Alumna receives grants to study out-population magnolias in Polk County

Looking for a way to use her creativity and incorporate more biotechnology into her teachings at Polk County High School, Jennifer Allsbrook '92 is taking a biological mystery and turning it into a hands-on teaching experience called the Magnolia Detectives Project.

The project is funded by two grants received from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in the amount of $16,000. Grants from ING and Toshiba foundations have also been awarded to help equip her lab and conduct research.

The Magnolia Detectives Project is a research project setting out to find why an out-population of Sweetbay magnolia trees are located around the woods of Western North Carolina, particularly in Polk County, which is located 42 miles south of Asheville. The Sweetbay magnolia is a species indigenous to coastal areas. This project’s main goal is to determine the genetic relationship of this out-population magnolia in North and South Carolina.

“I wanted to find a project that would let me set up a biotech lab where we could do DNA extraction, gene sequencing, things like that,” Allsbrook said. “But I needed outside support to help fund it.”

Allsbrook believes in the success of this project as she works towards researching and sharing this experience with her students. She keeps true to her teaching philosophy. “My philosophy is that I think students each have their own individual strengths and teachers need to vary their instructional approaches,” Allsbrook said. “I feel it is appropriate to provide visual and hands-on opportunities for students to help them in their learning and classroom experience.”

The Magnolia Project behind the scenes

The concept for the project came from Polk County Cooperative Extension Agent John Vining. He suggested Allsbrook study why these magnolias grow outside their normal range when she mentioned to him she wanted to bring in more biotechnology in the classroom. With help from one of the top magnolia experts, Richard Figlar, she made a distribution map for the magnolias and confirmed that they were in fact out of range.

Allsbrook has recently teamed up with Andrea Wolfe, Ph.D., a scientist at Ohio State University, to help apply the most appropriate genetic analyses to aid in the search of the “family tree” of the Polk County magnolias. Part of the investigation will also see if these trees are related to others in the Southeast. A technique called ISSR DNA fingerprinting is in use for the project to help identify individual trees within a population.

Currently, students are taking inventory of the trees and collecting leaves for genetic testing. Through this process, the students are learning techniques to do laboratory protocols for DNA manipulation. The next step for Allsbrook and her class is to compare DNA fingerprints within the magnolia population. This process helps to expose them to the relatively recent specialty dubbed phylogeography – the study of the historical processes that may be responsible for the contemporary geographic distributions of individuals.

Essentials to be an educator

Allsbrook graduated from Appalachian in 1992 as a Teaching Fellow with a Bachelor of Science in biology and chemistry secondary education and a Master of Life Science from the University of Maryland. Since 1998, she’s held an Adolescent and Young Adult Science National Teaching Certificate.

“I feel Appalachian has provided me with the essentials to become a teacher. Ever since I stepped in the classroom in 1992 I have felt prepared to do my job,” she said. “I am so grateful for not only the things I learned while at Appalachian, but for the teaching fellows program. I felt it was very viable experience, especially for me, because I was a farmer’s daughter and grew up not having the money to go to college. Luckily, I was able to get scholarships and teaching fellows helped me out the most not only financially but it also provided me with the education I needed to be an educator today.”

She resides with her husband and son in Polk County and teaches Biology and AP Biology.

Jim Shamp at N.C. Biotechnology Center contributed to this article.