Undergraduate Summer Scholarship Sparks Year-Long Research Project

Written by Emma Price, Student Communications Specialist 

Photo of Alyssa Bley in the science lab.

Alyssa Bley may not be your typical scientist. But what is a typical scientist?

“I feel a little insecure at times about science,” Bley said. “It is hard; people say can you do it because I’m a girl.”

Bley, a Talawanda graduate, came one step closer to achieving her dream of a career as a scientist when she was awarded a Miami University Undergraduate Summer Scholarship earlier this year. She conducted research in Dr. David Berg's Aquatic Biodiversity and Conservation Laboratory, which brought opportunities beyond what she could have imagined

While Bley always had a love for science and animals, her academic journey started at Butler Tech in the School of the Arts where she pursued Theatre during her junior and senior years of high school. When it was time for her to start thinking about going to college, she turned her focus to science, as a biology major.

She hasn’t looked back since but the path has not been easy.

During the second semester of her first year of college, Bley found out she was pregnant with her son. She finished out the semester and decided to take the following semester off. “The flexibility of the Regionals helped a lot,” Bley said..“Being able to do online classes helped me get back into the routine of going to school.” 

After taking Invertebrate Zoology with Dr. Berg, Bley began working in the ABC Lab and Berg encouraged her to apply for a USS. The highly competitive awards are given to a select group of Miami students based on the quality of their research proposals. 

Photo of Alyssa Bley in New Mexico working on her research project.With the assistance of Ph.D. student Steven Hein, she identified a research topic: determining multiple paternity (the number of males contributing sperm) in broods carried by female mussels. The subject of interest was the Texas hornshell, an endangered species found in the Rio Grande and its tributaries in New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico. Male mussels release aggregations of sperm cells into the water, which are filtered by a female and fertilize egg cells to create larval mussels. The larvae are then brooded by the females for several weeks before attaching to fish hosts, where they develop into juveniles before detaching and settling in river sediments to grow to adult size and reproduce. 

For 20 years, Berg and students in the ABC Lab have collaborated with scientists from the New Mexico Department of Game & Fish to conduct research focused on conservation of the Texas hornshell and other invertebrate species. 

As part of her nine-week summer research experience, Bley spent two weeks working in southeastern New Mexico, where she gathered adult and larval samples from the Black River. The rest of her summer was spent utilizing molecular genetic tools in the lab to extract DNA and determine the number of males that fertilized the offspring of individual female mussels

After completing the research, which is scheduled to continue through the spring of 2020, Bley plans to present it at Miami’s Undergraduate Research Forum and at a national conference. She will then submit a manuscript for publication in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

The USS opportunity will have taken her through the whole research process: selecting a topic; writing a proposal to fund the research; collaborating with faculty, graduate students and other undergraduates to conduct the research and analyze the data and submitting her results for peer-review, all steps required of a scientist. 

“Miami Regionals faculty collaborate with students in disciplinary research in order to provide students the opportunity to develop as scholars in the natural or social sciences, the humanities, fine arts, education or business,” Berg said. “With the USS, Alyssa and other Regionals students have been able to experience the thrill of discovering new knowledge as part of their Miami education.” 

Bley, who plans to head to graduate school and study biology or ecology, encourages girls who have a passion for STEM to “just do it.” Find your passion and work toward your dream; you never know where it will take you.