From finding a mentor to providing funding, UNT has helped Marisha Frazier achieve her research goals

Marisha Frazier

Marisha Frazier

UNT senior biology major Marisha Frazier has always been fascinated with science and nature. She knew since she was a little girl that she wanted to go into the field of biology, because it offers opportunities to help others. Little did she know back then that she'd end up on a career track that included studying bugs.

Though she enjoys collecting specimens today, there was a time when insects frightened Frazier. But that was before she took James Kennedy's ecology class.

"It wasn't until I came to UNT and took one of Dr. Kennedy's classes that I realized I wanted to concentrate on ecology, " Frazier says. "He basically said we could get paid to collect bugs. I thought 'You can get paid to do this? What? Let's do it!' "

McNair Scholars Program
Marisha Frazier

Frazier is part of the McNair Scholars Program which allows her to conduct insect research and learn how it reveals the quality of water. The program prepares university juniors and seniors who are first generation college students, or who are from populations that are underrepresented in graduate education, for doctoral education.  It provides mentored research with a faculty member, independent research opportunities, funds conference travel and pays students to conduct research.

"UNT has invested so much in me that I want to help other people and give back to the world," Frazier says. "My ultimate career goal is to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so I can help improve the environment on a national scale."

In addition to the water quality insect research, Frazier is working on West Nile virus research for the City of Denton. She received class credit for it last year, but is able to continue her research and conduct testing at UNT thanks to a stipend from the McNair program. Her research results are not only reported to the City of Denton, but also to the State of Texas and the federal government.

UNT cultivates undergraduate research

Frazier's mentor, James Kennedy, Regents Professor of biological sciences, has been instrumental in her development as a researcher.

Kennedy's value as a teacher and researcher stands out in Frazier's mind because he is passionate about the environment. She learned that insect biodiversity affects everything from drinking water to the air we breathe. Her fascination with the subject is the reason Frazier chose Kennedy as her mentor.

Kennedy says Frazier is a real go-getter when it comes to her research and learning and is interested in having lots of different experiences.

"She embraces almost everything that we have given her," Kennedy says of Frazier. "She grabs hold of every situation and gets the job done."

Kennedy has led Frazier and a team of other UNT researchers to test the water quality of the Trinity River. The river is the longest river that flows entirely within Texas and is the source of drinking water for more than half of the state.

Frazier, the only undergraduate researcher on the water quality project, is responsible for assessing the river's health by analyzing sediment samples that contain aquatic insects. An instrument called a Ponar grab is used to collect sediment from the river. After samples of river sediment are collected, the sediment is separated to find aquatic insects. Once they are isolated, the insects are placed into a vial to transport them back to the UNT research lab for further study under a microscope. Once at the lab, Frazier conducts a sediment analysis using the hydrometer method to measure the percentage of silt and clay in the sediment.

Unlike fish that move about the river, insects bury themselves in the sediment. Because they are stationary, aquatic insects are directly exposed to chemicals and wastes, so analyzing their populations provides an effective method to assess the health of the river.

"It's important to study aquatic insects in rivers, because we don't know how the river affects them over time," Frazier says.

Improving Texas' drinking water

The river's safety as a drinking water source has vastly improved since a 1925 study by the Trinity River Sanitary Survey compared the river to the River Styx, the Greek mythological river of death. The river is the most highly industrialized and populated watershed in Texas. Thanks to improvements in wastewater treatment plant technology over the past 88 years, the safety of the water has greatly improved.

The results of Frazier's findings have shown that the improved water quality is positively impacting the river's aquatic life. She's found that the numbers and diversity of aquatic insects upstream of the wastewater treatment plant is similar to that found downstream which means the improvements in wastewater treatment plants has reduced the toxicity associated with their effluents to the aquatic insect populations – a good sign of the river's health. However, continued monitoring and studying of aquatic insects on a regular basis is crucial. Without consistent assessment, a problem could subtly begin to take hold and eliminate the improvement to the Trinity's water quality.

Succeeding at UNT

Frazier tackles this research and her undergraduate experience at UNT with tenacity. As a McNair scholar and Honor's College student, she is dedicated to being successful.

Frazier is adamant and proactive about finding support on campus when she needs it. She has used many of the campus resources available, such as the programs offered through the Learning Center, to help her improve her time management and study habits.

UNT has given her the tools and resources she has needed to achieve her dreams of becoming an ecologist. She says events such as Eagle Camp and First Flight Week gave her the opportunity to learn about programs on campus and helped her transition into college life. She was also able to make life-long friends through both programs.

"UNT is a major research school and the faculty here is simply amazing," Frazier says. "Everyone I've encountered has been helpful."

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