SDState alumnus Mallory Malecek, who graduated in May, is one of 14 students chosen nationwide to receive the Young Botanist Award from the Botanical Society of America. The competitive national award recognizes top students in the plant sciences based on their academic and research achievements.
“This means a lot. It’s really exciting and a tremendous honor,” said Malecek. The St. Peter, Minnesota, native majored in ecology and environmental sciences and minored in botany. Next summer, she will begin a one-year secondary education program enroute to becoming a high school science teacher.
Assistant Professor Maribeth Latvis of the Department of Natural Resource Management, who is a member of the Botanical Society of America, nominated Malecek. “Her ability to synthesize what she’s learning is above and beyond what I would expect,” said Latvis. “In addition, she has a strong research component to her education here.”
Professor Lan Xu, Malecek’s academic and research adviser, said, “She has a lot of research capabilities.” Xu recruited Malecek as an undergraduate research assistant and an undergraduate teaching assistant for her principles of ecology class.
"She is one of the best students I have ever had,” Xu said “Mallory has the ability to reason through problems in a way that ties things together that are challenging for other students, and she’s so organized and good at time management. She is highly motivated and strives for excellence.”
As an undergraduate teaching assistant, Malecek held office hours for students to come in for help. “That light bulb moment is really rewarding—that’s what got me started thinking about teaching,” she said. But she added, “What I learned [doing research] is not what I would have learned in the classroom. It is so much more hands-on, critical thinking and application.”
Malecek looked at how the availability of nutrients affects invasive species in grasslands. She tested varying levels of nitrogen, one of the most limited nutrients, added to smooth brome grass, an invasive species, and western wheatgrass, a native grass. Each species was grown with its own kind to examine intraspecific competition and in mixed pairs to test interspecific competition within the grasslands ecosystem.
“The idea was to see if there is a nitrogen level at which native western wheatgrass can outcompete an invasive,” Malecek explained. Though the tested nitrogen levels did not go low enough to reach that threshold, she did find that the lower nitrogen level impacted the invasive species when grown with its own kind.
“With the lower treatment, smooth brome was hindered by intraspecific competition,” Malecek said. “It is such a strong competitor that it was fighting itself; the invasive essentially chokes itself out.” However, in similar circumstances, the native wheatgrass is unaffected. “Native species are used to more limited nutrients,” she said.
For this research project, Malecek won third place in the combined undergraduate and graduate student poster competition at the 2017 annual South Dakota Academy of Science Conference.
Though further research is needed, this study provides insight about the impact of nitrogen deposition in grasslands, according to Xu. “Invasive species take advantage of nutrient-rich areas, while native species are more hardy.”
Malecek added: “It was a great learning experience.” As a high school teacher, she plans to use experiments such as this to help her students learn about research. “The more experiences you can expose them to, the better prepared they are for the future.”
“Undergraduate research is one of the most impactful practices for student success,” Xu concluded.