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Targeting a weed problem

Chelsea Presto ’09 and Delbert Hutchison, associate professor of biology, helped the staff of the Whitman Mission National Historic Site (shown here) identify invasive and native weeds on the grounds.

A Whitman student took the research road less traveled.

Undergraduates often jump into a research project already under way, said Delbert Hutchison, associate professor of biology. Most don’t create their own.

“It’s too risky,” Hutchison said.

But Chelsea Presto ’09, a biology and environmental studies major who returned from her Semester in the West studies with deep concerns about the proliferation of non-native weeds in the United States, decided to break new ground.

The staff of the Whitman Mission National Historic Site near Walla Walla shared her concerns about invasive weeds. Staff members needed a systematic way to evaluate the site’s weed situation. But didn’t have money to pay for it.

She had a way to help. And didn’t want money to do it.

Delbert Hutchison Delbert Hutchison

Presto’s idea to do a research project on exotic weeds evolved into a method to evaluate and compare the National Park Service’s various methods of trying to return the Whitman Mission’s 90 acres to native vegetation.

In collaboration with Hutchison, Presto used the park service’s historical data on herbicide spraying at the site to create a systematic protocol of random sampling within each sector of the mission. After mapping out areas to be tested, she went on site with a 1-meter-by-1-meter frame, which was placed at random locations within areas that needed to be tested. Within the frame, she identified all plants and then calculated the percentage of weeds to native species.

Presto spent much of July and August 2008 on the project. Hutchison’s and her resulting statistical analysis detailed the success rates of the various methods and gave the site’s staff clear direction on which method was working best and, therefore, how to proceed.

“It worked well,” said Hutchison, Presto’s adviser and a field biologist who uses molecular genetics to study ecology and evolution. “The park ranger was pretty excited about it,” he said. “Based on what she knew and what I knew, it created a nice balanced (evaluation) system,” he said. “It was useful work, not busy work.”

For Presto, the research provided an experiential learning opportunity that she thinks served her far better than “reading about it in a book,” and it will inform her senior thesis.

For Hutchison, the collaboration was a rewarding experience. He hopes to do more projects that not only get students out in the field and “get their hands dirty” as they learn science but that also lead to useable results that can benefit the local community.

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