Sagebrush isn’t the sexiest of plants, and may not be the sexiest of anything.
But for a former Minnesota State University student who went the extra yard with it, that humble growth has gained him and the school’s biology department a bit of academic limelight.
Michael Dyslin, who graduated in 2012, parlayed his findings on the Wyoming Big Sagebrush into appearances at prestigious undergraduate research conferences and co-authorship of an article in a professional peer-reviewed journal.
His former biology instructor Christopher Ruhland said an undergrad student receiving authorship on such a work is very rare, but in Dyslin’s case it was well-deserved.
“What Mike did was to go above and beyond in explaining why we found a relationship between ultraviolet levels in plants and their elevations.”
Moreover, Dyslin then took those findings he and fellow students gathered and effectively presented them in written form.
“Communication, gosh, that’s half the battle,” Ruhland said. “Effective communication skills is of paramount importance.”
For his part, Dyslin said research is wasted time if data and findings can’t be effectively communicated. And, he said, that communication becomes even more difficult when research findings must be condensed into summary form for conference attendees, a writing task he called “the No. 1 hardest thing — having to put it into a nutshell for countless numbers of people.”
By way of nutshelling the back story, the Rochester native and fellow upper-level biology students ventured out West two summers ago as part of a real-world learning Advanced Field Ecology class taught by Ruhland and MSU colleague John Krenz.
The class gathered data on how the sagebrush plants dealt with increased levels of ultraviolet radiation along differing elevation levels in Yellowstone National Park.
“We weren’t doing something Albert Einstein would do in finding a new equation; we weren’t doing something that hadn’t already been studied,” Dyslin said.
But Ruhland was impressed by the data set gathered by the students and approached Dyslin about following up on the group’s findings by employing some new instrumentation to gauge how much sunlight actually gets into a plant. The student jumped at the chance.
(As an aside, the aromatic shrub provides food and habitat for wildlife, was used by Indians for a variety of medicinal purposes and is the state flower of Nevada).
Ruhland said the practical application of such research has implications relating to how plants in general respond to increasing amounts of ultraviolet light reaching the Earth’s surface.
Plant exposure to ultraviolet light varies according to elevations. Most plant life will exhibit sunscreen-blocking characteristics to ensure their survival.
The study authors concluded that plant adaptation is one of the many codes of evolution, and the sage used in the study has adapted well to its various elevations because it has “learned” to evolve in its environmental constraints.
Ruhland said Dyslin diligently delved into the data that had been collected, analyzing it and making further measurements. Ruhland said the strong and conclusive results he achieved propelled him to present his findings at a host of conferences.
The article he co-wrote with Ruhland and Krenz was to appear in an issue of the Journal of Arid Environments.
Though that may literally be dry reading for most people, Dyslin hopes such exposure, combined with his research conference presentations, might eventually help him land his dream job as a field biologist.
“I think it gives me a huge advantage over someone who just comes out of college with a piece of paper.”