Green House Springs Back to Life

Built in 1947 and closed in 1997, the greenhouse on Summit Avenue has been renovated to accommodate soaring enrollments in the sciences. Here, greenhouse manager Steve Trost waters plants in the renovated structure. Andy Moy ’11 and his lab partner checked the growth of their experimental plants three times a week, making the greenhouse a…

Built in 1947 and closed in 1997, the greenhouse on Summit Avenue has been renovated to accommodate soaring enrollments in the sciences. Here, greenhouse manager Steve Trost waters plants in the renovated structure.

Andy Moy ’11 and his lab partner checked the growth of their experimental plants three times a week, making the greenhouse a regular part of their semester. Moy was testing the effects of simulated herbivory on growth rates and flower production on 16 otherwise identical plants. He removed half of each leaf of his experimental group, trimming each leaf a couple of times a week to simulate the feeding effects of animals such as white-tailed deer. And theirs was just one of the more than 100 student projects in the greenhouse when Moy took the introductory biology course. When asked about the value of that early hands-on experiment, he said it was a popular lab with students, and it taught him about how scientists do their research and write scholarly reports. Now Moy works collaboratively with Amy Verhoeven in her research lab, studying light-harvesting proteins in leaves. Moy is a good example of the link between experimental work in a class and research with a faculty mentor – the interplay of research scholarship and classes.

All students majoring in biology use our greenhouses – one on the south campus and the renovated one on north campus – for their research projects measuring plant growth under different testable conditions. Students in our non-majors conservation biology class also learn the basics of plant biology in our greenhouses. When you walk in our greenhouses, you see row after row of short, white, square boxes, each with a plant growing inside and the experimental conditions and the student researchers’ names scribbled on the outside. It looks like graffiti, but each tells the story of a project.

Preparing the next generation of critically thinking, morally responsible leaders in the sciences requires lab spaces of many kinds. The renovated greenhouse at the John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts (JRC) gives St. Thomas one more tool for teaching future scientists and helping to create a scientifically literate population.

A little over a decade ago St. Thomas opened the state-of-the art Owens Science Center, creating a place for programs, such as biology, to conduct nationally recognized research with undergraduates, to teach creative and investigative courses and to provide a space that enhances interactions with other programs. That was the plan, and it succeeded. Over the last decade, enrollments in the sciences and engineering have quadrupled, and declared science majors have doubled. Several new collaborative programs sprung up,including neuroscience, biochemistry and environmental science. In addition, the biology program collaborates with the health and human performance and teacher education programs; their students often use the greenhouses. A decade ago the biology introductory course for science majors had 157 students. Last fall, the course had 372 students. Biology outgrew its space years ago and it continues to seek creative ways to offer a program that is second to none and accommodates growth, which is where the renovated greenhouse comes in. The improved facility helps meet the needs of the introductory courses while supporting faculty-student collaborations.

Student-Faculty ResearchStudents like Moy are doing research with faculty that is being funded by the top granting places in the country and published in top journals. Two St. Thomas biologists, Verhoeven and Simon Emms, received a substantial five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to examine the evolution of reproduction in the genus Clarkia, a western flowering annual plant. They and their team of St. Thomas students have used one of the three rooms of our Owens greenhouse for planting and pollinating thousands of plants, which is an exciting example of the kind of collaboration that has brought in more than $1 million dollars in outside grants over the last couple of years. Parts of this greenhouse research have been published in science journals, the effects of the labs in the introductory classes are part of pedagogical publications, and the impacts on student lives can be profound.

Albert Kertho is a senior biology major who will graduate in December. A native Ugandan, he grew up on a farm raising corn, cassavas, chickens and ducks. There, he became interested in improving agriculture to help reduce starvation. At St. Thomas he took a Plant Biology course two years ago from Verhoeven, and loved the subject. With her, he has used the greenhouse to research photosynthesis, studying proteins in the leaves of conifers (gymnosperms) and comparing them to flowering plants (angiosperms), such as pumpkins. Kertho said that a typical day of research involved harvesting and grinding leaves, extracting proteins, making gels, running gels and interpreting gels. He repeated that at least 50 times over the summer. Mentored research has taught him important biological techniques and shown him how to interact with other scientists professionally and through the journals. And it has opened his eyes to many opportunities, giving him the tools he will need when he returns to Uganda and helps improve its food situation.

Outgrowing One GreenhouseTeaching students in class is one of our core missions, but so is mentoring them in viable, current research. The Owens greenhouse facility was more than maxed out; what could we do? In retrospect, the answer seems self-evident.

Greenhouse manager Steve Trost suggested a return to the JRC greenhouse on Summit Avenue, which was abandoned when the Biology Department left JRC for Owens Science Center over a decade ago. At first, it was hard to see how that could work. When biology representatives first viewed the site, it was full of construction materials for the new athletic facility. There were holes in the plaster walls, a few light bulbs dangling from the ceiling and only memories of how it once was used. However, in Trost’s eyes there was also a clear vision of what the space could become and how it could help our introductory courses.

It would be impossible to list everyone who helped plan and develop the greenhouse, or to estimate the number of meetings, but even a short review gives a sense of the complexity of the work. Jerry Anderley and Jim Hoffman from St. Thomas’ Physical Plant managed the work. Kurt Dale of Anderson Dale Architects Inc. created the design, and Craig Larson of Opus Construction provided the project management to turn paper plans into bricks and mortar, or in this case, glass and steel. From all of that work grew one of the finest greenhouses in the Twin Cities.

Restored to its classic five-sided shape with new thermal glass, the greenhouse is more energy efficient than before its renovation. As you approach it from the outside, it looks relatively the same. The new windows, which are more transparent than previously, reveal a variety of luscious plants and flowers. Inside, however, everything is different. A greenhouse used for research is not just glass on a frame over some dirt with a handy hose. A modern greenhouse lab has to maintain preset temperatures and light for photosynthesis. It also must keep relative humidity to very demanding preset levels while recording the data for verification and be able to deliver precise amounts of water to plants through a trickle-feed system. Brick pavers allow for drainage and functionality. Small, wall-mounted computers control the environment. Automatic louvers release summer heat and floor vents chill the air. Overhead misters raise the relative humidity with a tropical-like fog. Large grow lights and other heaters supplement what passes for the sun during Minnesota winters.

Just getting to the inside of the greenhouse will take you through a completely renovated lab where plants can be prepared and managed. Vintage 1950’s lab benches were replaced with modern research lab tables. The space will support some upper level classes in botany as well as greenhouse functions, such as potting plants and treating disease.

My research lab occupies JRC’s lower level. While far from the rest of the Biology Department over in Owens Science Center, my lab does have easy access to the greenhouse and is adjacent to a loading area for field equipment. My students and I have been conducting research with painted turtles from a local lake. We are following their winter movements under the ice in a Twin-Cities metropolitan lake and in the spring will monitor the turtles’ nesting sites. The lab provides a great area for working on field equipment as well as for poring over data and preparing conference presentations.

A Community GardenTeaching and research are just two of the areas of the university’s mission. Service to others makes a third. Under the leadership of Adam Kay, Biology Department, and with the help and support of the campus Sustainability Committee and Biology Department faculty members Chester Wilson and Trost, St. Thomas opened a community garden last spring. The Stewardship Garden seeks to provide food for local food shelves where fresh garden produce is often hard to get. Last summer it provided more than 200 pounds of produce. Through that effort, several students will have opportunities to research the ecological principles of biodiversity as they apply to urban food plots. The renovated JRC greenhouse will support that effort by providing a place for seedlings and for some of the student research work.

This renovated greenhouse seems to have everything but a name. Campus development officers continue to seek people who want to partner with us in this challenging and gratifying form of education.

Neighbors walking along Summit Avenue and members of the St. Thomas community stop when they see me at the greenhouse to tell me how beautiful it is and how happy they are to see it restored to life with plants inside. Along with our Owens greenhouse, it helps us teach biology, conduct research on plants and provide food for the community. Not bad for a space smaller than most people’s homes.

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