RU senior embraces challenge to grow as a person and a scientist
Laken Cooper has made neophobia - the fear of the new - the focus of her research activities with house sparrows in Radford University's Ecophysiology Lab since her freshman year.
This summer, Cooper got to test her own fear of the new as she embarked on a three-week research trip to Kenya as part of a six-person team studying the house sparrow, an invasive species, and how it adapts and survives in new, challenging environments.
Cooper, a senior biology major from Radford, joined a team that included Sara O'Brien, assistant professor of biology, for an expedition that took them through the garbage dumps of Nairobi , the Great Rift Valley and the seacoast city of Mombassa on a quest to understand the ubiquitous bird and what makes it so adaptable. The research expedition was Cooper's first international trip.
"It was life-changing," said Cooper. "The science was awesome and the cultural experience was so meaningful in that I was challenged by different languages, people and cuisine."
Cooper, who sampled crocodile and ostrich meat as dinner, liked the experience, as well as the different fare. She is already looking forward to the next opportunity as a graduate student. "Now that I've done it and learned that I can take what is thrown at me, overwhelming as it may seem at the time, I am asking, 'Where can I go next?'"
"Invasive species lead to billions of dollars in damage." said O'Brien. "In this case, we as ecophysiologists, are looking to get a snapshot about how this invasive species manages to balance self-survival and its offspring's survival, part of which includes figuring out the ways it resists the new pathogens it confronts in this unique environment while still reproducing."
The three-week sojourn to Africa included field work like observing and counting the birds in their flocks, trapping them and drawing blood for subsequent analysis.
"It was a terrific opportunity to show what I can do," said Cooper. "I feel like I really contributed by setting up the nets, handling the sampling and working with the team to organize our collections. Labels are everything in science because if the labels are bad, the data is unreliable."
Cooper and O'Brien's participation in the expedition was partially sponsored by a College of Science and Technology research grant and Cooper was one of 11 Scholar-Citizen Highlander in Action award recipients for 2013. The award is granted to support RU students' pursuit of transformative learning experiences such as study abroad experiences, international internships, domestic internships and community-based learning or scholarship.
"I was impressed with the techniques she brought on the trip and it was super apparent that Laken knows how to do science," said O'Brien.
To O'Brien, science doesn't happen in a vacuum and Cooper's experience was part of a targeted independent project, or research opportunity, that enabled her to address a global scientific need in ecophysiology, a new subset of science that incorporates viewpoints and perspectives from different disciplines to answer complex questions. In this case, the question under study is what behaviors, metabolic reactions and reproductive adaptations make the house sparrow able to adapt and flourish on five continents. The team, of which Cooper and O'Brien are part, hope to publish their findings in the peer-reviewed publication of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.
Learn more about Radford University at www.radford.edu.