Wildebeest
Wildebeest graze near one of McNaughton's fenced plots. He compares soil and plant samples from inside and outside the plots.
                       

      On any given day, the lab can be brimming with research activity. Sam McNaughton, a soft-spoken, easygoing, and gracious man with a quick smile, instills his enthusiasm for original research in students and revels in their progress. He also brings his thoughtful perspective on the fragile environmental front to the classroom, sharing insights in his Conservation Biology course on such topics as endangered ecosystems, population biology, and biodiversity. "He really loves what he is doing and his excitement is contagious," says Corey Baumann '99. Last year, biology majors Baumann and Nancy Alphin '99 took McNaughton's Physiological Plant Ecology course and did a research project comparing the effects of flooding on the Serengeti grass species, Panicum coloratum, which is found in the valleys and plains. Using propagated plants from the greenhouse, they conducted flooding experiments on their samples in the growth chamber. The key, they learned, was in the root systems. The lower elevation sample, accustomed to flooding, had thicker, more hollow roots, transferred nutrients better, and had a higher photosynthesis rate. The sample from the plains was thin and grew fast, but died almost immediately once it was flooded. "Even though they're the same species, we learned they evolve differently depending on where they're located," Alphin says. Their results surprised even McNaughton. "It was research no one had ever done," he says. "I find it very satisfying when undergraduates learn that research isn't some great mystery."
african_tree      Bill Hamilton '92, G'99, who earned a doctoral degree this past spring studying under McNaughton and is now a postdoctoral researcher in the department, says getting his hands dirty doing research as an undergraduate biology major shifted his entire career direction. "Until I went to the greenhouse for the first time, what I learned had always been from a textbook," he says. "After that, I was hooked." He is also one of numerous undergraduates who've had scientific papers published with McNaughton, and one of nearly two dozen graduate students who've received doctorates under McNaughton's guidance. Hamilton worked with McNaughton and former SU biology professor James Coleman to craft his knowledge in the molecular aspects of ecosystem processes. It all came together in his dissertation, in which he examined the reaction of four different Serengeti grass species to soil sodium. The most tolerant one, common in grazing hot spots, actually exudes salt crystals on its leaves, Hamilton explains, but it doesn't endure grazing as well as the other species. "It suggests there's a trade-off between being grazing tolerant and sodium tolerant," Hamilton says.
      As Hamilton and biology professor Doug Frank both point out, McNaughton provides a wonderful nurturing environment. He has high expectations for graduate students and requires them to develop projects independently, but is always there for advice. McNaughton also reminds them to keep the big picture in mind. "He has an incredible amount of professional integrity and it's important for students to see that," Frank says. "He doesn't get distracted and really teaches you how to keep your eye on the ball."
      That, of course, is what McNaughton has done from the start—and the results are obvious. "It's been a good run, and I feel very fortunate," he says. "I have a job I love."

                 


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