Senior digs into ‘messy science’ for final research project

Camila Delgado Montes ’13 has dedicated her final semester at Vassar to researching the viability of seeds in deer pellets. She believes this field research will prepare her for a future career in ecology. Photo By: Katie de Heras/
Camila Delgado Montes ’13 has dedicated her final semester at Vassar to researching the viability of seeds in deer pellets. She believes this field research will prepare her for a future career in ecology. Photo By: Katie de Heras/
Camila Delgado Montes ’13 has dedicated her final semester at Vassar to researching the viability of
seeds in deer pellets. She believes this field research will prepare her for a future career in ecology. Photo By: Katie de Heras/

Camila Delgado-Montes likes her science messy, and it shows in her research.

Not many would enjoy spending time mucking around in the field collecting deer scat and dissecting it under a microscope, but Delgado-Montes said she found it enjoyable enough to spend over a semester doing just that.

Her ongoing research, specifically a preliminary review, involves the viability of seeds after going through the digestive system of deer. The bulk of her project should be completed by the end of the semester, but other aspects of it will continue further. Her goal is to determine which types of seeds can survive going through deer’s digestive tracts and still germinate.

“I collected deer scat from three locations around campus,” said Delgado-Montes, who had a poetic way to talk about deer scat. “I broke apart the deer poop and made it grow.”

She started preliminary research the first semester of this year, when she read research on deer and collected the scat to put into cold storage. Cold storage was an important step in this project; it stimulated winter and allowed seeds to germinate.

Delgado-Montes is well-versed in growing and collecting deer poop, and working with deer in general. She has spent the past three years working on various deer related studies, from the Undergraduate Research Science Internship (URSI) she undertook as a freshman with Assistant Professor of Biology Lynn Christenson, to the independent research she undertook last semester, as well her current research. She described her current prelimary review as a culmination of three years of work.

Delgado-Montes’s research, combined with other student research and the research of Christenson and Associate Professor of Biology Margaret Ronsheim, comprises a larger project about the Vassar deer. Students such as Delgado-Montes are resources that professors disposal to facilitate their own research.

In terms of her actual work in the lab, Delgado-Montes said she did end up spending plenty of time taking pictures and working at the microscopes.

“Mostly I sit at a microscope and break apart deer pellets and keep breaking them apart until I find a seed,” said Delgado-Montes.

Finding the seed is the all-important end result of dirty days spent searching for deer scat. The viability of the seeds and whether deer are good vectors for transporting seeds, some of which could become invasive species, is all part of this project.

Delgado-Montes went on to explain that she chose to do independent research rather than a thesis because she did not start independent research during her sophomore or junior year. While beginning to undertake research early is important for science students who intend to do theses, but Delgado-Montes had other priorities.

“I had other goals in mind rather than a senior thesis,” said Delgado-Montes. “I wanted to try research but I also wanted to try other classes at Vassar.”

She went on to talk about the benefits of taking different classes as a biology major. All students must take at least a quarter of their classes outside their major division, and Delgado-Montes found her niche in a diversity of classes outside her major, particularly in the arts.

She credited her choice to diversify her course load as something  that has helped her succeed in her current research, even when she was in lab for long stretches of time. Delgado-Montes has a strong background in studio art which, according to her, made illustrating some of her findings much easier.

“I spent my time checking on my plants,” said Delgado-Montes. “A set of drawings was done every day. It was nice to have been someone with a studio art background that can use creative diagrams.”

“I am really grateful for being here because I had the opportunity to take things like anthropology and art classes,” she said.

Being trapped in a lab is one of the things Delgado-Montes tried to avoid in her pursuit of messy, outdoorsy science, but sometimes even outdoorsy ecologists have to take their work to the lab.

While Delgado-Montes’s research goes about studying the effect of deer on plant viability, ultimately she said it is about growing as a scientist.

“There is very little control over the factors,” she said. “So mostly it’s just an experiment in learning how to prepare and organize an experiment.”

But she explained that this is how she prefers it. The unexpectedness of the results and the uncontrollable factors are some of the very things that Delgado-Montes loves about ecology. Studies such as cell- and molecular-biology, which are very lab-based, are not for her.

“I wouldn’t be appropriate for cell bio,” said Delgado-Montes. “[Cell biology] is mostly just sitting in the lab, which is why I really enjoy ecology, because there is also a field aspect of it.”

Delgado-Montes intends to find work in ecology after graduation, perhaps working in a lab or with environmentalism, though she plans to take a few years off before ultimately heading to graduate school. Though she does not know where her studies will take her just yet, all of her goals involve ecology and big-picture science.

Delgado-Montes, who is Bolivian, found herself inspired to become involved with ecology by watching the conservation in the Andes and Amazon as a child. While others in her family took various approaches to conservationism, such as Delgado-Montes’s mother, who advocates for indigenous peoples in the Amazon, Delgado-Montes was alone in her desire to become a ecologist.

“I was the only one in the family who thought science was the way we should go about it,” said Delgado-Montes. “I’ve also always been an outdoor person and it was pretty easy to fall in love with nature and what’s out there.”

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