President Brian Sandoval hosts GAIN Scholar Jess Buelow in the fourth episode of season 2 of Sagebrushers. The GAIN Scholars program, which stands for Graduate Acceleration through Innovation and Networking Scholars program, is funded by the National Science Foundation. The program, overseen by the University’s Graduate School, works to increase the retention and success of first-generation and historically underrepresented groups within graduate programs.
During the episode, Sandoval and Buelow, a second-year Ph.D. student studying ecology, evolution and conservation biology at the University, discuss the impact and benefits of the GAIN Scholars program as well as the challenges faced by someone who is the first in their family to attend graduate school. Buelow also shares her current research projects related to bumble bee behavior, cognition, and nutrition and debunks a common myth about local honey being a cure for allergies.
Sagebrushers is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other major podcast platforms, with a new episode twice a month.
Sagebrushers – S2 Ep. 4 – GAIN Scholar Jess Buelow
Join host President Brian Sandoval as he and GAIN Scholar Jess Buelow discuss the impact of the GAIN Scholars Program, the challenges faced by someone who is the first in their family to attend graduate school and Buelow's research related to bumble bees as a second-year Ph.D. student.
Jess Buelow: You know, they call it a hidden curriculum. There's a lot of things about grad school that if you come from a family that is really familiar with the graduate school experience, you kind of have those things built in, you know them and you don't know [that] you know them. If you don't have that background, you don't know.
You don't know what you're missing and so, it feels like a lot of playing catch up. A lot of that first part of graduate school for students with no history is like trying to just figure out how to do graduate school. So, this program really cut down on that.
President Brian Sandoval: In this episode of Sagebrushers, we welcome a talented Ph.D. student who is part of the University's GAIN Scholars Program, Jess Buelow.
I'm Brian Sandoval. I'm a proud graduate and president of the University of Nevada, Reno, and I'm your host of Sagebrushers. The GAIN Scholars Program, which stands for Graduate Acceleration through Innovation and Networking Scholars Program, is funded by the National Science Foundation. This two-year program's goal is to increase the retention and success of first-generation and historically underrepresented groups in graduate programs.
Jess Buelow is an ecology, evolution and conservation biology Ph.D. student at the University. She studies bumble bee behavior, cognition and nutrition. She's currently exploring how nectar chemicals affect bee behavior but will soon start a project on how increased temperatures due to climate change influence bee nutrition requirements, health and development.
Today's podcast is being recorded at the Reynolds School of Journalism on our University's campus. Jess, welcome to Sagebrushers. I'm excited to learn more about you and your experience on campus. So, let's get right into it and welcome.
Jess Buelow: Thank you for having me.
President Brian Sandoval: Oh, we're excited about the episode today. So first, for our listeners, let's talk about your journey to the University, where you've been and what brought you here.
Jess Buelow: Sure. So, I'm originally from northern Minnesota, very rural, and I went to university in a small college in Wisconsin. I majored in biology and that is where my advisor one day, I was really interested in animal behavior, my advisor one day said, ‘You know, I'm thinking about bringing honey bees onto campus. Would you like to help with that?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely. I've never worked with bees before, but I'd love to try it.’
So, from the very first moment that we, you know, introduced the hives and you basically pour bees into the hive and you have thousands of tiny little lives in your hands and they're buzzing and they're beautiful, and I knew I was hooked. So, that's where it all started.
My undergraduate research was on honey bees and then after I graduated, I looked more into the field and realized that honey bees get a lot of attention and funding for research, but native bees don't.
They get overlooked a lot of the time and they're just as important, arguably more important. I'm a little biased, but they really deserve a lot of the research. So, I got more into that [and] started being really passionate about native bees and looked for programs that had the kind of research that I was interested in, specifically still behavior, and UNR had one of those programs.
President Brian Sandoval: Love it. So, we're going to talk some more about bees in a minute, but during my introduction, I talked about the GAIN Scholars program. How has your education and future career been impacted by the program? And I suppose let's give a little more detail about the program.
Jess Buelow: Sure, absolutely. So, I felt like it was a really good crash course for like, this is graduate school and you're introduced to graduate school because I had no knowledge, no prior information about how graduate school was going to be.
They take students and teach you what to expect and how to navigate it. They gave me very real skills in stress management, what the expectations of graduate school are, but also very real career skills such as, data analysis, programming.
We did a career panel where we got to ask questions of somebody that's actually in the industry, a bunch of things like that, as well as an introduction to the school and the resources that we have here at UNR. So, it was just a really good crash course and it was very beneficial because I didn't know anything coming in.
President Brian Sandoval: So, is it a fixed time before the semester starts or is it an ongoing program?
Jess Buelow: It's a little bit of both. So, we have a three-week boot camp. We had one before I started my first year, so last year. Then, they did programming throughout the year, checked in with us, we went to workshops and things like that. Then last summer, between my first and second year, we did another three-week “boot camp,” they called it. Then some more programming throughout this year to provide that support and keep that connection.
President Brian Sandoval: Is it voluntary or is it mandatory?
Jess Buelow: It was voluntary, so I had to sign up to be even considered and I was brought into the program, and of course, if somebody wanted to step out, they could, but everybody loves it.
President Brian Sandoval: So, what's the best part of the GAIN program?
Jess Buelow: Oh gosh. My favorite part is probably the fact that I've made so many friends. Coming here, I didn't know anyone coming from Minnesota, I didn't know anybody here and so, it was so nice to have that built-in social, safety net right away, made friends right away. [It was] really cool because I got to make friends outside of my department, so students in other departments that I would ordinarily never have a chance to interact with.
President Brian Sandoval: Coming from Minnesota, that prepared you for this winter, we've had correct?
Jess Buelow: It's warm here. It's so warm here.
President Brian Sandoval: So, it's great to hear that the GAIN program helped you feel more prepared for your Ph.D., especially since you're the first one in your family.
Jess Buelow: Yes.
President Brian Sandoval: To pursue a Ph.D.
Jess Buelow: Yes, I am.
President Brian Sandoval: Talk about that.
Jess Buelow: So, it’s a little bit of that, you know, they call it a hidden curriculum. There's a lot of things about grad school that if you come from a family that is really familiar with the graduate school experience, you kind of have those things built in, you know them and you don't know [that] you know them. If you don't have that background, you don't know.
You don't know what you're missing, and so, it feels like a lot of playing catch-up. A lot of that first part of graduate school for students with no history is like trying to just figure out how to do graduate school. So, this program really cut down on that.
President Brian Sandoval: We're going to now dive a little bit into your research. So obviously, you're working with one of the faculty on campus?
Jess Buelow: Yes, Dr. Annie Leonard, and she's really a huge reason why I'm here. She drew me here. I found the program, was really interested in the research, reached out to Annie and she was immediately just so easy to talk to, kind, welcoming but also very curious and passionate about her research. And that came through email very clearly.
We exchanged a lot of emails, we built that connection right away, and I felt like this is somebody that I can spend years of my life working with and potentially, always having that connection. So, she's wonderful. I’m very fortunate.
President Brian Sandoval: How long do you anticipate your program to be?
Jess Buelow: That's the million-dollar question for every Ph.D. student. I'm guessing about five years, could be a little less, could be a little more. I guess we'll see.
President Brian Sandoval: So, let's talk about what you're studying with regard to the bees.
Jess Buelow: Right now, I'm working on this project. I'm exploring how nectar chemicals actually affect bee behavior and so, we think of nectar, flower nectar as being just really simple sugar and water, but it's not, it's really complicated.
Every nectar is different, and they all have different natural chemicals built in. So, those all affect bees in different ways. It affects their behavior in lots of different ways. So, it's really fun to explore. That's what I'm currently working on.
This summer, I'm going to get started on a project that I'm really excited about. We're going to explore how increased temperatures, which is really relevant and important right now, especially in our area as Reno is warming quite a bit, we're exploring how that affects things, like what the bees need to eat to meet their nutrition requirements, how their development is happening, what is their health like, what is their survival like. So, that'll be a really important, huge project and with lots of implications.
President Brian Sandoval: This may be an odd question, but talk about the day in the life of a bee.
Matt Means: Depends on what kind of bee. Honey bees are really common that people are really familiar with. But I work with bumble bees, and like honey bees, they're also social, so they have colonies; they have a queen bee; they have a bunch of workers sometimes depending on where they're at in their cycle; they have males.
A day in the life of like a worker bee is running around all over the colony trying to take care of business, collecting nectar, out foraging, bringing nectar back and storing it. They're collecting pollen, you know, provisioning for their little baby bees. So, it's a very busy day. They're very active.
President Brian Sandoval: Hence the busy bee term, right?
Jess Buelow: Yes.
President Brian Sandoval: But, you say they go out and search for nectar. So, do they habitually come back to the same place or do they search all over?
Jess Buelow: They generally do. Bees are incredibly good at learning and remembering. They're very intelligent, a lot more than most would give an insect credit for. They're great at remembering colors, shapes, spaces and navigation – they're great at navigation. So, they can remember all of these wonderful flower patches that have provided for them and go back and forth between them.
They have their built-in favorites as well. Some of them have preferences for certain color flowers, so even if they've never seen that flower before, they know that they like that color because bees in their past have done really well with that flower. So, they're really complicated.
President Brian Sandoval: So, in Northern Nevada, what type of flower should I plant to attract the bumble bees?
Jess Buelow: There's all sorts. They really like, I don't remember all of the common names unfortunately, but they like penstemon, they like lupin, they like, I mean really if you can provide a bunch of different native flowers, that's great. So, flowers that they're used to encountering here and then also flowers that bloom throughout different times of the year because if they all bloom at once and then there's nothing left to eat, they're going to be really sad after that.
President Brian Sandoval: Are there natural hives and then I'll just call it manmade hives? I'm sure there's a term for that.
Jess Buelow: Sure. With honey bees, we have all of the hives that we keep, but with our bumble bees, there's natural hives all over the place, and there's a ton of species of bumble bees, so it's not just one.
But, we have a bunch. This is a really great area for bees, so we have a ton of diversity here. They live out in the meadows and in the forests, and when we get bees to do research, we actually get them from an agricultural company. So, the bees that we get are kind of sold in these little neat boxes where they're sent to farmers actually for crop pollination.
President Brian Sandoval: So, when you go out to a hive, do you wear one of those big suits and things?
Jess Buelow: When I am beekeeping, I do wear a bee suit. I feel like it's better safe than sorry. Sometimes they can get accidentally stuck in your hair or something and they're not trying to come after you, but I think it's safer for everyone involved if you wear a bee suit.
President Brian Sandoval: And then do you use the smoke to calm them down?
Jess Buelow: Yeah, yeah, we do.
President Brian Sandoval: How does that work?
Jess Buelow: Smoke has a really interesting effect on bees where it makes them kind of hunker down because they think, “Okay, there might be something bad happening here” or that “I need to pay attention to anyway.” So, they kind of hunker down, they eat a bunch of honey, and they get ready if they need to leave and go find safety.
It also just has kind of a calming effect on them, so that makes it safer for them so they don't get in the way of what a beekeeper is doing, but it also makes it safer for the beekeeper as well.
President Brian Sandoval: So, would you typically find a bumble beehive up in a tree?
Jess Buelow: It depends on the species. Often, they actually will live underground, so they'll find an old rodent borough or they'll find a little hole in the ground, maybe under a bunch of vegetation or they'll find a hollow log. So, you may find one in a hollow tree occasionally, but often most times they're underground actually.
President Brian Sandoval: Are there thousands of them in a typical hive?
Jess Buelow: Yeah. With bumble bees, it's usually a few hundred, so a lot less than honey bees, which are tens of thousands.
President Brian Sandoval: Wow.
Jess Buelow: Yeah.
President Brian Sandoval: Oh wow. What are their predators or if any? I mean are there other bees?
Jess Buelow: They have predators in the form of like parasitic flies and things like that, but it's mostly birds and basically anything that'll eat insects, will try and eat bees. Of course, bees have a built-in protection, so they're pretty good at protecting themselves, but they can still be eaten by things.
President Brian Sandoval: So, you mentioned that you can get stung by a bumble bee, correct?
Jess Buelow: Yes. Yes, you can.
President Brian Sandoval: Is it very painful?
Jess Buelow: I have not been stung by a bumble bee since I was a really small child and accidentally stepped on one, which of course is very sad and I feel bad about it. But no, I work with bees every day and I've not been stung since I started this program. They're just very, very relaxed. They're like my little puppies. They're very chill.
President Brian Sandoval: Where on campus do you conduct your research?
Jess Buelow: So, I'm in Fleischmann Agriculture. on the third floor, and we have a wonderful lab where we have colonies of bees in the back room pretty much at all times.
President Brian Sandoval: So, you talked about, the studies that you're doing now with regard to climate change and its effect on bumble bees. What are some of the things that you're considering thinking about in testing?
Jess Buelow: It's really complicated, but we're basically going to have a couple of incubators, and we'll have the bees being raised in these incubators at a warmer temperature than normal, just a few degrees. We're going to look at things like, we'll provide them with different options for diets.
Bees, like us, they need fats; they need carbohydrates; they need protein; they need different nutritional requirements just like we do. So, we'll provide them with diets that have different nutritional values and see kind of what they pick and see, you know, does it change, does it not change?
But then also, looking at their health and development to see if their requirements changed, but their preferences didn't. So, kind of looking at health-wise, what do they need to adapt to these higher temperatures and are they adjusting for it? So, that's one of the things. We'll also just look at their overall survival and overall health, so looking at kind of the big picture as well.
President Brian Sandoval: So, do you know, as you sit here, maybe this is one of those things you're going to find out, are there less bees than there used to be?
Jess Buelow: Yes, and it's complicated because, again, it's so species-specific and it's so region-specific, but this region specifically has had some changes happening over the last few decades especially. So yeah, we've definitely noticed some bee declines.
The problem is a lot of it is anecdotal. It's us when we're out in the field sites, when we're collecting bees, you know, we know there's less than there usually are or there's different species than there used to be. The problem is research is underfunded, and that's true across all fields, but it's tough when you need lots of people and lots of time and lots of funding to go out and do bumble bee counts, right? Just go out in a field and count bees all day.
So, if we don't have that data, we can't necessarily come to any concrete conclusions about every single species [and] how are their numbers doing in this specific region. So, we know yes, but we don't know how bad it is necessarily all the time.
President Brian Sandoval: I have to ask you this question because we're approaching allergy season and I don't know if it's a myth or the truth, but I've been told to eat local honey, which will help me with my allergies.
Jess Buelow: So, disclaimer, I'm not an allergy scientist, I'm not a human biologist, but, from my understanding, that is a myth, and it's a common one, you know, people love to think that.
The reality is honey does not contain much pollen at all. The bees keep honey, and they keep the flower nectar and the pollen separate. So, any pollen that's in the honey is kind of like an accident, so you're not eating very much of it. But also, generally, when we're allergic to things, it's not allergic to the wildflowers that are blooming, it's things like pine trees or grasses.
The bees generally are not collecting pollen from pine trees in most grasses. So, it's not really the pollen that we're allergic to anyway. That being said, honey is good for you. So, I'm not saying don't eat it, but maybe don't expect it to fix your allergies, although the placebo effect is very real.
President Brian Sandoval: We're almost out of time. For our prospective graduate students, can you say, you know, really quickly why you recommend the GAIN program?
Jess Buelow: Oh, absolutely. I think it's worth it for anyone who has the opportunity. It's a great way to get an introduction to graduate school, learn so much more than you would know otherwise, learn the resources we have here and make friends and meet staff and, you know, all of that is so worth it.
I came out of this program feeling more confident, more knowledgeable, more sure that I belong here and I can do this.
President Brian Sandoval: Well, this has been an amazing episode, but unfortunately that is all the time we have for Sagebrushers, and Jess, thank you again for joining us today.
Jess Buelow: Thank you so much.
President Brian Sandoval: Join us next time for another episode of Sagebrushers as we continue to tell the stories that make our University special and unique.
Until then, I'm University President Brian Sandoval, and go Pack!