Teaching & Learning

Listening to Trees: USU Blanding Scholar Pursues Environmental Chemistry Research

From field to lab, NASMP participant Kailee Tohonnie learns techniques for investigating organic pollutants affecting Utah's forests.

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto |

USU Blanding student Kailee Tohonnie, center, demonstrates her proficiency with an instrument in a USU environmental chemistry lab to Professor Kim Hageman, left, and doctoral candidate Calvin Luu. (Photo credit: USU/M. Muffoletto)

What can trees tell us? A lot, says Utah State University Blanding scholar Kailee Tohonnie, who is among nine undergraduates participating in USU’s 2023 Native American Summer Mentorship Program. The students traveled north from southeastern Utah to Logan in order to participate in the annual program, which provides an immersive introduction to four-year degree programs in a range of disciplines.

Tohonnie has been working with mentors Kimberly Hageman, who is a professor, and doctoral student Calvin Luu in USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, on an environmental chemistry project aimed at learning how to extract data from tree leaves to determine the behavior and fate of organic contaminants in the environment.

“Things like pesticides and other pollutants travel through air and water and affect plants and animals,” says Tohonnie, who recently completed an associate degree in applied science in general studies. “I’ve been learning how chemists collect and analyze information from trees that indicate the kinds and amounts of pollutants they’ve been exposed to.”

Step one, she says, was hiking with Hageman and her student lab members around the mouth of Cache Valley, Utah’s Green Canyon, to collect leaf samples.

“Dr. Hageman asked us to collect leaves from maple and juniper trees, sagebrush and one ‘mystery’ tree,” Tohonnie says. “The mystery tree could be anything we chose, so we collected samples from a tree with lots of flowers and big leaves.”

Back at Hageman’s lab, Tohonnie is learning to use varied techniques and instruments to chemically analyze the samples.

“We ground up the leaves and froze them with liquid nitrogen to create powdered samples that allow us to extract lipids from the samples,” she says. “Lipid extraction is an important technique in studying a plant’s accumulation and storage of organic contaminants.”

Tohonnie demonstrated use of the Hageman Lab’s EDGE instrument, an automated extraction system used to streamline extraction and analysis of environmental contaminants.

The 2022 graduate of Whitehorse High School in Montezuma Creek, Utah, has visited a number of labs and classrooms covering varied disciplines during the NASMP program, including ecology, microbiology and nursing.

“We also toured the Water Research Lab at the mouth of Logan Canyon, visited the Caine Dairy Farm and learned about the making of Aggie Ice Cream, and the Aggie Chocolate Factory,” she says. “We got to taste samples — that was pretty cool.”

Tohonnie, who is pursuing a second associate degree in surgical technology, says visiting USU’s Logan campus has introduced her to varied opportunities in academic study and research that she’ll consider as she contemplates career options in health care.

“I think microbiology would be an interesting study path,” she says.

Beyond academic pursuits, Tohonnie is an avid basketball and volleyball enthusiast who also enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, skiing, paddleboarding and ice skating. Oil painting, she says, is another interest.

Tohonnie and her fellow NASMP participants will share their research experiences Tuesday, June 13, from 9-10:30 a.m. in the Biology-Natural Resources Lecture Hall, BNR 102. All are welcome.

About that mystery tree?

“I’ll explain it during my June 13 presentation,” Tohonnie says.

USU NASMP scholar Kailee Tohonnie collects leaf samples in Utah's Green Canyon for analysis in Professor Kim Hageman’s chemistry lab. Tohonnie and fellow students present research Tuesday, June 13, 9-10:30 a.m. in BNR 102. (Photo Credit: USU/K. Hageman)


Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Public Relations Specialist
College of Science


Hannah Wilson
Lead Facilitator
Native American Summer Mentorship Program


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