Science Garden

The Dr. Gene Miller Life Science Garden Laboratory is an experimental garden for students in USU’s Department of Biology courses, as well as citizen scientists. Students analyze changes in the garden over time, and citizens discover biodiversity in the garden and beyond.

Data Gathered from the Garden

Weather at USU

Our History


During the planning of the new Life Sciences Building, we thought it would be awesome to have some of the outdoor space around the building reflect the research activity happening inside. In particular, whereas there are local research field plots that student scientists can visit, we wanted an outdoor experimental plot easily accessible for our undergraduate scientists to work in. A small team from the College of Science then started to make this idea a reality.

Summer 2018

alfafa map

First, in 2016, USU biologists, Zach Gompert and Lauren Lucas, as well as researchers from four other institutions received a five-year federally-funded grant to identify the key determinants of plant-insect-microbe interactions. Filling this gap in our understanding of the diversity of life might help us better predict how global change will affect eco-evolutionary dynamics, patterns of biological diversity, and ecosystem function. We are focused on insects and microbes associated with a human-introduced plant, alfalfa (Medicago sativa) -- where it has escaped cultivation and grows in both disturbed and relatively intact habitat, in particular. This “wild” alfalfa hosts a high diversity of insects and microbes. We are using a combination of observational science, experiments, DNA sequencing, and models to analyze the evolutionary and ecological significance of genetic diversity, phylogenetic diversity of microbiome assemblages, and functional variation.

As part of this large project, in summer 2018, USU researchers (including graduate student, Tara Saley, and undergraduate researchers) studied genetic differences among wild alfalfa populations and the effects these genetic differences have on plant traits and the herbivores that feed on the plants. The seeds used originally came from the following six alfalfa populations: Alpine, WY (“ALP”), north of Davis, CA (“APLL”), west Reno, NV (“AWFS”), Bonneville Shoreline Trail in Logan, UT (“BST”), Victor, ID (“VIC”), and Verdi, NV (“VUH”).


The plants were grown in a greenhouse. The plants were measured within the first few months of growth, and then were used to feed to caterpillars of three butterfly species, to answer the question: how does genetic variation of alfalfa affect the caterpillars that feed on them? Each caterpillar was fed plants from only one alfalfa population. Caterpillar weight was measured and survival was recorded. One thing we learned was that caterpillars of all three species performed better when reared on alfalfa from two populations in particular, APLL and VIC. We thought the plants from this experiment would be perfect for the Science Garden, since they are research organisms that come with a history of data.

Fall 2018

We choose six offspring from each of 30 alfalfa plants from the summer 2018 experiment to transplant into each of six plots (i.e., replicates) in the ~20’ x 40’ garden space. A small team transplanted these 180 plants into the garden on September 26. But before transplanting, the undergraduate students in the Biology I Laboratory course quantified variation in three traits across the six alfalfa populations.

By the way, the six plots can be added to blocks to account for any spatial variation in the garden (e.g., drainage differences). Treatments can then be assigned at random to the plots in the blocks. Plants were randomized within in plot because it is extremely difficult for experimenters to eliminate bias using only their expert judgement. Randomization is the most reliable method of creating homogeneous treatment groups, without involving any potential biases or judgement. This is why you see APLL6, for example, in a different spot in each of the six plots.

The garden received its official name, the Dr. Gene Miller Life Science Garden Laboratory. As stated in an article called Science on Display about the new garden, Dr. Gene Miller, the first head of USU’s Department of Biology, created Baicor, a plant nutrition manufacturing company specializing in liquid fertilizers for foliar and soil research. This company (now Brandt) donated funding for the garden laboratory, for which we are very thankful!

Spring 2019

Only seven of the 180 alfalfa did not make it through transplanting and their first winter outside. We replaced these plants with other seeds from the alfalfa “moms” that were collected for the summer 2018 study.

Summer 2019

Joe Shope has helped get this website off the ground. The garden is now receiving care and attention from the first Science Garden Assistant, Adair Schruhl. Also, you will see members of the Gompert lab in the garden this summer. They are including the plants from the garden in an experiment to see if they can predict how herbivores perform across alfalfa genotypes. I will add a link to the article about this work once it has been published. We also kickstarted our Citizen Science project related to this garden. USU, UPR, and the Herald Journal helped us spread the word to the community.

Fall 2019

Fall 2019 USU BIOL1615 students in Science Garden

Biology I Laboratory students measured the plants in the garden for the first time. To discover intraspecific variation, the nearly 900 students measured: plant height, leaf toughness, leaf area, herbivory, seed pods, seeds within pods, and insect counts. We surveyed students about their attitudes about science before and after this experience. Check out the results in our published paper: Lucas et al., 2020. We learned most students would choose to have another research experience after this one. In Fall 2019, we also welcomed our second Science Garden assistant, Jennifer Bryan.

Fall 2020

Biology I Laboratory students added to the alfalfa trait measurement dataset. And, for the first time, we analyzed the diversity of bacterial leaf endophytes across the garden. Students analyzed the evolutionary relationships among a handful of bacteria. We found the following abundances across phyla:

USU science garden leaf bacterial endophytes

Fall 2021

Biology I Laboratory students added to the alfalfa trait measurement dataset as well as the bacterial leaf endophyte diversity dataset. And, for the first time, students in the lab section dedicated to the Honors program analyzed patterns of fungal leaf endophyte diversity and abundance. Twelve plants did not survive the winter of 2020-2021. They were replaced with plants of the same population from Zach Gompert's research plot. Last, we welcomed new Science Garden assistants: Maddie Witte, Lexi Brown, and Sophia Withers.

Citizen Science: Anyone Can Contribute

View More Observations on iNaturalist

Cultivated and wild alfalfa is widespread, and a lot is known about this common plant. We are curious about the biodiversity found on alfalfa. Perhaps we will discover new interactions among organisms living on alfalfa. An example of an interesting interaction is between the Melissa blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa) caterpillars and ants. The ants defend the caterpillars from predators, and the caterpillars feed the ants sugar in return. Caterpillar survival on alfalfa is much lower when their ant mutualists are absent.

To contribute, make a free iNaturalist account and join the Bugs on Alfalfa project. Find any “bug” (arthropod or animal, really) on any alfalfa plant, take a clear photo of it, and upload it to the project by “Adding an Observation.” You can make an observation with your iPhone, Andriod, or the web. You will answer a few questions about your contribution. You do not need to know the species of the “bug” to contribute -- you can use this Alfalfa Insects guide to insects on alfalfa in the Great Basin to help you take your best guess. iNaturalist also provides suggestions for an ID. From there, members of the iNaturalist community will help confirm or narrow down your identification.

Bugs on alfalfa Colorwheel
Diversity found in the first year of this project. USU "Science Unwrapped" participants in Fall 2019 helped us organize the bugs by color.


Curriculum Materials

Measuring and comparing physical plant traits across years (Fall 2019 - 2021): Students quantified variation in various plant traits across populations of Medicago sativa (alfalfa) in the garden. Students watched this video (thanks to USU Academic Media Production) and analyzed plant trait variation using R. We surveyed students' attitudes about science after this experience in Fall 2019, and you can read about the results.

Discovery of bacterial leaf endophyte diversity and abundance patterns in the garden (Fall 2020 - 2021)

Last updated: June 2022