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Grad student mentors young ecologists

May 21, 2007

Kevin McCluney knows what a difference one person can make. Even the quote by Helen Keller that accompanies his e-mail highlights how important this philosophy is in his life: “I am only one; but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; I will not refuse to do something I can do.”

As a doctoral student in the laboratory of John Sabo, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences, McCluney is an ecologist investigating the role of water availability on animal community structure. It is a career choice that might never have taken shape.

Growing up in Cocoa, Fla., McCluney often had to make his own opportunities to explore his interest in biology. It wasn't until a summer program for high school students was started and run by James Yount, a professor from the local community college, that McCluney had his first exposure to the study of ecology and his first understanding of the difference that mentorship can make.

“Up until then, I didn't know anyone with formal training in biology or ecology,” McCluney says. “My world came alive during that special class.”

Like his mentor, McCluney has made education and community outreach a priority during his graduate career. For the past two years, he has volunteered as a graduate mentor in the Southwest Center for Education and the Natural Environment's (SCENE) Research Experiences for High School Students program.

SCENE is a nonprofit organization administered out of the Global Institute of Sustainability that bridges the research programs of ASU to the community. Each year, SCENE pairs exceptional high school students with mentors in research labs at ASU. SCENE's students first learn the basics of experimental design, data analysis and research methods before working with mentors to design an original research project to be presented at the Central Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair (CARSEF).

This year, one of McCluney's students, Puja Umaretiya, a senior from Chandler High School, won the Senior Division Grand Award at CARSEF.

During her second year in the SCENE program, Umaretiya built on the training and experience gained with McCluney the previous year to set up her award-winning project: a complex, original study examining the effect of cricket hydration levels on rates of cricket predation by wolf spiders. Using ideas drawn from “Ecological Stoichiometry,” a text co-authored by Robert Sterner and School of Life Sciences ' professor James Elser, McCluney and Umaretiya developed a design that maximized results and statistical power within the confines of her schedule. Over the course of three weekends, she examined the effect that water could have as a limiting resource in the context of prey consumption at low hydration, as well as a quenching effect at higher levels of hydration.

Umaretiya found that spider consumption of crickets is maximal at intermediate levels of hydration with rates of consumption lower at very high and very low levels of cricket hydration. The resulting curve suggests that there are trade-offs between the effort involved in catching crickets and the resulting hydration payoff.

Umaretiya's project not only earned her the grand prize in the senior division at CARSEF, but also first place in the animal sciences division, the Navy Naval Science Award and the Army Award. McCluney and Umaretiya also received congratulatory notes from ASU President Michael Crow.

Umaretiya will advance to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, to be held in Albuquerque, N.M., May 13-19. The grand prize is a $50,000 scholarship.

Next year, McCluney plans to continue his role as a SCENE mentor. While McCluney's work with the SCENE program builds on the future of ASU as the New American University, his commitment to building the next generation of scientists continues the legacy of personal involvement modeled by McCluney's mentor back in Cocoa, Fla.