KINGSTON, R.I. – December 27, 2011 – University of Rhode Island junior Christine Weiss took a non-traditional path to college success. She dropped out of high school at age 15, worked construction jobs for several years before getting laid off, and finally decided to pursue her first passion – biology.
Last week she completed a seven-month research project that found her leading teams of high school students in an effort to study and eradicate a destructive invasive plant called mile-a-minute vine. It’s a project that reinforced her desire to continue her educational roller coaster and eventually enroll in graduate school.
“Mile-a-minute vine arrived from Asia in the early 20th century and quickly spread all over the East Coast,” said Weiss, who grew up in Ballouville, Conn., and now lives in Central Falls, R.I. “It’s a vigorous grower, scrambling over bushes, suffocating native plants, and doing significant damage.”
Weiss and her student team worked in collaboration with the Rhode Island Natural History Survey last summer to map and remove the invasive vine from sites in Cranston, East Greenwich and Block Island.
“It was pretty tedious work at times, especially because the plants have recurved barbs that will slice you right up, so it could be an uncomfortable situation,” she explained. “But it was important work.”
After the field work was completed, Weiss partnered with East Greenwich High School teacher Christopher Wren and his students to test how easily mile-a-minute vine can grow from cuttings. She had read that the vine does not root easily, but her tests found that just the opposite was true, which may partially explain why it can overtake an area so quickly. This spring she hopes to take her tests to classrooms in Cranston and Block Island to teach the students in those communities about the plant and how they can join the effort to keep it at bay.
Weiss’s research was funded by a federal stimulus grant to the R.I. Natural History Survey and conducted as part of the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 16th year, it is based at URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences. Students are paired with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations.
The poster Weiss created illustrating her research placed second among the 50 Coastal Fellows who exhibited their research at the University on Dec. 13.
“I always wanted to be a biologist,” said Weiss. “I used to put bread and apples under my bed when I was five or six years old to see what would grow on them. I grew up in a really rural area, and I was fascinated with nature. In many of my part-time jobs in the nursery and landscaping industry, there was always something to learn from nature.”
She has taken what she learned from those jobs and from her Coastal Fellows research and she is using it to transform the neighborhood where she lives into an oasis that the local children can enjoy.
With one year to go until she graduates from URI, Weiss is mapping out plans to enroll in graduate school.
“I’m still very open to different opportunities for graduate study,” she said. “I guess the overarching theme that I am interested in is plant physiology, especially phytochemistry, and its ability to indicate and influence the health of an ecosystem.”
URI student Christine Weiss (with hat in middle) and her team of high school students take a break from removing invasive plants from Rhode Island forests. Photo courtesy of Christine Weiss