Author: Michelle [Shelly] Hillman
Date: July 21, 2017
Categories: Academics|Biology|Mathematics

A professor crouches with two students on the boardwalk spanning Moss Lake - just a couple of miles from campus - studying a plant that has made its home in the water. Dr. Jason Bintz, assistant professor of applied mathematics at Houghton College, discusses the unique shape that inspires its name: pitcher plant.

Bintz and two Houghton students – juniors Brielle Kwarta of Pittsford, NY and Ben Reber of Brockport, NY – are studying the pitcher plant as part of Houghton’s innovative Summer Research Institute. They join eight other major research teams that combine faculty expertise with hands-on experiential learning, taking students’ knowledge beyond the classroom.  

The northern pitcher plant, or Sarracenia purpurea, is the only variety of this carnivorous plant that grows in the northeast region. Small hairs near the opening of the pitcher keep fallen insects from escaping, and existing organisms living inside the plant feed on them. The decomposition of these creatures provides a small portion of the plant’s nutrients, as it largely survives off nitrogen in rainwater collected in the pitcher itself.

The goal for Bintz, Kwarta, and Reber is to create a model that allows them to use the plant’s physiology to indicate the rainwater’s nitrogen concentration, which is associated with pollution and air quality. The more nitrogen in the rainwater, the less the pitcher needs; a higher pitcher plant size partially indicates an increased nitrogen level. By taking measurements of the widths of the plant opening alone and in comparison to the fin (the leaf portion) and using optimal control theory, a mathematical optimization method, they can predict how much nitrogen is in the acid rain that falls.

Current methods of determining nitrogen levels are expensive, so this bioindicator method would reduce costs, make the process more convenient, and allow for scientists to more accurately understand and even calculate elements of acid rain. Previous studies have indicated that the physiology of pitcher plants is an indicator of atmospheric nitrogen; Bintz’s team hopes to make precise how such measurements would make a prediction.

It’s a truly interdisciplinary approach, drawing on biology and mathematics, allowing the students to sharpen their skills in all these areas and equip them for future studies.

“SRI is a good stepping stone for my further academic study in math ecology,” says Kwarta. “It has been a rewarding experience learning about these interesting carnivorous plants that live right near Houghton at Moss Lake!"

The Summer Research Institute has offered unique research opportunities for more than 100 students since its 2007 inception. In 2016 SRI was named one of the Top 50 Best College Summer Programs in the Country by Best College Reviews, joining Ivy League schools such as Columbia and Yale.