Crawling into research: Biology major earns grant for snail study

Cameron Priester

Cameron Priester

As a teaching institution, Missouri Southern offers a great range of research opportunities throughout its disciplines.

One student in particular is exploring the natural impact through a very small part of campus: snails.

Carthage native Cameron Priester is a senior biology major with a conservation emphasis and a chemistry minor.

Throughout high school Priester wanted to pursue a career involving biology and conservation. He enjoyed documentaries and the television show Animal Planet. Naturalist Steve Irwin was also a big influence on him.

“I went out in the woods, and fell in love with nature,” Priester said. “The natural world and was around people in family that liked to be good stewards of the land, it all sort of came together.”

This semester, he began a research project with the help of Dr. Kyle Gustafson, assistant professor of biology and environmental health.

When Gustafson was a new faculty hire, Priester took his class. At the time, Gustafson wanted to get his students interested in projects he could assist them with.

He approached Priester about doing a project for an independent research credit, which would meet certain parameters. This research project was recently awarded a Prairie Biotic Research grant.

Knowing how important grants can be to research, Gustafson encouraged Priester to apply, and helped him through the application process.

Doing so would allow Priester new experience, and help him learn how to write applications. Once it was accepted, he received a $1200 grant.

Because Priester graduates this spring, the project had to be something they could finish within a semester. It also had to be something Gustafson had experience with. He had worked with genetics research, amphibians, reptiles, and recently aquatic snails.

Due to his chemistry minor, Priester was speaking with Dr. Lynell Gilbert-Saunders, associate professor of chemistry. He had mentioned that he works for the city of Webb City managing reclaimed habitats, working on remediation and cleaning up waste water in different areas.

Those conversations led Priester and Gustafson to decide to research if snails pick up heavy or harmful metals in certain concentrations proportional to the area they lived in.

Priester is using snails from Southern’s biology pond to conduct his research.

“When [the snails] are growing and developing,” he said, “they’re picking up certain materials from their environment, and ingesting certain foods like any other organism does, and certain things they ingest go to different parts of their anatomy.”

An example would be the calcium they ingest, which goes into their shells. Similarly, they can absorb other metals and lay them down like they would calcium ions in their shells.

“We believe how often that happens is consistent with the environment they’re in and how much of those materials they’re ingesting or exposed to,” he said.

In finding the amount of heavy metals within the snails, Priester said he hopes to use the information to determine how mobile snails are in the environment.

Additionally, he said it could give some insight to how remediation and reclamation projects have affected the area.

The main method used in the research project is atomic emission spectroscopy, which is a analysis that measures the intensity of light emitted from a material at a particular wavelength.

This determines the quantity of an element in the sample. The wavelength given identifies the element, while the intensity of the light is proportional to the number of atoms of the element.

Since this research project combines biology and analytical chemistry in a way Priester has not seen before, there are few resources that communicate methods designed towards this specific project.

“It’s stuff that has been done before, but not for this specific reason or in this specific way,” Priester said.

The research is still ongoing. Priester and Gustafson are looking at reference papers, but have not found anything that does exactly what they’re trying to do, so they are developing their own methodology and procedure.

“Cameron is very independent and can get a lot done without a lot of guidance. He has several characteristics of a good leader,” said Gustafson. “I have been very impressed with his dedication to the project.

“My favorite thing about working with him has been watching him persevere through the many challenges associated with a research project.”

Once the methodology is established, then they just have to run the numbers and plug them into the math.

Although he is interested in this topic, going into the project, Priester said he didn’t imagine many people expressing interest in the research since it focuses on snails.

He has translated the topic to real world applications through the effect mining has on the environment.

Priester has seen unexpected positive feedback from people. Many people are talking about, and have come up to him to discuss the project. He will also be participating in the upcoming research symposium.

Though there will likely be many people involved in the scientific field discussing his research at the symposium, he has tried to put an spin on the topic to interest those outside the field.

“It’s more the opportunity to see how I did and how people respond to the presentation of the information,” he said.

Priester said if he can draw interest people in this topic, then he finds that a success.

“Cameron is very independent and can get a lot done without a lot of guidance. He has several characteristics of a good leader,” said Gustafson. “I have been very impressed with his dedication to the project.

“My favorite thing about working with Cameron has been watching him persevere through the many challenges associated with a research project.”

Priester wants to work hands on with wildlife, ecology and possibly education.

“I want to be out in nature, doing something useful that will get tangible results that people will appreciate and make a difference,” he said.

The results from such work are really visible if you go out and do it right. He has learned from his job at Webb City, that with hard work and dedication, there can be great results, and improvement can happen even from year to year.

It could be as simple as noticing that an area didn’t look like this last year, or this animal wasn’t here before.

He would also like to get community involved and spread awareness.

“Manpower, participation and community involvement are really important to conservation and I think people around here appreciate it, but they don’t always know how they can help,” he said.

He said it would be nice to let people know they can help in small ways like picking up trash. It’s useful and appreciated.

He is appreciative of Gustafson, Gilbert-Saunders, and his boss Randy Hass, and his family.