Understanding the consequences of sustained human population growth on human and natural systems is a research priority in both the environmental and health sciences. The University of California Conservation Genomics Consortium (UCCGC) has pioneered a novel solution to this research challenge that also provides a platform for recruitment and education in STEM fields for thousands of University of California (UC) undergraduates.
Spearheaded by co-PIs Robert Wayne (UCLA) and Beth Shapiro (UCSC) and with initial efforts supported by a system-wide grant from the UC President’s office, the UCCGC uses a highly sensitive molecular approach called environmental DNA, or eDNA, to catalog biodiversity in any ecosystem. The results can reveal the complete diversity profile of the ecosystem from microbes to mammals, generating a diversity baseline and, by sampling down a sediment core, allow reconstruction of changes in biodiversity over time. Biotic community diversity feeds back into human health through decomposition of waste, detoxification of pollutants, nutrient recycling and agriculture.
First, the education component of eSIE leverages social media, smart phone apps, field trips, and short educational videos to reach a broad undergraduate constituency (thousands of students) with the aim of improving scientific literacy and recruiting diverse students with a wide variety of interests in STEM fields (Tier 1). Second, this experience will be followed by a multidisciplinary course curriculum for a smaller number (hundreds) of first and second year students designed to introduce undergraduates formally to STEM subjects and guide them to advanced course work (Tier 2). Lastly, we will provide authentic research experiences and career guidance for a subset (<100) who have committed to a scientific vocation (Tier 3).
Ultimately, the program will generate a large constituency of undergraduates aware of the benefits of scientific research, many of whom will be motivated by their experience to enter and succeed in STEM fields.