Parkland, UIUC to host advanced biology, chemistry research program

Peter Floess

Staff Writer

Parkland College and the University of Illinois will host a 10-week paid research program this summer where students work with Parkland and U of I professors to conduct research at the latter’s labs.

This program is known as the Phenotypic Plasticity Research Experience for Community College Students, or PRECS.

Phenotypic plasticity “is how a system might change in respon[se] to an environment,” says Parkland chemistry instructor C. Britt Carlson, who helped create PRECS. Carlson gives the example of “if a plant was introduced to a high ozone environment, what changes is the plant making to accommodate to its new environment.”

PRECS is funded by the National Science Foundation, a federal agency which works to advance non-medical research at colleges around the country, along with Nathan Schroeder, an instructor of crop sciences at the U of I Urbana-Champaign.

Schroeder adds to Carlson’s description of phenotypic plasticity, saying it is “the study of the interaction between genetics and the environment.”

PRECS covers most research topics in biology, says Carlson.

“It is pretty general, which is pretty great, because that means it can accommodate the biggest number of students possible,” he said.

To apply to PRECS, a person must be a community college student, an American citizen or a permanent resident. It is open to any community college student across the country.

In addition, a student must have passed General Biology I, which is Biology 101 at Parkland. It is preferred a person has also passed General Chemistry I—Parkland’s Chemistry 101.                    

Non-science students can apply if they meet the requirements for PRECS and have “a compelling story” for applying, Carlson says.

The program also encourages students from a diverse array of backgrounds to apply.

The first two weeks of PRECS are at Parkland, where participants are trained in basic lab skills. The latter eight weeks are at the UIUC, making use of the university’s resources, namely its advanced laboratories and specialist professors.

“Each participant joins a research lab at the University of Illinois to conduct a project in that lab’s specialty,” Schroeder says. “The focus of each lab is different. For example, the lab of Alison Bell is studying behavior in fish, while the lab of Lisa Ainsworth is examining the effect of climate change on crop productivity.”

Other labs involved in PRECS include Schroeder’s own, which studies the changes in neurons—brain cells which serve as the senders and receivers of electrical signals throughout the body—resulting from stresses in the environment.

Another lab involved in PRECS is May Berenbaum’s, a study of “how natural and synthetic chemicals affect interactions between plant-feeding insects and the plants they consume.”

Schroeder and Carlson created PRECS because, according to Schroeder, they wanted “students to get hands on experience doing scientific research.”

“[M]any students learn about science from formal coursework alone. While coursework is important for delivering content, it doesn’t truly capture the scientific process,” Schroeder said. “Traditionally, students at community colleges have fewer opportunities to participate in cutting-edge research than their peers at four-year institutions. PRECS provides such an opportunity. Beyond this, we will be thrilled to see participants in PRECS use the experience as a springboard to additional work in scientific research.”

Students who take part in PRECS get a $5,500 stipend. The NSF grants last for three summers for ten students, but Carlson hopes the grants will be expanded beyond those three years. The deadline for applications is March 15.

For more information about the PRECS visit their website, precs.igb.illinois.edu, or email Carlson at bcarlson@parkland.edu.