Portrait of student Jon Hayes in Herbarium

Jonathan Hayes ’21, Biology

September 3, 2020

Jonathan Hayes '21 is making the most of Bucknell's meaningful research opportunities. Photo by Emily Paine, Communications

Undergraduate research was one of my main considerations when thinking about where to go to college. That’s why Bucknell was my absolute top choice.

As a Pennsylvania native and the son of a nature conservationist, Jonathan Hayes '21 spent his childhood making a playground of the state parks, forest land, trails and rivers that form Bucknell's backyard. So when it came time to decide where he'd earn a degree in biology, the lifelong outdoorsman knew exactly where he wanted to study.

"Being invested in the local landscape is incredibly important to me, and growing up in a community so close to Bucknell made it a no-brainer," says Hayes, who was accepted as an Early Decision I applicant. "My intro science courses here immediately took me deeper into plant genetics and populations, which are aspects of conservation that I've always found cool."

But even more than a school with a strong science program, Hayes was looking for a place where purposeful undergraduate research is not merely possible but championed. As a Bucknellian, the biology major from Mifflinburg, Pa., has been pouring his passion for wildlife into a large-scale plant genetics project funded by the state's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Led by Professor Chris Martine, biology, Hayes is analyzing the genetic diversity of river oats, a native grass found along the Allegheny and Susquehanna rivers that's at risk of eradication.

In partnership with the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program and Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, Bucknell researchers acquired more than 150 samples of the plant from across the state. Hayes spent the summer between his sophomore and junior year hard at work in the lab, using high-tech equipment and an intricate three-hour pipetting protocol to extract DNA to be sent out for sequencing.

Portrait of Jonathan Hayes '21 sitting on bench

Jonathan Hayes '21, who hails from Mifflinburg, Pa., spent his childhood making a playground of the state parks, forest land, trails and rivers that border Bucknell. Emily Paine, Communications

"What we're looking to see from the DNA is how abundance or lack of breeding across populations has affected the plant's stability. Having a good mix of genes is beneficial for its survival, but maladaptive traits from inbreeding can potentially damage its genetic structure," he explains. "We expect to see some level of instability due to changes in flood dynamics, the growth of industry and the introduction of invasive species."

While river oat is considered "critically imperiled" by the Pennsylvania National Heritage Program, the state has yet to formally classify the plant as endangered. Its conservation is crucial because of the role its large root system plays in preventing riverbank erosion and providing stability for habitats. By building a bridge between academic researchers and ecological organizations, the river oats project aims to provide a scientific basis for direct action at the state level.

For a student like Hayes, the research is more than an opportunity to explore his interest in plant science through hands-on lab work he might not have done elsewhere. It's also a way to preserve the wondrous environment he calls home.

"We need to keep as many native species alive as we can so the ecosystems we have here aren't disrupted," he says. "Conservation has been a huge part of my life since childhood, and I hope the science I'm doing at Bucknell will help propel that work."


Our backyard is your laboratory