72° F Monday, June 26, 2017

By Hannah Hepfer

Contributing Writer

Science students at St. Edward’s University – and the Wild Basin Creative Research Center started 2013 in a pleasant fashion thanks to a welcome surprise. The university’s School of Natural Sciences was the recent recipient of a $200,000 grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, which supports medical, science and engineering research. The grant will be used to develop a living database of the ecosystem at the Wild Basin.

“Very few databases show how species interrelate, and we thought that would be a nice niche to fill,” says Thomas Mitzel, dean of the School of Natural Sciences at St. Edward’s.

The grant will expand classroom and research opportunities for faculty and students across multiple disciplines. Students in kindergarten through 12thgrade, as well as at universities, will also be able to use the database for educational and scholarship purposes. Since St. Edward’s University took over the management of Wild Basin in 2009, the university has been seeking ways to fully integrate the preserve into the campus community and the community at large, says Mitzel.

“Our hope is that in the three-year period that we have the grant, we’re able to build the infrastructure through the use of our computer science department students and faculty members,” says Mitzel. “Then, we’ll populate the database through ongoing research as well as new projects that are taking place right now. Not only are we trying to build the infrastructure, but doing so in a way that will really help our students.”

The majority of the grant will fund student stipends for research, which will focus on topics like the spread of the non-native plant Ligustrum and its impact on the rest of the basin — a timely issue, according to Mitzel.

“People love Ligustrum because it grows readily in Central Texas,” says Mitzel. “But, because it has no natural predators in this area, it grows unchecked and retards the growth of oak saplings, which are a large part of the deer’s diet. So now deer don’t have as much of their natural food source. Do the deer become less healthy as a result? Start to spread disease? These are the kinds of questions we’d like to answer.”

The search for answers will be ongoing, according to Mitzel. “Our hope is that the living database is never completed because we’ll always continue to add to it.”

The database will also serve another important purpose.

“We’re interested in how Central Texas, especially Wild Basin, is affected by climate change. Ideally we’d already have 100 years worth of research to study, but we don’t,” says Mitzel. “We have to start somewhere, so we’ll start now and begin collecting those data.”
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