COURTESY OF JOSHUA WILLMS
In 2012, Christopher Rodriguez, a student at Texas Tech University (TTU) and a newly minted TTU/Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Research Scholar, called his father Chris to tell him how excited he was about his fieldwork studying trees in the arid Davis Mountains near Fort Davis. “Well, that sounds boring,” the senior Rodriguez, a computer engineer, remembers thinking. Yet his son’s enthusiasm and gift for explaining scientific concepts soon ignited a spark of interest in the father. “He had a way about himself to get people really excited about science, particularly about the stuff he was working on,” Rodriguez’s father says.
COURTESY OF JOSHUA WILLMSLike many of the students in what is now the Center for the Integration of STEM Education and Research (CISER) Undergraduate Research Scholar program, Rodriguez planned to attend medical school, even though he was also enrolled in the college of education. Fascinated by the physics of water transport in plants, Rodriguez joined forces with his mentor, plant ecologist Dylan Schwilk, to investigate how the drought tolerance of oak resprouts, the young plants that grow back after adult trees have been consumed by fire, might compare with that of mature trees. Rodriguez spent the summer before his junior year making long trips with Schwilk to mountainous field sites. During their long drives they discussed education and research, and Rodriguez peppered his mentor with questions while quickly learning how to work in the field.
In October 2012, a few months into the project, Rodriguez was gravely injured in a motorcycle accident. Rodriguez’s father was stunned by the dozens of students who came to visit his son in the hospital. Several said that Christopher had helped them pass exams they would have otherwise failed by putting aside his own work to study all night with them. Despite the stream of well-wishers, Christopher died on October 6, three days after his accident. After his death, the community of undergrads with whom he had shared his passion for science and research decided to honor his memory by completing the project he had started.
I wanted the students to be able to heal, and the science way of doing that would be to preserve a piece of Chris’s thought and actions from the research that he was doing.—Joshua Willms,
former TTU/HHMI scholar
“I wanted [the students] to be able to heal, and the science way of doing that would be to preserve a piece of Chris’s thought and actions from the research that he was doing,” says former TTU/HHMI student scholar Joshua Willms, who organized the effort. Schwilk was skeptical about how the enthusiasm of Rodriguez’s student colleagues would play out in the lab, yet Willms found a way to involve the scholars in every part of the research. “Most of the time it was very simple things like resetting a temperature sensor or running a centrifuge, but everybody got to do some of the things that Chris had been doing and would have done,” Willms says.
Many of the undergrads lugged water to the field site, cut stems underwater to maintain the proper water pressure in the twig, and brought them back to the lab. There, other students cut the stems into segments slightly wider than the diameter of a standard pencil and flushed them with water to get rid of any gases in the water-transporting xylem tissue. They then spun the stem segments in a centrifuge to simulate water deprivation, creating increasingly intense drought conditions with faster spins that allowed the students to quantify how the plants respond to ever-drier conditions. Schwilk recalls peeking into his lab one day to see half a dozen undergraduates, most of whom he didn’t know, scurrying around in lab coats, ferrying oak stems between water containers. “I just retreated to my office,” Schwilk recalls. “I didn’t want to get in the way.”
The results, collected by Schwilk’s undergraduate student Tailor Brown with the help of Willms’s team of scholars, revealed that oak resprouts shuttle water through their xylem tissue more quickly than their adult counterparts, which transport water more slowly through thinner vessels, making the adult oaks highly drought resistant. The findings are “on the cutting edge” of the new understanding that drought tolerance can change throughout a plant’s life, says Anna Jacobsen of California State University, Bakersfield, who first saw the work presented at the Ecological Society of America meeting in August 2014.
At the time, Jacobsen did not know about the small army of undergraduates who contributed to the project, but she says that their involvement provides a powerful lesson for mentors and researchers. “Typically, our response as academics... is that the students who come to us have to be passionate about the research that they’re doing,” she says. “To have students that are passionate about a project not because of the research, but because of a person.... I think is really powerful.”
“I loved being a part of a group that came together to honor a loved one in that way,” Graysen Ortega, one of the students who contributed to the project, wrote in an e-mail to The Scientist. Saba Nafees, a student who spent an hour talking with Rodriguez about his research shortly before the accident that cost him his life, says that Rodriguez’s passion for his research not only inspired her to organize his memorial service, help connect people with the research effort, and recruit her friend Brown to the project, but also motivated her to work harder in her own research endeavors. The students who worked on the project told her “they all feel very uplifted and feel like they’re learning and contributing to something larger than life,” Nafees adds.
“I see students inspiring one another,” says University of Portland professor Amelia Ahern-Rindell, the current president of the Council on Undergraduate Research. “I see them helping each other over hurdles.” She’s not surprised by the healing power of contributing to research in memory of a friend, but she still thinks “it’s just incredible that the students came together to support one another in this way.”
For Rodriguez’s family, it was “very humbling and very exciting” that his schoolmates took it upon themselves to finish the work he had started, his father says. The listing of Rodriguez as an author when the work is presented at conferences has also made him very proud.
The students’ tribute remembers a young man with a noticeable passion for education, science, and research. “He was just exclaiming with delight at the end of a weekend trip,” Schwilk says of Rodriguez. “He didn’t realize that there were so many unknowns and that there was so much mystery in science.”
Correction (June 4): This story has been updated from its original version to correctly reflect that Christopher Rodriguez conducted fieldwork in the Davis Mountains near Fort Davis, not the Franklin Mountains near El Paso. The Scientist regrets the error.