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From the Fall 2018 Edition of Discovery

Science on Display

Dr. Gene Miller Life Science Garden Laboratory sows seeds of learning

(Above) Workers prepare the irrigation system for the Dr. Gene Miller Life Science Garden Laboratory on the south side of the new Life Sciences Building.

(Above) Workers prepare the irrigation system for the Dr. Gene Miller Life Science Garden Laboratory on the south side of the new Life Sciences Building.

Photo courtesy M. Muffoletto

A lot of biology happens outside, says USU Biology faculty member Lauren Lucas. “We do our best to provide authentic research experiences,” says Lucas, an instructor for introductory biology courses as well as a capstore evolutionary biology class. “But how do you get nearly 1,700 students outside each semester?”

The answer? An experimental garden just steps outside of the classroom. Thanks to generous support from a company that carries forward the legacy of the late Gene W. Miller (1925-2017), Aggies will have the opportunity to participate in hands-on learning right outside the new Life Sciences Building.

From left, USU alums Paul Urzagaste, BS’15 of A&D Landscaping and Doug Viehweg, BS’07 of USU Facilities, discuss the garden’s WiFi capabilities and irrigation system with Biology/Ecology Center faculty members Lauren Lucas and Zach Gompert.

From left, USU alums Paul Urzagaste, BS’15 of A&D Landscaping and Doug Viehweg, BS’07 of USU Facilities, discuss the garden’s WiFi capabilities and irrigation system with Biology/Ecology Center faculty members Lauren Lucas and Zach Gompert.

Photo courtesy M. Muffoletto

Dr. Miller, a USU alum (BS’50, Soil Chemistry), who became a Utah State professor and 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. Baicor was subsequently acquired by the Brandt Group, which donated funding for the new Dr. Gene Miller Life Science Garden Laboratory.

“Our BIOL 1615 and BIOL 1625 sections draw students from at least eight colleges throughout campus,” says Lucas, lecturer and lab coordinator in USU’s Department of Biology and the USU Ecology Center. “Not all of these students will become scientists, but each needs to develop a basic level of scientific literacy.”

In the past, she says, students have expressed dissatisfaction with overly guided lab activities -- so called “cookbook labs” -- and the lack of projects with live organisms.

“The new garden remedies this need,” Lucas says. “With outdoor, experimental plots, we can design, and have students participating in, a long-term experiment with living plants and insects.”

Dr. Gene W. Miller (1925-2017), World War II veteran, USU alum and former head of USU’s Department of Biology, in a 1996 vacation photo.

Dr. Gene W. Miller (1925-2017), World War II veteran, USU alum and former head of USU’s Department of Biology, in a 1996 vacation photo.

Photo courtesy Miller Family

Measuring about 20 feet by 40 feet and located on the south side of the Life Sciences Building, the Miller garden features six experimental plots. Lucas, with her colleagues and students, recently planted alfalfa (Medicago sativa), raised by Lucas’ students, in the plots.

“We chose alfalfa, because it grows in the wild locally and because it is a prevalent crop in Cache Valley,” she says. “In addition, alfalfa is an organism used in research programs by many faculty in the Department of Biology and across disciplines at Utah State.”

Lucas’ students will examine how plant diversity affects biodiversity, from the bacteria growing on the roots to the insect pollinators.

“The garden will allow students to experience both basic and applied research,” Lucas says. “Students will use equipment used by professionals in the field of biology to collect and analyze data, including irrigation equipment, weather stations, molecular tools and and statistical analysis software.”

Facing south from the new Life Sciences Building, from left, Biology staff assistant Katriel Cloward, faculty member Zach Gompert, doctoral student Tara Saley and faculty member Lauren Lucas plant alfalfa in the newly completed Dr. Gene Miller Life Science Garden Laboratory.

Facing south from the new Life Sciences Building, from left, Biology staff assistant Katriel Cloward, faculty member Zach Gompert, doctoral student Tara Saley and faculty member Lauren Lucas plant alfalfa in the newly completed Dr. Gene Miller Life Science Garden Laboratory.

Photo courtesy M. Muffoletto

Lucas says the garden plots will offer a lot of teaching and research flexibility.

“We can manipulate the plants in each plot to directly test hypotheses,” she says. “For example, we can examine drought tolerance by varying supplies of water. We can cover some plants to provide protection from pests, but not others. We can apply treatments to some and not others. We can observe the plants’ responses. That’s the coolest thing about this garden.”

Lucas envisions opportunities for Biology researchers to collaborate with scientists throughout campus.

“The garden will provide extremely valuable learning opportunities for our students and expose them to a wide spectrum of scientific disciplines.”

“Plants were Dad’s passion,” says Miller’s son, Mike Miller, Baicor president. “A teaching garden is a wonderful tribute to his legacy of research and education.”


By Mary-Ann Muffoletto

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