The greenhouse is a rectangle of paned glass peaking at a slanted roof, the windowed walls offering a view into rows of tubs filled with soil. Black tubes snake out from the loam and feed into a pipe stretching over each tub as a makeshift irrigation system.
For most University of Arkansas – Fort Smith students, the greenhouse is a building noticed and forgotten, a small structure standing to the west Math-Science Building on campus. But for students spending their time within the building, it offers undergraduate research opportunities in the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics that are life-changing.
Take Laci Metheny, for example. The Van Buren native enrolled at UAFS and majored in chemistry but wasn’t considering graduate school until she met James Brandli, instructor of biological science, who gave her a tour of the greenhouse on campus.
Immediately, she realized this wasn’t like normal laboratories she had experienced.
“I saw the potential to conduct true research within the greenhouse and realized that the possibilities were endless,” she said. “The perfect climate inside allows for the growth of most plants, and botany is my favorite subject and desired field.”
After finishing the tour, Brandli asked her if she would be interested in conducting research in the greenhouse. She said yes.
Instead of labs conducted in traditional laboratories, Metheny is conducting research that she and Brandli hope to present to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
“Here I could work with a project with plants hands-on, with the trial and error that is necessary for good science,” she said. “It completely reinvigorated my life.”
The opportunity wouldn’t have been possible without Brandli. When he came back to UAFS as a biology instructor, he saw a need for additional undergraduate research opportunities in the College of STEM. The college offered plenty of scripted labs – experiments that provide discovery for the students but the results of which are already known to the faculty administering them.
And while those have value, Brandli saw opportunity to also engage students in the scientific process of discovery.
“I just saw a tremendously valuable opportunity for students to have labs where they’re discovering something that they can not only use to add to the scientific conversation, but someday they’ll be able to direct those conversations,” Brandli said.
The greenhouse offered a perfect opportunity for such experiments. Built in 1992, the building had been used sporadically throughout its lifespan, but it was the perfect facility to house the experiments Brandli envisioned.
Since 2015, students have explored how plankton can improve the production of Tilapia, novel approaches to biofuel production, oxygen supplementation in tank cultures and other integrated production models utilizing livestock and plants. A current project Metheny is conducting involves finding ideal conditions for a symbiotic relationship between fish and plants.
The greenhouse has demonstrated an appetite for such research by UAFS students. What started as a project involving four students has grown into a special topics class with nearly 30 students.
“I have students who worked through the summer for no credit and no money. You can see changes in their lives and how it’s affected them beyond just that class,” Brandli said.
Qasim Mian of Fort Smith, a senior biology major, is another student who benefited from the research. Through the greenhouse, he has perfected techniques from his introductory biology courses such as creating agar slants, a method of positioning algae in a test tube to enhance the growth of bacteria.
“During our biofuels project, we had to make over 100 slants, and this is not counting all the times we messed up making them,” Mian said. “Now, I am an expert at making agars. This simple skill helps me tremendously in my upper level classes like cell and molecular biology, where we are expected to make agar plates and gels on a routine basis and having research experience is priceless.”
Not only that, but the experiences are valuable feathers in their cap for their future endeavors, whether it be graduate school or a job in the science field.
“The biofuels project has been challenging yet extremely rewarding. It uses many other academic disciplines such as chemistry, statistics, and microbiology in order to properly encompass all of the data that is gathered,” she said. “I have learned so much from this experience, and am proud and honored to have been given the opportunity to be on this research team. I cannot imagine what lies ahead after graduation, but am confident that these research experiments will lead me on the path to excellence and success overall as a scientist.”
To assist in their research efforts, Brandli has applied for several grants with the USDA and the National Science Foundation.
The greenhouse not only furthers scientific knowledge – it provides exciting opportunities that engage a spectrum of students in STEM disciplines
“People like Laci may not be here without opportunities the greenhouse provides,” Brandli said. “She’s a poster child for the types of people we need to keep in STEM. People like her are who we’ll be hiring for STEM jobs in the future.”