GCCIR Award Recipient interns in the French Alps

My name is Stefani Johnson and I am the 2019 recipient of the GCCIR award. I am a student in the combined Science/Education program at the University of Alberta, Campus Saint Jean. This summer I participated in an internship through the University of Alberta’s e3 French Alps Go Abroad experience.

My internship was held at a botanical garden in the French Alps called the “Jardin du Lautaret”, under the supervision of the director of the garden, Dr. Jean-Gabriel Valay. During my internship I had three main roles: research, tour guides of the garden, and gardening. For the research component, I performed manipulations for the GrENE-net research project (Genomics of rapid Evolution in Novel Environments). In addition, I was invited to participate and observe other research experiments, such as one done on green algae and red algae (ALPAGA), one on marmots, and one on climate change in the French Alps (WARM).

The goal of the international GrENE-net project is to better understand evolutionary changes in plants given by the information of allelic frequencies. More specifically, the research aims to understand the links between various environmental conditions and genetic composition in the plant species Arabidopsis thaliana. All participants start with the same gene pools of approximately 200 different ecotypes of the Arabidopsis thaliana species. For this research, I was assigned to visit and survey the experiment at least once a week, as well as sample the flowers from individual plants. During my weekly visits, I had to keep a notebook with my observations on the number of plants. As well, I sampled the flowering individuals on June 7th, 2019 and put them into tubes that would be sent to the University of Tubingen for genetic testing.

Secondly, I was able to observe research experiments on green and red algae. On June 5th, 2019, I was invited by my supervisor, Dr. Jean-Gabriel Valay, to the col du Galibier along with two other researchers. We climbed the side of a mountain in order to collect snow with green algae. This type of algae starts off with a green color, and slowly changes to a red color over time. In order to look at the photosynthetic system of the algae, it must be collected when still green. Last year, the scientists arrived too late, only to find the red version of the algae. We were able to collect snow samples and take it back to the laboratory. Unfortunately, our snow samples did not contain any green algae.

On June 18th 2019, I was invited to observe the ALPAGA team collect red algae samples at the col des Cerces. I was able to observe researchers collecting data of the albedo and slope of the snow. Once the data was collected, they were able to take samples of the red algae in the snow.

On July 3rd, 2019, I was invited to observe the “Projet Marmotte Alpine”. This research project aims to understand the immune system of marmots, and the role played by the immune system to fight pollutants in blood plasma. I examined numerous cages with the supervisor, Dr. Aurélie Cohas. We installed magnetic trackers that would send a message to an application once a marmot was trapped in a cage.

Finally, I was able to participate in WARM, which is a research experiment that studies the effects of climate change in the French Alps. I visited the experimental site three times. The first visit was on June 17th, 2019, where we constructed the greenhouses that are used to increase the air temperature. For this experiment, there are four different plot types. The first plot has a greenhouse and we remove the dominant plant from the plot. The second plot has a greenhouse. The third plot is without a greenhouse and the dominant plant in the plot is also eliminated. The last plot does not have a greenhouse, and it represents the control of the experiment. My second and third visits were on July 15th and 16th, 2019. On these days we were able to eliminate the dominant plant species in the plots, which was a type of alpine clover.

This internship opportunity allowed me to gain knowledge on different types of field research work done in ecology. It has given me the opportunity to gain more skills that will be useful for me in my future endeavors. As well, I was able to improve my French skills by being fully immersed in a francophone work environment.

I am very grateful to GCCIR for their financial support that allowed me to participate in this life-changing opportunity. I am also appreciative to my supervisor, Dr. Jean-Gabriel Valay, as well as the staff and interns at the Jardin du Lautaret for their support during my internship. Finally, I wish to acknowledge my co-supervisors Dr. David Vergote and Dr. Martine Pellerin who were a great support throughout my internship.