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Published Thursday February 15, 2024

Living The Best Version Of Yourself – Part Two with Stacey Weiss

By Cynthia Blockburger, Lindsey Intern, SARSEF

Haven’t read part one yet? Find it here!

We wanted to know more about Professor Stacey Weiss and her mentorship with STAR Lab. Stacey shares that she is a faculty member at a small liberal arts college and does not have graduate students. All of her research is done in collaboration with undergraduate students and a wonderful lab technician who helps to keep things moving when she is deep into teaching during the academic year. She goes on to state that “STAR Lab students have been a great addition to my research team. I’ve been a STAR Lab mentor for three years now, and each year, students’ projects have built on those before them. In most cases, their projects help validate new methods being developed by my undergraduate students.”

I asked Stacey, in what ways did your participation in field research encourage and foster your curiosity? (i.e., cultural knowledge, background knowledge). She says, “Surrounding yourself in nature and focusing on observing the life around you…it is easy to stay curious! Why are animals doing this or that? How do their eggs survive in those nests with no parental care?” It was clear to me that Stacey is not only passionate about mentoring the “whole” student but also her love for animals in nature and the biomes that they survive and thrive in.

Stacey shares that her current research study is on the behavioral and microbial ecology of a lizard found in southeast Arizona, southwest New Mexico, and down into Mexico – the striped plateau lizard, Sceloporus virgatus. I was initially attracted to these lizards because they represent an “exception to the rule” re: sexually dimorphic ornamentation. In this species, the females are more ornamented than the males. I’ve studied the function and regulation of this ornament, with a focus on sexual selection theory.

Stacey goes on to share a small slice of her fantastic research journey.

About 10 years ago, an anecdotal observation and casual hallway conversation turned me down a path studying the microbial ecology of this lizard. The females lay eggs into soil burrows at the start of the summer monsoon season. They cover over the nest site and leave, providing no further parental care. The eggs stay in the nest for 6-8 weeks, exposed to all sorts of potential soil pathogens with no apparent protection. My colleague, Dr. Mark Martin, suggested that perhaps bacteria from the mother’s cloaca transfer to eggshell during egg-laying and provide antifungal protection. We have now rigorously tested this hypothesis and found support.

With STAR Lab students, I am trying to get a better understanding of the mechanism by which the bacteria ward off fungi. One possibility is that they produce chitinases, which are enzymes that break down chitin. Chitin is a primary component of insect exoskeleton as well as fungal cell walls. Thus, bacterially produced chitinases can help the lizard digest its meals as well as kill the fungi invading its eggs.

Stacey shares so much excitement with her research and mentoring students. One unexpected outcome/quality that she has learned about herself by being a mentor is guiding students through the ups and downs of authentic research experiences has not only honed my problem-solving and communication skills but has also deepened my commitment to supporting their growth, fostering a sense of perseverance that extends beyond the laboratory, and cultivating a positive and empowering learning environment for all students.

So, how does Stacey stay motivated to continue “reaching for the stars?” I’m driven by the research questions and find inspiration in continuous learning. There is never an end in sight to the fascinating questions one can ask about nature! I am driven by the relationships formed with students and the impact of a transformational research experience on their lives. They may not all go on to become research scientists – which is just fine! The skills and confidence that come from engaging in research are generally applicable and can help them in whatever career they opt for. Being part of their journey from uncertainty to confidence brings me immense satisfaction and pride.

My last question for Professor Stacey Weiss ended with a mentoring flare! I asked, what is your superpower mentorship strength? Her response…supporting students!

About SARSEF’s Lindsey Intern, Cynthia Blockburger

Cynthia Blockburger is a highly qualified science teacher and mentor and is currently entering the final phase of her Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Arizona. She is also the Vice President of the College of Education Deans Graduate Advisory Board. In 2022, she was awarded the English Language Arts Title One School’s highest teacher-performer award for the Arizona Academic Standard Assessment. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Science and Mathematics from California Polytechnic State University-San Luis Obispo and a Master’s in Education from The University of Arizona. She is a passionate educator with over 19 years of experience working with diverse students in grades K-20, specializing in STEM and English Language Arts. Over the years, Cynthia has developed various robust and diverse science curricula by state and national standards. In doing so, she has extended and fostered positive mentor and mentee relationships with students. As a first-generation graduate student, she has worked in various graduate associate positions, such as with Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Under the direction of the University of Arizona Dean Berry and Associate Dean Reyes, Cynthia has provided academic and administrative leadership to support programs in the College of Education, liaised between the college and all campus colleges/divisions, and served crucial roles in research. One of her many goals has been to continue diversifying available programs, such as the AACTE Holmes Scholar Program, to meet the needs of the extended community of learners. She has also worked with Dr. David Moore, Dr. Sara Chavarria, and Dr. Corey Knox to survey the UA campus landscape to identify where field-based or experiential programs could be more inclusive and provide a better student experience from historically marginalized backgrounds. Cynthia’s work supports research and commitment to Equal Opportunity, Diversity, and Inclusion, research findings, and possible solutions for raising awareness among mentors and organizers of field-based research, curricula, and academia. As a first-generation college graduate, she aims to empower students to love obtaining knowledge and develop the joy of striving for academic excellence with a solid foundation for learning.