Brandon Heitz is on the road to a career in sports administration, but that didn’t stop him from enrolling in an undergraduate biology course that put him face to face with snakes, frogs, lizards and a slew of other amphibians and reptiles. Along with his classmates, Heitz authored and published species descriptions for three Philippine lizards — a responsibility not typically entrusted to undergraduates.
Heitz, who has since graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a degree in biology, opted for an immersive and hands-on class with Cameron Siler, Ph.D., the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History's assistant curator of herpetology and assistant professor of biology at OU, in spring 2015. Like many students in the class, Heitz didn’t plan for a career working with creatures that shimmy and slither, and he never imagined he’d co-author a professional manuscript describing a new species, but he says he’s all the better for it.
“This shows you’ve had a unique experience, no matter what field you’re going into,” he said.
That was one of the goals, Siler explained. He wanted to give his students — many of whom are in a pre-medicine or pre-veterinary track — an unexpected, eye-opening experience in biology that they couldn’t get anywhere else. That’s why he split his class into three teams to tackle species descriptions for three Philippine lizards discovered by museum researchers and housed in the museum’s herpetology collection.
“This herpetology research provides them a really neat opportunity to not only get out in the field and explore, but to do real research and follow through on a project that would end in a publication for them,” Siler said. “This exposes them to the scientific writing process and peer review, and without this, they’d have no exposure to this kind of experience.”
The groups, each composed of about seven students, were tasked with researching their respective species, all in the genus Brachymeles and part of a species complex of small, stub-limbed burrowing skinks from Lubang Island, the northern Philippines and Tablas Island. They met deadlines throughout the semester, attended lectures about writing mechanics, created outlines for their projects, attended labs to examine the species and describe their holotype specimen, named the new species, and went through the peer review process.
One student even created scientific illustrations for all three species using a Wacom tablet and Adobe Illustrator software, based on specimen photos taken on the StackShot photo system used by the museum’s invertebrate paleontology collection.
Over the summer, all manuscripts were published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Zootaxa and are now available for anyone to view online, thanks to support from the National Science Foundation and OU's Office of the Vice President of Research. This kind of research, made possible through a current National Science Foundation grant, fits perfectly into the university’s mission to enhance undergraduate research across campus, Siler said.
The published species descriptions also benefit the Sam Noble Museum because students were able to chip away at the herpetology department’s queue of species that were waiting to be described.
“We find this new diversity and we end up sitting on stuff in a backlog because we just can’t work quickly enough to have everything described,” Siler said.
For Josh D. Kouri, a senior biology major, the undergraduate research experience will help propel him toward a career as a wildlife biologist. Kouri, who is applying for graduate schools, can show he’s a published author who understands the process of writing a scientific paper.
“I was so excited when I learned I'd get to publish a new species description as part of Dr. Siler's class,” he said. “I don't think many professors would be willing to let undergrads be equal contributors on a paper like this, let alone provide as much help and mentorship as Dr. Siler did.”
Not only that, but the project instilled confidence in him and his ability to complete his graduate school work.
“My experience in this project really underscored how much I enjoy learning about the amazing wildlife we share the planet with,” Kouri added. “There are so many incredible creatures just waiting to be discovered. Writing new species descriptions is the first step in ensuring our planet's amazing diversity can be protected for generations to come.”
Elyse Ellsworth, who graduated from OU in May 2016 with a degree in biology, said the experience will give her a leg up applying for graduate schools and prepared her for the kind of work she’ll do in grad school.
“It opened the door to say, ‘OK, this is how you do real science. This is how you do a professional paper. This is how to get ahead of the game,’” Ellsworth said. “You can do these things before you actually get into grad school and it’s time to publish that big grad school project.”
And for Heitz, he was amazed that he and his classmates had no guarantee their hard work would be published — and that’s a reality for any researcher who writes a scientific paper for publication.
“We stepped into the role of writing, field collection and determining that these papers should even be written. … Just the fact you’ve done all the steps and you still have to sit and cross your fingers that it’s accepted somewhere — that was definitely an eye-opening experience to me on how academia works,” he said.
Jessa Watters, collection manager for the herpetology department, worked with Siler and his class and was pleased to help offer a career-advancing opportunity to students that also was built into their coursework.
“I think doing it through a class makes it even more special in some ways, because they got to do something while also getting credit that they needed to graduate.”
Find supplemental course materials at cameronsiler.com/biol4083-docs-2015/.
Geheber, A.D., D.R. Davis, J. L. Watters, M.L. Penrod, K.D. Feller, C.S. Davey, E.D. Ellsworth, R.L. Flanagan, B.D. Heitz, T. Moore, M.D.C. Nguyen, A. Roberts, J. Sutton, M.B. Sanguila, C.W. Linkem, R.M. Brown and C.D. Siler. 2016. Additions to Philippine slender skinks of the Brachymeles bonitae complex (Reptilia: Squamata: Scincidae) I: a new species from Lubang Island. Zootaxa 4132: 1–14. DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.4132.1.1 Available at: www.mapress.com/j/zt/article/view/zootaxa.4132.1.1/6605
Siler, C.D., D.R. Davis, E.S. Freitas, N.A. Huron, A.D. Geheber, J. L. Watters, M.L. Penrod, M. Papes, A. Amrein, A. Anwar, D. Cooper, T. Hein, A. Manning, N. Patel, L. Pinaroc, A.C. Diesmos, M.L. Diesmos, C.H. Oliveros and R M. Brown. 2016. Additions to Philippine slender skinks of the Brachymeles bonitae complex (Reptilia: Squamata: Scincidae) II: a new species from the northern Philippines. Zootaxa 4132: 15–29. DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.4132.1.2 Available at: www.mapress.com/j/zt/article/view/zootaxa.4132.1.2/6607
Davis, D.R., A.D. Geheber, J. L. Watters, M.L. Penrod, K.D. Feller, A. Ashford, J. Kouri, D. Nguyen, K. Shauberger, K. Sheatsley, C. Winfrey, R. Wong, M.B. Sanguila, R.M. Brown and C.D. Siler. 2016. Additions to Philippine slender skinks of the Brachymeles bonitae complex (Reptilia: Squamata: Scincidae) III: a new species from Tablas Island. Zootaxa 4132: 30–43. DOI: 10.11646/zootaxa.4132.1.3 Available at: www.mapress.com/j/zt/article/view/zootaxa.4132.1.3/6606