Cynthia Gutiérrez Navarro has only been at the University of Detroit Mercy for a short time, but her resume is growing quicker than some of the invasive plants she studies.
The Biology major has already done three years of undergraduate research, presented at conferences, co-authored a scientific paper and recently became the first Detroit Mercy student to be awarded a Michigan Sea Grant (MISG) Environmental Internship and a MISG Community Engaged Internship this summer.
“I’m excited to gain valuable field experiences, empower my own research interests, and boost my growth as a researcher,” Gutiérrez Navarro said about being awarded the MISG internships. “These awards are an opportunity to explore my interest in molecular ecology and environmental health.”
Gutiérrez Navarro designed a project for the MISG that will allow her to expand on continuing Detroit Mercy research at Lake St. Clair Metropark in Harrison Township on the ecology of bioswales. Bioswales are vegetated channels that convey stormwater runoff and filter out contaminants.
In 2015, a $4 million green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) project rerouted the historical drainage of runoff from a massive 42-acre parking lot through a network of bioswales that converge on wetlands adjacent Point Rosa marsh and ultimately filter into Lake St. Clair.
The goal of Gutiérrez Navarro’s project is to characterize the impact that two invasive plant species are having on microbial communities as well as evaluate the capacity of GSIs to recover ecosystem services in urban environments.
Gutiérrez Navarro’s summer research is part of a collaborative-project by Detroit Mercy Associate Professor of Biology and Director of Sustainability Víctor Carmona, which identified that invasive plants in the bioswales were advancing ecosystem services by stabilizing Escherichia coli communities.
“E. coli and other fecal-indicator bacteria are a proxy for detecting the presence of potential pathogenic organisms like viruses, protozoan parasites, and bacteria that are harmful to humans”, Carmona said. “Bioswales are anthropogenic systems, and we’ve discovered certain plant species are able to stabilize pathogenic organisms. If we can identify how they are doing that, we can spur novel urban GSI designs that recover ecological function. Until recently, we all assumed GSIs worked with any green-scape, but now this type of ‘magical thinking’ is being challenged with integrative studies like ours.”
Gutiérrez Navarro will be studying the invasive plants during the growing season this summer, building on fall data that Carmona’s research students collected.
“Several private-sector environmental engineering firms have reached out to inquire about our integrative-science approach for identifying ecosystem processes.” Carmona said.
In order to find out how these processes work, Carmona says Gutiérrez Navarro is going to have to be creative and also bold.
“She’s going to have to make observations, come up with experiments to test ideas, and use data to inform novel strategies” Carmona said. “In my coursework, I’ve challenged Cynthia to design biologically relevant projects in dynamic field-conditions, and she excels at it.
“Co-authoring a paper as an undergrad means she’s able to use quantitative techniques and empirical methodologies to study biological phenomena in collaborative environments. That’s really important, field work is not easy. This type of creative space is really exciting and can also be quite frustrating if you don’t like learning from challenges, and Cynthia is fearless.”
Gutiérrez Navarro gained the tools to run this project because of the rich experiences she had in CURE-courses at Detroit Mercy.
CURE stands for Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience and are designed to take students out of the classroom and challenge them to problem-solve in real-world situations. Carmona has piloted several CURE courses for first- and second-year Biology students.
Gutiérrez Navarro took both CURE courses, and has had opportunities to study the water-stress of crop plants in a Detroit urban garden, prevalence of genetically modified food in Detroit supermarkets, the impacts of stormwater heavy-metal contaminants on plant growth, as well as the vector-ecology of insects that transmit a neglected tropical disease in El Salvador.
“Each time I finished an experiment, I was able to present my findings at research conferences, which gave me valuable experience sharing scientific findings with diverse audiences,” Gutiérrez Navarro said. “After taking Carmona’s courses, which always partner with community organizations to tackle real-world problems, I came to the realization that I can use my intellect and scientific degree to make transformative impacts in my own community.”
Right after one of her CURE courses, Gutiérrez Navarro continued to work virtually with Carmona throughout the pandemic to co-author a paper analyzing the biological and environmental factors contributing to the spread of Chagas disease in western El Salvador.
“The Chagas study challenged my abilities in inferential statistics and scientific writing, and my manuscript is currently undergoing peer-review,” Gutiérrez Navarro said. “The data-analyses I have done in Carmona’s CURE-courses have been applied to real-life prominent-issues in Southwest Detroit and the Department of Santa Ana, El Salvador. Knowing that my work can make a social impact is extremely important to me.”
Gutiérrez Navarro is also involved in an NIH-funded research lab with Associate Professor Jacob Kagey in the Biology Department.
“I’m learning computational and wet-lab skills that are essential to my success as an integrative scientist,” Gutiérrez Navarro said. “This genetics laboratory is also reinforcing my scientific writing and presentation skills, since this project is in collaboration with 13 other universities around the country.”
Carmona said all of Gutiérrez Navarro’s research experience at Detroit Mercy played a huge role in landing the two MISG awards.
“Cynthia had the right research experience to convince this agency that she could successfully run a multidisciplinary field project with a community partner,” Carmona said. “That doesn’t happen on its own. You need to have a rigorous course-curriculum that goes beyond watching YouTube videos in a cook-book lab.”
Carmona is certain the MISG is just the start for Gutiérrez Navarro and is excited by the bright future she has ahead.
“Cynthia is a bona fide field researcher, Carmona said. “These awards put her in the big leagues. In tackling the role of invasive plants in stabilizing microbial communities in an anthropogenic environment, we don’t know what the answer is. But we’re certainly excited to learn from the challenges ahead. This summer is also a window for what Cynthia will be doing in grad school and as a Ph.D. researcher: cultivating a deeper understanding of urban sustainability. If you agree ‘practice makes perfect’, then every challenge is an opportunity to innovate.”