false move could lead to the contamination of your results. There was also a chance of having low cell counts in the samples, so hours spent trying to amplify the DNA could be wasted if there wasn’t enough. That was often a problem I faced while extracting DNA from the cells of microbes, and it was certainly frustrating when you didn’t get the results you wanted. Over time I got better at the process, so I was happy that I got the chance to develop that skill. While I wasn’t working in a lab or collecting water samples, I was taking in the Arizona views. I visited sites like Mt. Lemmon and the Sonoran Desert Museum and ingested as much Sonoran desert hotdogs as I could.  For some reason, our laundry room was located on the other side of our living quarters so I often ran into unphased deer, tarantulas, snakes, and even javelinas. The wildlife in Arizona was certainly an eye-opener and way different from the east coast.

Trapping Microbes using peristaltic pumps and filter paper

After learning much about the LEO system, I was ready to start my research project. I decided that I wanted to study the microbe abundance and viability within the rainwater system to discover the implications while comparing the system to its smaller prototype, MiniLeo. MiniLeo was simply a smaller landscape where experiments would be tested before they were run on the bigger models. Flow cytometry and cell viability assay were two tools I used to compare the two systems.  Toward the end of my experience I was taught the importance of science communication, a tool I used to present my research at the  undergraduate research opportunities consortium at the University of Arizona. There I was able to communicate clearly to other researchers about the work I had done and contributed to.

I grew a lot from this experience. I received career guidance through interacting with researchers from Biosphere 2 and the University of Arizona. Thanks to them, I now plan to go to graduate school to further my studies and pursue a research career. I also grew culturally as well. Being born and raised in North Carolina, I didn’t know much about the culture of others from different backgrounds and states. It was cool to interact with and learn from people who were different from my upbringing. Besides all of these points, I feel like the best thing I got out of this internship is confidence. This research experience pushed me to do things I didn’t know I could do. I developed great communication skills and as well as a huge sense of responsibility. I became a effective team player and could independently work in a lab. I am proud of the person I have become after this experience and will look upon it as a source of inspiration in future endeavors.