Biology student’s pioneering spirit earns first research award from Centra

Dr. Reed, Katie Ferguson and Linda Fink
Dr. Les Reed, president of Centra Medial Group, with Katie Ferguson ’17 and her research advisor, Linda Fink of Sweet Briar’s biology department.

Katherine “Katie” Ferguson ’17 has been named the inaugural recipient of a research prize created last year by Centra Health System’s Centra Medical Group through a partnership with Sweet Briar College.

Ferguson, a biology major and chemistry minor from Hampstead, N.C., won the 2016 Centra Award for Excellence in Student Scientific Research and Collaborative Innovation for her project “Mapping the Density and Distribution of Hydrilla verticillata in Sweet Briar College’s Lower Lake.” Her work was selected by the College’s Honors Committee, which evaluated proposals submitted by students.

Dr. Les Reed, president of Centra Medical Group, presented the $500 prize to Ferguson on campus Wednesday, May 3. President Phil Stone of Sweet Briar officiated the brief ceremony.

Centra established the annual award in August 2016 to reward a student researcher from Sweet Briar for a completed project in the areas of science and technology or science and medicine. The company, based in Lynchburg, is a regional health care system serving more than 380,000 people throughout Central and southern Virginia.

The prize, according to its mission statement, is part of an “evolving partnership” with Sweet Briar. It provides Centra the opportunity to “support the work of students from a local institution, while advancing technological innovation and medical applications of student research.”

Dr. Les Reed congratulates Katie Ferguson ’17 at the Centra award presentation.
Dr. Les Reed congratulates Katie Ferguson ’17 at the Centra award presentation.

At the time of the August announcement, Reed said, “This award signifies the true collaborative efforts between a community health care system and an outstanding local academic institution. Excellence in science, technology and medicine will improve the fund of general knowledge and eventually the clinical care we deliver to the people of Central Virginia.”

Projects with potential for future exploration, application in the fields of medicine or technology, or that are multidisciplinary, are given greater weight in the completion.

Ferguson, who undertook her initial research as her Honors Summer Research project in 2016, turned in a compelling proposal, says history professor Kate Chavigny, chair of the Honors Committee.

“Katie’s project had everything they asked for,” Chavigny said. “It was collaborative, it was original, and it forms the basis for subsequent research — it’s just good stuff.”

Hydrilla verticillata is an invasive water plant that has taken hold in Sweet Briar’s Lower Lake, straining the ecosystem and impacting recreational activities. Last summer, the College introduced sterile grass carp to control the plant.

Ferguson, with Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink advising her, set out to devise survey methods that the Sweet Briar biology department can use to monitor changes in the hydrilla over time. Her tools? A canoe, a modified five-gallon bucket, a GPS unit and a drone.

She spent the summer first inventing, then deploying a “biomass sampler” (the bucket) to measure the hydrilla’s density, and flying a drone to map its distribution using aerial photography and GIS software. She also conducted a point intersect survey by canoe to measure the percentage of the lake infested with the plant.

Part of the goal of the award, Reed stressed Wednesday, is to build community relationships that grow local talent in science, medicine and technology — and it doesn’t matter which path students take.

Katie collecting hydrilla samples
Katie Ferguson collects hydrilla samples from Sweet Briar’s Lower Lake in summer 2016.

“The concept of this was collaborative and innovative and the things that Katie’s done … [fixing] the drone, getting the biomass sampler, getting out on the lake and then having it not work — all of that was exactly what we had in mind,” Reed said. “[In the sciences] and my own work in clinical investigations — that’s how problems get solved. People move forward and learn from what they’re doing.”

Ferguson continued collecting her data through this semester and presented her findings last week at the biology senior symposium. Then came the news that she won the Centra award.

“I am thrilled that I won,” said Ferguson, who plans to work at a local animal hospital before applying to veterinary school in the fall. “It’s a wonderful feeling to see the research I poured my heart and soul into getting recognition.”

Stone opened Wednesday’s presentation with a declaration on that very point.

“We don’t think there’s anything better, frankly, than being able to recognize significant undergraduate research,” he said, noting that at schools known for research, undergraduates don’t always get opportunities to work on projects of significance.

“We try to here because we’re small enough that we can make it personal. We have faculty members who are so motivated, they’re willing to encourage and oversee work by students who get involved in research instead of waiting for graduate school.”

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