Published: Aug. 1, 2016
Group photo of students from the Research Experience for Community

As a former gymnast, Shala Wallace is used to being flexible. This summer, a unique research internship at CU Boulder put that attribute to the test in a whole new way.

“Safe to say I hadn’t thought about studying tree cores very much before,” the Red Rocks Community College student says. “I learned that field research requires a lot of manpower and a lot of early mornings.”

Wallace, a first-generation college student, is one of 10 participants in this year’s Research Experience for Community College Students (RECCS) program, a nine-week scientific internship designed to give community college students from around the state hands-on experience in environmental science disciplines such as hydrology, geology and ecology.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and now in its third year, RECCS pairs students with mentors from the Institute for Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) in order to pursue avenues of interest or pick up new skills.

All 10 RECCS students, collectively representing Front Range Community College, Red Rocks Community College, Arapahoe Community College, Colorado Northwestern Community College and Community College of Denver, presented the results of their research to their peers and the public on Friday, July 29 on the CU Boulder campus.

For Wallace, who recently moved to Colorado in order to transition into a scientific career, the program gave her an opportunity to dive in right away. Working high in the Rockies at CU Boulder’s Mountain Research Station, she helped researchers analyze tree core samples in order to study how drought can affect various species.

“All the great experience I got this summer is now part of my future,” says Wallace, who will enroll full time at CU Boulder in the fall and plans to major in physiology.

Scott-Wesley Bean, a student at Arapahoe Community College, got a chance to cut his teeth in the mountains, too. After starting down a pre-med track years ago, he bounced around to a few different Colorado schools while honing in on what he really wanted to do. When he heard about the RECCS program via an advisor, he jumped at the chance to apply even though he had little in the way of research background.

“I only had a passion for biology and science, and the RECCS staff couldn’t have been nicer,” he says.

Under the guidance of CIRES research fellow Noah Fierer and graduate researcher Tess Brewer, Bean’s project focused on bacteria populations – specifically, the spore-forming microbes found in mountain soil. He collected samples from north-facing and south-facing slopes of Gordon Gulch north of Nederland, Colorado, then compared them in the lab using the results of a genetic sequencing analysis.

“The computer science part was a huge learning curve for me, but now I understand it so much better now,” he says.

Bean plans to enroll at a four-year college to finish his bachelor’s degree in biology, with an eye toward graduate school later on.

“I am in love with this stuff,” he says, adding that he feels bittersweet about his RECCS stint coming to a close. “I want to volunteer or get a job in a lab now just so that I can continue in this field. It’s the first time I’m studying something that I really care about.”