Spring 2019 Academic Symposium Highlights: Research & Reporting

© Western New Mexico University

Student: Aundrea Romero


Student: Aundrea Romero

Major: Environmental Sustainability & Biological Science

Year: First year @ WNMU, third year in college


For this year’s student academic symposium, environmental sustainability and biological science major Aundrea Romero decided to run an analysis of the saltcedar plant population and growth within the Grand Canyon and how this invasive species has impacted native fauna and flora. “Hikers and other tourists that visit the Grand Canyon have been unknowingly spreading this intrusive plant throughout the Grand Canyon by stepping on the plant and spreading its buds down the Colorado River or further into the park,” she said.

Introduced into North America from Germany in the early 19th century, the saltcedar was brought to the U.S. for ornamental home adornment and quickly began to spread throughout intermountain regions of the U.S., including areas of Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

In presenting her research findings, Aundrea explains, “The saltcedar’s roots travel so deep into the ground that is choking out other vegetation causing massive instances of erosion at a rapid rate while forcing animals to find other areas to burrow or nest.”

Aundrea’s analysis determined the average elevation in which saltceaders thrive is 24 meters (78 feet) within a 2.5 km (1.6 miles) average distance between clusters of saltcedars and the Colorado River, important information to understand in order to locate and eradicate the species. She found that saltceaders tend to favor runoff areas which they most likely find as buds in large groups during monsoon season, those buds then propagate into very dense clusters, having a negative impact on the surrounding wild.

“This species is so invasive that its introduction into new areas can completely shift the characteristics of the land within two to three years,” she said.


Students: Erin Moss, Kaitlyn Rutherford & Cristiana DuBose


Students: Erin Moss, Kaitlyn Rutherford & Cristiana DuBose

Major: Erin Moss, Phycology; Kaitlyn Rutherford, Psychology; Cristiana DuBose, Psychology

This year, these psychology majors focused on analyzing the effect of mortality salience on cognitive abilities, specifically, how people deal with thinking about their own death and how these thoughts or reminders impact one’s ability to function on a day-to-day basis. “Going into our experiment, we felt that an individual would have a far higher cognitive ability score when constantly reminded of their own doom,” said Moss.

Using two groups of test subjects, one experimental group represented the mortality salience and a control group representing anxiety. Each group was provided a writing prompt and asked to respond to a specific question. The experimental group was asked to write about the emotions they feel when promoted with concepts representing their own death and the control group was asked to jot down any anxiety-related feelings when prompted with reminders of death.

“After we had them write for a while, we had our subjects fill out a word search as a way to get the concept of self-mortality into their subconscious, followed by an assessment aimed at testing their cognitive functions through math, grammar and science,” explained Rutherford.

The experiment found no discernable difference between the experiment and control group and concluded the size of their sample was far too small to record any meaningful data. Additionally, they concluded the age groups within each sample may have been too far apart and that some younger subjects may not have participated in an honest way, having an impact on the cognitive test results.

“We feel this type of research could be important for companies designing HR management policies like determining when the right time for an employee to come back to work following a family death or other catastrophic event,” said Rutherford.


Abel Lazzell


Student: Abel Lazzell Student: Abel Lazzell

Major: Zoology 

Year: Sophomore


As an avid hiker and lover of the outdoors, Zoology major Abel Lazzell decided to study the availability of water on certain sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. At a distance of more than 2,300 miles, the trail runs from Mexico, through California, Washington, Oregon and into southern Canada, running mostly through National Forest and protected wilderness.

“I’m planning on hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this summer and I wanted to know what I was going to get myself into through a section network analysis,” said Lazzell.

Through his research, Lazzell identified 13 different sections along the trail without access to a water source, with each section averaging 16 miles in length. One section in particular between Willow Spring to Joshua Spring spans 43 miles without any access to a source of fresh water. “Knowing this information is critically important for hikers because getting caught out there and not realizing that you’ve passed your last chance to get water could mean real trouble,” he said.

His goal is to take his results and include them in Pacific Crest Trail hiker forms to alert hikers preparing for the 2020 hiking season and possibly recruit others to add additional information to his data.

As Lazzell prepares for his hike along the Joyner Trail section of the Pacific Crest Trail on May 12, he’ll have plenty of water and



Michael Malloy


Student: Michael Malloy

Major: Medical Technology   

Year: Sophomore


For his research project, WNMU sophomore and medical technology major Michael Malloy wanted to play with fluorescence and how to engineer yeast to glow, specifically, how to make his micro-brew glow. “I used a green fluorescent protein gene that was extracted from a jellyfish and then worked to engineer the yeast to accept that gene,” explained Michael.

Michael worked to change the polarity of the yeast’s cell wall to encourage the yeast to accept the introduction of the new protein gene, in essence, bioengineering the gene’s competency to accept each other through chemistry. Once the yeast’s chemistry was altered enough to accept the new protein, it would start to produce a bright green protein. “How cool would be to have basically a bright glowing beer?

But beyond the cool factor of a baseball stadium glowing with beer, Michael’s vision is to see this florescent used to identify and follow a fungus through a system, with the ultimate goal of adapting this protein to act as a marker for biomedical research.

According to Michael, “we could potentially use this method as a means to follow a fluorescent marker throughout a system using just a special pair of protective glasses and a blue light.”

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