John Benning (City Backyard Science)


This week’s featured scientist is John Benning! John finished his PhD with Dave Moeller at the University of Minnesota last year and is one of the original Market Science board members. Currently, he’s a postdoc at the University of Wyoming. He mainly studies the ecology and evolution of species’ distributions, but this week he’ll be talking about a project he and Amanda Gorton (UMN Grand Challenges post-doc) started called City Backyard Science.

 City Backyard Science is all about increasing habitat for native insects in cities and helping folks learn about all the cool biology going on right in their backyards. John will talk about how we can help conserve biodiversity without leaving the city and lead you in some activities exploring the ecology of your backyard. 

Fun Facts:

Did you know that Minnesota is home to over 300 different native bee species? And that you can help provide food and habitat for these lovely little insects just by replacing a portion of your lawn?

As opposed to larger animals, bees require relatively little area for nesting and foraging, which means that even your tiny yard can become a bee habitat haven! By planting a selection of native plants that bloom from spring through autumn, you’ll invite a whole new host of backyard visitors. Not only is that good for bee conservation, but it provides endless opportunities for you and your family to learn more about insect ecology and botany. Check out the Resources page of for examples of some fun activities.

You can learn so much about plants and animals right in your backyard. In this video, John leads us through a brief botany lesson using flowers you can find just outside your door. He made this video for families participating in the City Backyard Science program, but you can easily follow along, too! All you need to do is find a plant in the Asteraceae family, like Black-eyed Susan, sunflower, coneflower, daisy, or even a dandelion.

Our native pollinators love many of the native Asteraceae plants we have in MN, and they’re so easy to grow! Look around your neighborhood to see if you can find any Smooth Blue Aster, a fall-blooming native with flowers that look kind of like purple daisies. The bees rely on late-blooming plants like these to provide nectar and pollen as the summer ends.


John’s personal website

City Backyard Science

To help out our native bees even more, you can make a “bee hotel” (final image), which is essentially a collection of 5-7 inch deep holes in blocks of wood. The cavity nesting solitary bees (females only) that use these holes start at the very back, laying a single egg with a pollen ball for nourishment, sealing off that chamber, laying the next egg and pollen ball, sealing off that chamber, and so forth.

The UMN Bee Squad has a great handout detailing how to make your own bee hotel:

You don’t have to go to a state park, zoo, or wilderness area to see nature in action — there’s so much incredible biology going on right outside your door! And one of the coolest things you can watch out for are *species interactions* — that’s what we call it when two different species are interacting, or affecting each other, in some way. Some examples are bees visiting flowers), caterpillars eating leaves, birds eating insects, ants drinking plant nectar, flies carrying off fungal spores, beetles visiting flowers, or even mosquitoes biting you!

John has a mission for you: over the next few days, see if you can observe four different types of species interactions around your neighborhood. Try to watch them as closely as you can and then draw them! Can you identify the two interacting species? (It’s ok if you don’t know the exact species; “bee” and “plant” is fine!) What do you think each species is “getting” out of this interaction? (E.g., the caterpillar is getting food and the plant is getting its leaves damaged.)

Bumble bee scavenger hunt:

Q&A video:

Jill Ekar (Plant Evolution & Genetics)


Jill Ekar is a researcher with the Brandvain lab at the University of Minnesota. She works at the intersection of two CBS departments: Plant Biological Sciences and Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. She helps out with several different projects—mostly involving plant evolution—but her primary focus is to apply her background toward a project that fits her values of conservation: domesticating perennial sunflowers in collaboration with Forever Green. A perennial sunflower crop would be one step toward preserving soil and water and reducing carbon inputs in the face of climate change.

Fun facts:


Brandvain Lab website

Forever Green

As a first-generation college student, Jill Ekar wanted to share her story about navigating the challenges that she faced and other first-generation students may encounter. Listen to her story below:

Curious about how evolution works? JIll created a fun song and music video to teach you and younger learners about evolution! She also goes over the concept of genetic drift and shows a fun game you can do at home. Finally, feel free to use the coloring pages she created on hybrid animals.

Use the links below or visit our YouTube channel (link in bio) to see the content!

Music video:

Genetic drift activity:

Coloring pages


Daniel Stanton (Plant-environment interactions)


This week’s featured scientist is a former board member with 5 years of experience with Market Science! Daniel Stanton is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior in the College of Biological Sciences. He studies plants and lichens in extreme environments, from the world’s driest desert to high mountains and Minnesota winters (we may be used to them, but they are quite extreme for most organisms). He focuses on how these organisms adapt to difficult conditions, and how those adaptations change the places where they grow. Moss and lichens are particular favorites, since they are some of the toughest multicellular organisms that we know, in some cases even able to survive in space.

Fun Facts:

Did you know…

  • The orange lichens on North Shore rocks have been shown to survive more than 18 months in space!
  • Some lichens glow under uv light. Fluorescence is not just pretty colors, its a way of dissipating harmful uv rays, just like sunscreen.
  • Mosses and lichens were the first stages in rebuilding our forests and prairies after the glaciers retreated, since they are some of the only plants capable of growing on bare rock.
  • Bacteria living in mosses help fertilize our northern forests.
  • Peat moss (Sphagnum) in bogs is one of the largest stores of carbon on the planet, more than any kind of tree. North of Red Lake/Miskwaagamiiwi-zaaga’igan, here in Minnesota, is the largest peat-land in the lower 48.


Studying moss and lichen is incredibly interesting, but can also seem confusing. Daniel Stanton gives a brief introduction to his research as well as moss and lichen biology in the videos below


We have several useful videos for you! Watch how you can observe lichens in your own communities. Then, test your skills by counting and identifying the different lichens on a tree and stick along with Dr. Stanton. Finally, check out the lichen key we have available and identify the lichens near your home. We also have some coloring sheets of different lichens for younger learners. You can find all of the activities and the full videos linked below!


Video Activities:



Blog post of National Geographic funded work on desert lichens:

Q&A response:

Dr. Elaine Evans and Michelle Boone (Bee Lab)


It’s Bee Week! This week’s featured scientists are Michelle Boone and Elaine Evans in the Cariveau Lab in the Department of Entomology. Michelle is a current PhD student studying rusty-patched bumble bee distributions throughout the 7-metro counties of Minnesota. Rusty-patched bumble bees are federally endangered and are the Minnesota State Bee! Dr. Elaine Evans is an extension educator and bee researcher who studies bee conservation and coordinates a variety of outreach programs.


Michelle and Elaine study the federally endangered rusty-patched bumble bee. They gather distribution data on the bee. This summer, two rusty-patched bumble bee nests were reported on private residences—one in Minneapolis and one in Red Wing. Michelle and Elaine collected avariety of samples to help further research on this species that can help with its recovery. They both work under a special permit issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for research on endangered species.

Fun Facts:

Did you know…

·       Bees don’t just come in black and yellow; they come in all colors! They come in red, green, blue, orange, yellow, brown, grey, and white colors

·       Bees have 2 compound and 3 simple eyes

·       Beehive colonies can grow to 60,000 in the summer

·       Most bees don’t form social colonies with workers and queens

·       Over 80% of bees nest in the ground


What kinds of bumble bees live in your neighborhood? Explore your neighborhood and try to find five different species of bumble bees! To identify a bumble bee species, you will mostly need to look at the abdomen, but for some species the thorax or face can help too! If you can, take a photograph of each species of bumble bee you find and upload them to Don’t worry if you can’t take a picture. Just get out there and look! Try searching for bees on flowers. Below are some training tools to help you get started.

This is a great video to get started! Please note that he is talking about UK bumblebees, which are different than the species we have in MN. However, it’s a useful video to get started. In MN, our bees don’t really have variable “tail” colors, so I suggest instead focusing on the “banding”. 

Here’s a guide to MN bumblebees. It’s a bit longer but contains useful information on local species:

Here’s an interactive bumble bee ID training tool: 

Here is a handy bumble bee ID guide, created by featured scientist Dr. Elaine Evans!

Bee lab trivia game:


Bee Lab website:

Bee Lab Q&A:

Dr. Katrina Freund Saxhaug (Phenology)


This week’s featured scientist is Dr. Katrina Freund Saxhaug. Dr. Freund Saxhaug is a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Adrian Hegeman’s lab in the Department of Horticulture at the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Sciences. Although her primary research is in plant metabolomics, Dr. Freund Saxhaug volunteers for the long-term phenology project known as Experiment 268 at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Under the guidance of Dr. Rebecca Montgomery from the Department of Forest Resources at the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Sciences, she tracks the seasonal changes of 80 individual plants of 26 different species at Cedar Creek. In addition to regularly recording these observations, she curates the data, digitizes old handwritten phenology records from Cedar Creek, and is exploring ways to expand the collection of phenological data at Cedar Creek.

Fun Facts:

Did you know…

·       The term “phenology” was coined in 1849 by Charles Morren, a professor of botany at a university in Belgium, in a public lecture.

·       Over the course of its life, the size and sex Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) plant can vary, and an individual Jack-in-the-pulpit can bear no flowers (vegetative state), only male flowers, only female flowers, or male and female flowers together.

·       Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) are considered “responders” to climate change. At Cedar Creek their arrival date is 15 days earlier, on average, than 40 years ago!

·       Red maple trees (Acer rubrum) are considered “polygamodioecious”, meaning that trees are mainly dioecious (male and female flowers on different trees), but male trees may bear some female flowers and female trees may bear some male flowers. Dramatic shifts between male and female in successive years have also been reported.



The Montgomery Lab website:

Minnesota Phenology Network:

Backyard Phenology:

Katrina volunteers with the Montgomery Lab out at Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve. Her current research there focuses on the long-term collection of phenological data at six sites on the property. Hear Katrina explain what phenology is and why it is important in the video linked below. Feel free to check out our YouTube channel while you’re at it!

Just because you’re inside doesn’t mean you can’t explore the outdoors! Take a virtual hike at Cedar Bog Lake, an aquatic habitat that lies in a swampy matrix of white cedar swamp within the Cedar Creek Ecosystem Reserve. Check it out at

Looking for a fun activity for younger audiences? Want to study nature on your own? Check out the phenology-related activities at the links below!

The Fringe Lab (Geomicrobiology)


The Fringe Lab studies some of the smallest life forms on earth: bacteria and archaea. They study these microbes in environments you might be familiar with — lakes, rivers, streams, and snow — as well as environments you might be less familiar with (and where we might not like to live or play)  — hot springs and glaciers. Their research addresses questions about how microbes figured out how to use sunlight, how microbes live across such a large temperature range (snow and ice to boiling water), and how microbes and other small life forms impact big environmental processes that affect the air we breathe, such as the greenhouse effect, oxygen cycle, and nitrogen cycle.

The Fringe Lab conducts DNA analysis to learn how microorganisms like bacteria, fungi, algae, and archaea are selected by and shape their environment. To learn more about how the Fringe Lab uses DNA analysis, check out this research video and visit the research section of their website!

Fun Facts:

If you could unwind your DNA you’d see that it’s VERY long. It’d reach to the sun and back to Earth over 600 times!

If you tried to stretch it all the way to the Sun how far would you get?

DNA is what makes us unique, but how similar do you think your DNA is to your neighbors? 

The answer is that your DNA is 99.9% similar to your neighbors.

The Fringe Lab studies microorganisms all over the globe. Here are some of the places we’ve been. 

If you could accompany us on a field trip which would you choose?

– Yellowstone National Park 

– Rotorua, New Zealand 

– Mt. Hood, Oregon

– Iron Springs Bog, Minnesota

– Mississippi Headwaters, Minnesota

– Iceland 


Fringe Lab website

Fringe Lab member profiles (Q&A)

Research introduction

Want to extract DNA from home? Curious what it’s like to analyze sequencing data? The Fringe Lab has all the tools you’ll need! Check it out using this activity link.

Lucy Schroeder (Plant Biodiversity)


Hi, I’m Lucy Schroeder, this week’s featured scientist! I am a Plant and Microbial Biology student in Jeannine Cavender-Bares’ lab. I want to know what environmental conditions and evolutionary processes have led to the patterns of plant diversity we see today. One method I use in my research is hyperspectral data. This method uses the reflectance of light from the plant’s surface and allows us to determine a ton of characteristics of the plant with one measurement. 

I focus on understanding how and why diversity changes along a gradient of elevations in the Chilean Andes. Understanding the patterns of plant diversity we see in this region is important because plants at different elevations will experience different effects of climate change. Plants at higher elevations are adapted to colder temperatures, longer snow cover, and higher wind. Some of these adaptations include hairy leaves, lying low to the ground, and overall just being small. It is truly amazing how much diversity exists in a 1100 meter (3600 feet) change in elevation!

Research overview:

Lucy focuses on understanding how and why diversity changes along a gradient of elevations in the Chilean Andes. Understanding the patterns of plant diversity we see in this region is important because plants at different elevations will experience different effects of climate change. Plants at higher elevations are adapted to colder temperatures, longer snow cover, and higher wind. Some of these adaptations include hairy leaves, lying low to the ground (see pic 3 and 4), and overall just being small. It is truly amazing how much diversity exists in a 1100 meter (3600 foot) change in elevation!

Fun Facts:

There are around 320,000 species of plants, all with amazing capabilities! Here are some fun facts about them.

Under pressure!

-plants move water through tubes called “xylem” 

-differences in pressure help the plant move the water through those tubes

-this pressure can reach up to 12 MPa – 4700% more than a pressurized tire! (tires are inflated to 0.25 MPa)

Old trees

-Some trees are older than the Egyptian pyramids!

-pyramids: built 4500 years ago

-oldest bristlecone pine tree: 4851 years old

Family relations

-Did you know roses are in the same plant family as apples and cherries? (Rosaceae)

-Did you know poison ivy is in the same plant family as mangos and cashews? (Anacardiaceae)


You don’t have to go all the way to the mountains of Chile to find cool plants! Right here, in Hennepin and Ramsey county, Minnesota, there are 1040 native species of plants. Let’s see what you can find in your own backyard! Go outside and find a plant!

Use the worksheet provided to help you notice some characteristics about it. Then, for an extra challenge, see if you can identify the plant! 

For a bonus art project, try making a leaf rubbing! Find a cool leaf and put a piece of paper on top of it. Then, take a crayon and rub it over the paper on a hard surface. The leaf will magically appear on your paper! Notice the different leaf shapes and patterns in the veins. Aren’t plants neat? To learn more, Check out the leaf rubbing tutorial Lucy created.

Abby Guthmann (African Mammal Ecology)


This week’s featured scientist is one of our board members! Abby Guthmann is currently a Ph.D. student with Dr. Craig Packer’s lab in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the College of Biological Sciences. She studies the ecological interactions of large mammal species in East Africa, with a specific focus on how people and their cattle fit into the Kenyan ecosystem. Citizen Science has been an integral part of her lab, and through the website “Zooniverse”, volunteers can help to identify animal species in the images taken by remote camera traps all across Eastern and Southern Africa.

Fun Facts

Did you know…

  • Lions are the only truly social cat! They live in prides made up of a few males, breeding females, and their cubs.
  • Male lions defend their territory from other males, while females do most (but not all) of the hunting. Hunting takes a lot of energy, and to counter this, lions sleep 15-20 hours a day.
  • Lions were once the most widespread mammal on earth (aside from humans) and were found in Asia, Europe, and even some related species in North America! 
  • Lion manes say a lot about male lion health and fitness – females prefer males with thicker, darker manes.
  • Lions are threatened by habitat loss and poaching – they are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Species List. 

Check out more images at


Lion Center website (Abby’s research lab) 

Abbey works with the Lion Center team at the University of Minnesota. Her current research focuses on how cattle management strategies may affect ecosystem health and human-wildlife conflict mitigation in conservancies surrounding the Maasai Mara in Kenya. Hear Abbey breakdown her research and fieldwork in the video linked below.

Test your knowledge of African Wildlife with the quizzes below!

Junior Scout

Wildlife Ranger

Safari Master

Extra Challenge

Additionally ,you can make some masks at home and try a fun scavenger hunt. Find the listed pictures on the Snapshot Serengeti website (linked below).

Animal Masks

Snapshot Serengeti

Q&A video

Mounica Kota (Animal Communication)


This week’s featured scientist is Mounica Kota! Mounica is currently a doctoral student with Marlene Zuk’s lab in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior within the College of Biological Sciences. Her research focuses on animal communication and how different ecological factors drive the evolution of certain communication signals. 

Fun Facts:

Many animals produce different sounds to attract mates. One well-known mating call is the chirp of a cricket. A parasitoid fly known as Ormia ochracea uses the sound of cricket chirps to locate male crickets as hosts for their larvae. However, a mutation arose in the field cricket population of Hawaii which left the males unable to produce sound from their wings. This mutation protected the mutated males from becoming victims to O. ochracea. Soon, the proportion of male crickets with this mutation (known as flatwing mutation) greatly increased in a short amount of time.

The phenomena with the mutated male crickets exemplifies how animal communication changes in response to ecological forces. Mounica and her lab studies the extent to which pre-existing behaviors influence the emergence and spread of the flatwing mutation, leading to new insights about the interactions between behavior and evolutionary change. 

Did you know that there are more invertebrates than vertebrates in the world? Invertebrates are animals that lack a vertebral column, or a spine. The largest group of invertebrates are insects, which are estimated to comprise around 90% of animal life forms on Earth. Insects provide a variety of ecological benefits, serving as pollinators for many plants or as food for numerous animals.


Mounica’s website

Video introduction to Mounica’s research 

Video Q&A

Learn more about how insects with the activities linked below. You can solve a fun crossword puzzle about insects and build an insect yourself or with kids in these fun activities!

Leslie Kent (Microbial Ecology)


Leslie Kent is a recent CBS graduate at the University of Minnesota. She works in Hunter Lab investigating how mucin (mucus) impacts the binding and growth of a bacterial pathogen known as Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which causes ventilator-associated pneumonia. Check out videos of Leslie and other SciPride researchers summarizing their research in the link below.

Fun Facts:

Pseudomonas aeruginosa is one of the leading causes of ventilator-associated pneumonia, which commonly affects individuals with Cystic Fibrosis. 

Like many microbes, P. aeruginosa has the ability to form biofilms, which are large numbers of cells that form communities attached to a surface to form a protective layer around itself. Biofilms reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics, making this P. aeruginosa hard to remove once it enters the lungs and attaches to ventilators.

One way to detect P. aeruginosa is gram staining. In this method, bacteria are stained with multiple dyes.  Due to differences in cell membrane composition, bacteria are left with either a purple-violet stain or red stain. Gram staining serves as one of the most common methods to distinguish and identify bacterial specimens. P.  aeruginosa is gram-negative, which means it’s left with a red stain from the process.


Microbial ecology of lungs video

FAQ sheet about biofilms and gram stains

Bacteria coloring sheets