At 10,000 feet in the California high desert, Sam counted every sage grouse he saw. Low in number and potentially threated in the future, the great basin low-flying bird shares its home with beef cattle in one of the U.S. forest service's grazing allotments — a tract of land that was under the direct stewardship of Sam and his fellow cowhands. Tracking sage grouse in their native rangeland habitat along with conservation projects located thousands of feet below on the valley floor were the first formal trainings Sam received as a naturalist at Deep Springs College, where public rangeland and private alfalfa fields were the largest classrooms.
During his time at Deep Springs, an abundance of native desert plant species expanded Sam's Latin vocabulary and gophers in the alfalfa fields presented him with a pest control problem to solve. In fact, one of Sam's first projects in ecology was to quantify the spatial and temporal distribution of pocket gophers in order to devise a better trapping schedule.
After studying philosophy for 2 years at Deeps Springs, Sam felt his calling was in the natural world and the study of the biological diversity within it — something he realized when he reflected on how much he enjoyed backpacking in the wilderness and working with animals on the ranch. He transfered to Rice, where he is now in his second semester studying ecology and evolutionary biology.
Working with Scott Egan, Sam has shifted his research focus to understanding the parasitic relationship between oak trees, gall wasps and parasitoids. If you can't find Sam taking photos of tiny insects under the microscope, you can probably see him measuring the size of oak galls.
Sam's work in the Egan lab explores the feedback between evolutionary and ecological forces. Specifically, he is revealing how adaptation to environments by one species can alter community structure and ecosystem function. Sam is excited by this underexplored theme in ecology and evolutionary biology where the idea of separate evolutionary and ecological timescales is exchanged for an understanding of them as concurrent and sometimes occurring rapidly.
Through the research process, Sam has developed an appreciation for scientists who communicate clearly in their research papers. He believes that science cannot continue to progress without accessible communication. By writing scientific stories for the School of Natural Sciences, Sam hopes to improve his understanding of the natural world and share that process with others.
Hallie might secretly be the product of a classified science writers selective breeding program organized by the apparently sweet but actually scheming director of communications for the School of Natural Sciences, Lauren Kapcha. Probably not, though.
Regardless, her parents began teaching her the beauty of both science and the written word from a very early age. She recalls endlessly poring over detailed, colorful images of imaginary beings, strange creatures and far-flung places while her English teacher mother read to her. Growing up on North Padre Island in Corpus Christi, TX, Hallie also spent much of her childhood at the beach. Her marine biologist father taught her to study the ocean as a proper scientist, searching every crevice for new creatures and new knowledge. She still remembers the day when he first picked up a handful of sargassum from the water, shook it, and like a magician revealed a miniscule, hidden world of fantastic organisms: nudibranchs, sargassum shrimp, tiny crabs and so much more.
Even as a child, Hallie knew that she would become a scientists, but she originally believed that she would follow in her father's footsteps as some sort of biologist or ecologist. She didn't discover her love of chemistry until she was in high school and had the opportunity to work on a project in the lab of phycologist/toxicologist/ecologist/modern Renaissance man Paul Zumba at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, with the guidance of environmental biochemist Hussain Abdulla. Here, she worked on a project investigating the effects of different nitrogen sources on toxin and pigment production in the cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) Microcystis aeruginosa. In her reading, she found herself fascinated by the molecular structure of a toxic compound the cyanobacteria produced, called microcystin. She wondered how that molecule interacted with human cells to cause poisoning and what purpose the molecule originally served for the cyanobacteria, but she didn't yet have the tools to fully understand those questions.
When she started studying organic chemistry, she again found herself marveling at molecular interactions and enthralled by the way her understanding of those interactions could tell her so much about the world around her. In class one day, her organic chemistry professor James Tour articulated a common theme underlying many chemists' passion for their discipline: "I can look at you and see what's going on in your body. I can see how the molecules in your body are reacting and working together," he said. "Isn't that just amazing?"
Hallie loves chemistry because of its vast potential for applications that change the world for the better. For this reason, she currently works in the Tour lab assisting graduate student Emily McHugh as she seeks to create new antioxidant materials that may help patients heal after injuires and illnesses that generate many free radicals in the body, such as traumatic brain injury.
Hallie's appreciation for chemistry does not preclude exploration of other scientific fields. As many chemists are quick to point out, chemistry is the central science. Lying at the junction of biology and physics, a well-educated chemist has the tools to understand concepts and problems in those fields, too. Hallie sincerely hopes that during her time writing for the School of Natural Sciences she can share some of her love of all things science with her readers.