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Oles honored at Minnesota Academy of Science symposium

By Bradley West '13
July 2, 2012

Recent St. Olaf College graduates (from left) Caroline Groth '12, Sarah Mitchell '12, and Christina Herron-Sweet '12 took top honors for their presentations at the Minnesota Academy of Science's Winchell Undergraduate Research Symposium.

For the past 24 years, the Minnesota Academy of Science has invited undergraduate students to present their research findings at the Winchell Undergraduate Research Symposium. At this year's symposium, top awards went to research projects presented by three St. Olaf students.

The award winners were Sarah Mitchell '12, Caroline Groth '12, and Christina Herron-Sweet '12.

Mitchell, who graduated in May with a biology degree, won a second-place award for her research poster presentation on map turtles. For the past two years and with the support of St. Olaf Associate Professor of Biology Steve Freedberg, Mitchell has done extensive fieldwork and in-depth research on the evolutionary processes of these freshwater turtles.

By closely examining several species and generations of map turtles, Mitchell discovered that divergent feeding patterns allow different species of turtles to remain distinct, in spite of the expectation that the species hybridize.

Psychology major Groth was awarded top honors for her research on the feelings of closeness that married couples experience as they discuss problems in their relationship. Groth's interest in this topic began when she took part in a project with the Center for Interdisciplinary Research. She and several other students examined Assistant Professor of Psychology Minda Orina's data on the ways married couples discuss their problems.

Last fall she continued to work with this data set as part of an independent study experience supervised by Orina. Groth eventually found evidence that the length of a relationship positively affects the feelings of closeness experienced by married couples. She presented these findings at the symposium, and now hopes to publish them in an academic journal.

Herron-Sweet, who graduated with majors in environmental studies and music, won the award for "Best of Session in Paper Presentation" for her extensive research on the brook trout population in Rice Creek. She began studying the creek, which is home to the only naturally reproducing population of native trout left in all of Rice County, with the guidance of former St. Olaf faculty member Stephanie Schmidt; Associate Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies John Schade; and Associate Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Chair Paul Jackson '92.

By examining the food web of this ecosystem, Herron-Sweet discovered that the population of trout is able to survive and reproduce throughout the year by relying on terrestrial sources of food salvaged from an otherwise polluted environment. She hopes that this finding will help other ecologists learn to rehabilitate and protect this vital native species.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or