Adams State students involved in ongoing research

ALAMOSA — Dr. Kristy Duran’s student research projects never really end. After one student graduates and moves on, another takes over and continues the study. Some of the resulting work has been published in professional journals.

Duran’s research concerns the little-studied dwarf mistletoe, which offers the opportunity to build on the body of knowledge. Two species of the parasitic plants are found in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado: one infects piñon pine and the other, ponderosa pine. Duran has been studying the parasitic plant for 18 years and has mentored 30 student researchers. She supports the work through a National Science Foundation Fellowship research stipend.

For his senior capstone thesis, Daniel Chavez is working with Duran to study the correlation between piñon pine trees’ defense compounds and the presence of mistletoe infection. He hopes the work may provide insight into the interaction between dwarf mistletoe infection and bark beetle infestation, which is devastating forests throughout the west.

“I am a valley native and I enjoy having not only a teacher but a mentor who has come from the valley and shares some of my culture and values,” Chavez said. “Dr. Duran has accomplished her goals and returned to the valley to share her experiences with the upcoming generation looking to do the same.”

After a teaching stint at Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University), Duran decided she wanted to come home to the San Luis Valley, having grown up in Antonito. There just happened to be an opening in Adams State’s biology department. Although Duran earned her bachelor’s degree at University of New Mexico, Adams State has always been important to her family. Her grandfather worked construction on several campus buildings erected in the late 1960s, and her parents, sister, and several aunts and uncles are Adams State alumni.

“I knew I wanted to be at an undergraduate teaching institution and a Hispanic Serving Institution to work with students on research,” she said. She also manages the campus greenhouse and teaches courses in plant science, biology, and environmental science.

Duran also curates the university’s herbarium and, together with a consortium of herbaria in the southern Rockies, obtained a National Science Foundation grant through which student Caleb Baumgartner is preparing the collections for scanning and digitization. The project’s goal is to document plant niches in the high peaks and high plains of the southern Rockies. Duran is also mentoring a researcher who recently received her Ph.D. from Colorado State University on forest health research. Together they submitted two grants, one to the National Science Foundation and another to the USDA.

Beyond teaching and research, Duran supports students as advisor to the Adams State chapter of SACNAS (Society for Advancement of Hispanics/Chicanos and Native Americans in Science), which she initiated five years ago with Dr. Renee Beeton, professor of chemistry. Students attend an annual national conference where they sometimes present their research and network with local STEM professionals.

Duran’s interest in the dwarf mistletoe developed through her doctoral work on evolutionary biology, which she completed at University of Colorado - Boulder. She also has an affinity for San Luis Valley vegetation, including medicinal plants traditionally used by her family. That dovetails with another project she’s involved with, funded by the Colorado State Historical Fund. She is one of 25 researchers who will be looking at the unique natural and cultural history of an area in Conejos County known as La Botica (pharmacy). It is believed Native Americans grew medicinal plants at the site beginning 8,000 years ago. Adams State Associate Professor of History Nick Saenz is also involved in the project.

At the national level, Duran serves on the leadership board of 500 Women Scientists, initiated following the 2016 election to increase women’s representation in science. “They wanted 500 individuals, but now there are almost 500 chapters with 20,000 members from over 100 countries,” Duran said. She is also active as a Ford Foundation Fellow, having received a dissertation fellowship. She serves on conference panels and on the Senior Ford Fellows conference committee.

“A lot of these things energize me,” Duran said of her research and service. “As part of these communities, I feel supported and have the opportunity to support others.”