Tales from the bog: an ecological mystery #WhatLearningLooksLike

After completing two diploma programs in three years at Sir Sandford Fleming College, Sarah Adams from Athol, Nova Scotia knew she needed more education to achieve her career goals and wanted to come home to the place where her interest in environmental preservation began. Unsure of where she would study, a chance encounter with Acadia University co-op coordinator Michelle Larsen led Sarah to submit her college courses for credit toward her Acadia degree. “I wanted to be on a campus where professors know your name,” says Sarah. “I love the Annapolis Valley and the tremendous facilities at the K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre demonstrate the priority Acadia places on environmental research and education. Acadia’s combination of location, facilities, and supportive faculty make it the ideal campus for me.”

Sarah is an Arthur Irving Scholarship recipient, funded by the Arthur Irving Academy, and is researching endophytes (fungi that live within plants) found in the endangered and protected Eastern Mountain Avens plant population located on Nova Scotia’s Brier Island and Digby Neck. This plant, Geum peckii, is actually an alpine plant but a distinct population is found in coastal bogs in these two locations. Why an alpine plant is found in coastal bogs is a mystery and the question for researchers is whether endophytes are playing a role in making this rare plant more resilient and helping it survive outside its normal range.

“I met mycologist Dr. Allison Walker through my third-year plant course,” explains Sarah. “I decided to complete a Research Topics course under her supervision and I focused on finding sterilization techniques for the seeds of G. peckii that would allow for their seeds to be germinated on a nutrient media. The problem was that endophytic fungi kept emerging from the seeds and preventing the seeds from germinating. This got me wondering what sort of endophytes might be found in other parts of the plant. Dr. Walker‘s funded research program in fungal biodiversity allowed me to collect leaf tissue samples from the wild plants and see what endophtyes emerged from them when plated onto a nutrient media. By working closely with Dr. Walker in the Biology Department, and with help from Dr. Robin Browne here in the K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre, I was able to decide what I wanted to do and how to set up my research project.”

Dr. David Kristie, Director of Research at the K.C. Irving Environmental Science Centre says Sarah's work on ecosystem management at Sir Sanford Fleming provided her with tremendous hands-on experience that allowed her to enter the Environmental Studies program at Acadia at the third-year level.  According to Kristie, “Learning applied skills at community college followed by a somewhat more theoretical and research-oriented program at Acadia is a fantastic career path for students interested in Environmental Science or Biology.” 

On the other hand, Sarah says her field research would not be possible without the tremendous support she’s received from independent researcher Diane LaRue from the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute. With Diane, Sarah has visited Brier Island and Digby Neck to collect leaf samples from wild Geum peckii she can take back to the lab where she surface-sterilizes them and places them on nutrient agar to see if fungal endophytes will emerge. Often finding two or three types of fungi growing in one culture, she then separates them until she gets a clean culture. It’s then that the fun begins.

With a clean sample, Sarah extracts DNA from a sample of the culture tissue, amplifies it using PCR (polymerase chain reaction) technology and then sends the DNA sample to Genome Quebec where the DNA is sequenced and a genetic barcode is generated for each sample. When she receives the gene sequence back from Genome Quebec, she screens it against a world-wide gene bank to see if her original sample is from an existing species or if she has potentially found something new. “Endophytes are not well understood,” Sarah says. “It could be that Geum peckii survive in Nova Scotia bogs because the endophytes we have found are unique and somehow help inoculate them against environmental threats.”

“Sarah is a highly self-motivated, independent researcher already and it has been great working with her this year,” says Walker. “Her passion for her project will no doubt lead us to some very interesting discoveries about an understudied component of biodiversity and ecology in Nova Scotia: fungal endophytes.”

Sarah says that she’s grateful for the opportunity to pursue a research subject and further her academic development close to home. “Frankly, university is expensive and the Arthur Irving Scholarship relieves the financial pressure. The scholarship pays for my studies and I can use the summer months to concentrate on work that truly interests me. I’m hopeful that at the end of the day, everyone involved with this project will get something from it and maybe we just might find a new species of fungus!”

“Sarah was the first Fleming grad to be awarded an Arthur Irving Scholarship in Environmental Science, and we hope to have more in the future,” says Kristie. “Sarah is a great example of how exceptional graduates of a community college program can come to Acadia and thrive.”  


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