Cameron Priester, a senior biology major at Missouri Southern, has received a $1,200 grant from Prairie Biotic Research – funding which will allow him to present the results from a research project at scientific conferences.

Priester is studying former mining areas in Joplin and Webb City, using snails to determine if the remediation process has produced a healthier ecosystem.

It’s a project that has developed into a unique collaboration with two of his instructors.

“This is my second semester at Missouri Southern,” says Dr. Kyle Gustafson, assistant professor of biology and environmental health. “I wanted to get some research up and running when I got here and I asked my classes if anyone had any interest and to come talk to me about it. Cameron took me up on it, and we devised a project based on his interests.”

Those interests include land reclamation and habitat management. Priester currently works for a habitat management effort underway in Webb City. Gustafson’s idea to sample aquatic invertebrates for effects of the ecosystem also aligned with his student’s love for wildlife.

“I’ve always enjoyed wildlife and nature,” says Priester. “I maybe watched a little too much ‘Crocodile Hunter’ growing up … Steve Erwin inspired me as far as caring for and handling wildlife.”

After spending last semester reviewing studies and other literature, he began identifying locations that had been affected by heavy metals from the area’s long mining history. The idea was to use snails – and, more specifically, their shells – to see if cleanup projects by the EPA and other conservation groups have improved the ecosystem.

“I would think that remediated areas would show that snails take up less heavy metals than in non-remediated areas,” says Priester. “But in these kinds of projects, you never know what will happen.”

Creating a process to test this theory required the assistance of another one of his professors – Dr. Lynell Gilbert-Saunders, associate professor of chemistry.

“I began working with her to create a procedure for testing and chemical analysis,” says Priester.

New equipment in the recently renovated Reynolds Hall is proving to be essential to studying the chemistry that impacts snails, says Gilbert-Saunders.

After grinding down and ashing the shells – burning off any remaining carbon materials – the goal is to study what’s left.

“The only thing left is the rock part of the shell, and the goal is to look at the mineral composition,” she says. “Just like people with their teeth and bones, if you’re in an environment that has high concentrations of metals, the thinking is that metals will be deposited in the shell.”

In the Reynolds Hall instrument lab, Priester is using new, high-tech instrumentation to aid his research. The Agilent MP-AES (Microwave Plasma-Atomic Emission Spectrometer) incinerates samples using nitrogen-fueled microwave plasma and identifies the elements that are present. In this case, he is looking for lead, iron, cadmium, zinc and other residual metals from the early mining days.

Gustafson encouraged his student to apply for the prestigious Prairie Biotic Research grant.

“They’re an all-volunteer, nonprofit company,” says Gustafson. “Their whole goal is to fund research … specifically research focusing on the conservation of prairies. Cameron is pretty much exclusively looking at the prairie wetlands.”

Having been accepted for the full $1,200 grant, Priester will use the funds to present his findings at conferences, including the Ozark-Prairie Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry gathering in May.

“I worked hard on the grant application, but I didn’t know how significant it really was,” he says. “It will be my first time going to a conference like this. I’m hoping to have some tangible results by the middle of April.”