Why it’s not all about the lecture at UMD

It’s all about the hair and poop. (MPR / Alex Friedrich)

Research might seem like obscure stuff to most people, but some of it at UMD has held a pretty high profile.

Read about about the sudden, alarming die-off of moose in the state? UMD is on it.

Heard about how the severe winter has caused Lake Superior to ice over earlier than usualUMD is all over that, too.

Campus officials say people may not realize that the school engages in more research than all other Minnesota colleges and universities combined — outside of the Twin Cities campus.

A big part of that involves undergraduates.

Undergrads “provide a significant contribution” to UMD’s research efforts, said Ron Moen, an adjunct professor of biology here. “The faculty here have a lot more undergrads working for them than faculty I know at other campuses.”

(And it’s not a new thing. Nobel Prize winner Brian Kobilka says his experience at UMD made him want to get into research.)

I got a glimpse today of the moose project when I met Moen and several undergrads with him.

UMD researchers have been trying to figure out what’s causing the moose to die off. So they’ve been trapping and collaring moose to track them.

Moen said that among other things, they’re looking at whether predators are part of the problem.

So are the wolves chowing down on the moose?

To find out, biology students are finding out what the wolves are eating. They’re gathering scat samples, washing away everything but the hair, bones and other matter it contains, and then looking at the hair under a microscope.

As 22-year-old Duluth senior Kara Werner admitted: They work with poop.

Nathan Ose, a 21-year-old junior from Anoka, said his sample contained no moose — but both deer and beaver hair.

But that’s just one of thousands of slides they’re studying. The data isn’t all in, so they’re drawing no conclusions.

Students aren’t just in the lab and classroom, though. They’re out in the field setting traps, handling animals, and soaking up the techniques of outdoor research.

Cord Reno, a 19-year-old Hermantown sophomore, told me:

“I have so much experience that most students don’t get until they get an internship. I can almost get into grad school just with what I’ve done in my two years here.”

Werner said especially helpful is the unseen work — the organization of research and the data it produces:

“It gives us a good competitive edge. So many students have biology degrees, but they need research experience to be relevant.”