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APSU biology grad students continue to excel in their research

            CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Since about 1950, the small-scale darter—a tiny fish that lives in tributaries of the Cumberland River—has existed in relative obscurity. Few scientists have heard of the darter or checked to see if the fish is in danger of disappearing.            

            CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Since about 1950, the small-scale darter—a tiny fish that lives in tributaries of the Cumberland River—has existed in relative obscurity. Few scientists have heard of the darter or checked to see if the fish is in danger of disappearing.            

            But for the last year and a half, Joshua Stonecipher, a graduate student with the Austin Peay State University Center of Excellence for Field Biology, has waded into local streams, trying to get an accurate estimate of the darter’s population size.

“They’re a species of special concern,” Stonecipher said. “They’re deemed in need of management, and the theme of my project is to see if they warrant listing as endangered.”

            Stonecipher’s research could ultimately save the darters from going extinct, and earlier this year, he received external grants from three major organizations—the North American Fishes Association, the Society for Freshwater Science and the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists—to continue his important work.

             “I’m very excited about this,” he said recently. “The grants are probably more than I could have asked for. I’ll probably get some recognition because of these grants, and others will look at my work and pick it up when I’m done.”

            At smaller institutions without doctoral programs, it’s unusual for a graduate student to earn three external grants for his or her research, but in APSU’s Department of Biology, this type of success is pretty typical. In the last year alone, APSU’s biology graduate students have earned several national awards, received thousands of dollars in grants, had more than 10 papers published in scientific journals and delivered 20 presentations at major conferences.

            “With the publications, that demonstrates that their research is leading to real scientific products,” Dr. Rebecca Johansen, APSU associate professor of biology, said. “With the presentations, I would point out that many were given at international conferences, and we had five students this year get awards for presentations at large regional or international meetings.”

            Recent APSU graduate Kris Wild was one of those students, earning the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists’ award for best poster presentation.

            “That was a really big deal,” Johansen said. “That’s a large international society, and he was competing against Ph.D. students from R1 institutions.” R1 is a classification for doctoral universities that have the highest research activity.

            The success of APSU’s small graduate program is one of the reasons why Megan Hart decided to apply to Austin Peay. Hart earned her undergraduate degree from APSU, but she was looking to go somewhere else for her master’s degree.

            “The opportunities the Center of Excellence provides are just fantastic,” she said. “I was thinking of moving away from Austin Peay, but I was offered a really awesome project here, and I wasn’t offered this type of project anywhere else.”

            Hart now spends about four months each year walking around marshes in southern Louisiana, collecting research on how the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill has affected birds nesting along the coast. Her work recently led her to earn the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency’s inaugural Robert M. Hatcher Memorial Scholarship.

            “That will help because doing research in Louisiana gets expensive,” Hart said. “But it feels amazing to have a really hard-hitting project on something that has affected so many people.”

           The APSU Department of Biology offers a research-focused Master of Science program to students who majored or minored in biology during undergraduate studies. The program can be completed in two to three years, and prepares students for a variety of careers. The program is offered through the APSU Clarksville campus and admits during fall and spring terms.

          For more information, contact Johansen at johansenr@apsu.edu