ORCA funding research into declining amphibian population

Two SUNY Oswego students are conducting a study on amphibian viruses, which is helpful in measuring the health of ecosystems.

Najiyah Williamson and Grace Cordone have received funding from SUNY Oswego for their project “Surveying for a Global Amphibian Pathogen: Ranavirus in Oswego County”. The project seeks to survey Oswego County’s amphibian population for a particular fungus and Ranavirus. Ranavirus, which is itself a family of different viruses, is a leading cause of global amphibian population decline.

“Amphibians are extremely sensitive to environmental changes,” said Williamson. “Monitoring them can tell us a lot about the state of an ecosystem.”

Williamson said that a lot of her research consists of her going to Rice Creek and taking toe clippings from amphibians. She will take these back to the lab and test them for the diseases they are looking for.

Conducting scientific research as an undergraduate seems daunting, but Williamson had some experience with research in the past. She said that the hardest part of the process for her was memorizing the steps for some tests.

To help with things like that, Cordone and Williamson are being helped by professor Nicholas Sard.

“If you fail three times in a row, that’s when I step in,” said Sard.

Sard said that the hardest thing for students when conducting research is getting “lab hands.” He likened molecular biology to cooking. It’s easy to follow the directions as listed on paper, but actually executing them properly is another story.

When Sard works with students he is trying to give them “tools in their toolbox.” He said that he tries to give students skills that will make them more marketable, whether that be for employers or when applying to graduate school.

Sard said that often he will lean on more senior students in a research setting. This will lighten his own personal workload and be a good learning experience for the student.

Sard, who usually studies fish, said he became involved with the project because he understood there is not a database that tracks amphibian viruses over time and space. Having something like that is important in ecology.

Williamson and Cordone received a Student Scholarly and Creative Activity Grant in fall of 2022 for their study. They received $923 for the kits that they are using to detect the viruses in the amphibians.

Funding for student projects is handled through the Student Office of Research and Creative Activities, or ORCA. The office is directed by professor Kestutis Bendinskas.

There is no shortage of funds for student projects, according to Bendinskas. The real problem is getting students to be engaged and apply for a grant.

“I can put posters all over campus with links and QR codes, but how many students will actually fill out an application?” said Bendinskas.

There are three main types of grants. Travel grants are up to $500 and are accepted on a rolling basis. They allow students to travel to conferences to spread their ideas around the world.

There is also the mini grant. This one is also up to $500 and works on a rolling basis, like the travel grant. However, this grant exists to fund the projects of students. Independent projects are prioritized, but projects for classes or capstones are allowed.

Finally there is the biggest grant, and the one that Williamson and Cordone received. The Scholarly and Creative Activity Grant. This grant is up to $4,500 and allows for students to work with professors to do research, work on a project or create art. These are the longest term projects and thus, not many students apply for them. Only seven grants were given out in fall 2022.

However, the most visible and well-known aspect of ORCA is Quest. Quest is probably the most well-known for being a random day that most students have off towards the end of the year. There is an actual purpose for it though. Students and faculty use Quest as an opportunity to present the results of the projects that they have been working on.

There is more in the future for ORCA as an office. Bendinskas said that he hopes to turn the office into a hub for all student grants.

As for the students, Williamson said that she really recommends that students participate in research. The program can be especially helpful in learning the skills of grant writing and getting hands-on research experience, all of which can be extremely helpful for an aspiring graduate student.