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Tropical Ecology Influences Relationships at Home

Associate Professor of Chemistry Brandon Winters uses 3D printing and Skype to make science accessible to more students in more places.

By Monique Kleinhuizen ’08, GS’16, new media strategist

June 13, 2019 | 9:45 a.m.

Associate Professor of Chemistry Brandon Winters shares with Foley Elementary third-graders about his Interim trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands.

Associate Professor of Chemistry Brandon Winters shares with Foley Elementary third-graders about his Interim trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands.

Associate Professor of Chemistry Brandon Winters has a weekly schedule like any other Bethel instructor. Between classroom and lab sessions, students filter into his office to ask questions, and there’s a near-constant conversation happening in the faculty office-lined hallway leading to the department’s laboratories.

But tucked between his shelved textbooks are brightly-colored plastic figurines, a clue that his office hosts more than office hours. Winters’ Google Calendar is peppered with off-campus speaking engagements whose focus lies 3,100 miles away, in Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. There’s a deeper narrative to Winters’ life work that goes far beyond Bethel students, though they’re often the beneficiaries.

Winters first fell in love with Ecuador during a year of Bible school there in the early 2000s. After teaching at Bethel for seven years, he returned with his family for a sabbatical in 2018, and in January led 18 students there on the longstanding “Ecology in the Tropics” interim trip with Professor of Biology Amy Dykstra. For an analytical chemist with an interest in instruments and chemical analysis, it’s a spot that’s as intriguing as it is beautiful.

Group of students on the 2019 Interim trip "Ecology in the Tropics"

Winters, Dykstra, and students on the 2019 Interim trip "Ecology in the Tropics"

“Historically, the Galápagos Islands are significant: that’s where Darwin made his observations that ultimately led to his theory on natural selection and evolution. The islands are really unique in the sense that they have a high rate of endemism: species that only live in a very isolated, specific area,” Winters explains. “Ecuador as a whole does, too, because of the unique intersection of the Amazon rainforest and the Andes Mountains. In the Galápagos, in some cases, there are individual species on just one island, not even the whole chain. And in the Amazon Rainforest, there might be a plant that only grows in one tree. You could cut down that tree, the species would go extinct, and we’d never know it. That might be happening every single day.”

The Galápagos provide a unique window into the impact of ecosystems and species on worldwide environmental interests. There, 97% of the land mass is not populated and can’t be built on. Some areas aren’t even open to visitors; they’re protected, pristine natural environments. “The story of the Galápagos truly intersects with our story as a country and as a human race,” he adds.

While Winters’ love for Ecuador drew him back, his professional interests relate to the use of chemical instrumentation in the identification of unknown chemical species. Quantitative and qualitative analysis can shed light, literally and figuratively, on the factors and chemical interactions at play in the natural world. Last fall, he began dreaming up an ultraviolet (UV) visible spectrophotometer that could be used to do such chemical analysis on the cheap in the rainforest.

“My General Chemistry I class was taking their final, and I decided to make a cardboard prototype in the front of the room,” he recalls, with a chuckle, holding up the resulting bright orange and green instrument he later 3D printed himself. “The rate of organic decay is so rapid there. All of that nutrient is tied up in the living organisms instead of in the topsoil. We wanted to see if there was a measurable difference in the ability of soil to hold nutrients, its adsorption, between the topsoil and the layer beneath it.”

He enlisted student researchers Nick Banfield ’20 and Cassandra Dixon ’21, who could earn an upper division biology elective credit for doing a research project on their trip, and tailored the instrument to hold an iPhone 6s as a detector. The idea would be to run water containing an easy-to-pack organic dye through soil columns from several locations and measure differences in adsorptive capacity. Banfield studied the spectra produced by the various soil efluent samples and found that topsoil held more coloring than clay. Dixon’s research, in contrast, focused on measuring the chlorophyll levels in leaves using fluorometry, or the measure of fluorescence produced by chlorophyll extracted from leaves mashed up in an alcohol solution.

More than the results themselves, Winters’ hope was that developing an accurate, lightweight, cheap, and portable instrument would allow other universities and high schools to conduct similar research. He routinely uploads plans to public, online repositories such as thingiverse.com, where users share plans for 3-D creations—from piggy banks and cryptexes to items with more specific uses, like this. He recently published a version of a chemistry lab instrument that’s normally very expensive, but that he specifically designed to utilize nuts and bolts that are readily, affordably available from a hardware store in addition to 3D printable components designed at Bethel.

“I believe deeply in the open source movement, a free flow of knowledge, and I have a passion for creating new things. I love that others can use and modify and improve on what I create...that’s the backbone of science and how it progresses.”

— Associate Professor of Chemistry Brandon Winters

He’s also shared the tropics with students outside of Bethel, hosting virtual field trips via Skype from Ecuador to his mother’s third-grade classroom at Foley Elementary. While the family was on sabbatical, Winters’ son Levi was also a third grader and guided a Foley class virtual field trip to La Mitad del Mundo, Ecuador, whose name means “the centerpoint of the world” in Spanish. Levi used Itiñan Solar Museum exhibits to explain some of the learning objectives that are core to the third grade science curriculum. The Foley third graders followed along via Skype. This January, Winters did a 12-minute Skype call from the cloud forest. During spring break, he followed up with the class in person to share video and research from the trip.

He’s done similar visits at Cambridge High School, Stillwater Middle School, and Foley High School, where his own high school chemistry teacher Dave Voeltz still teaches. Winters credits Voeltz with inspiring him and many of his peers to pursue Ph.D.s and careers in chemistry.

“He inspired a lot of people, and I maintain that relationship out of respect for him and what he has done,” Winters says, pulling the conversation back to the philosophical reason he approaches his work the way he does. “There’s such a big part of what God’s doing in me right now that has to do with relationships. We need to live in such a way as to honor and respect each other. When that’s applied to the study of the environment, you start to see we’re all interdependent. My choices impact my neighbor...and maybe someone who is not my neighbor, who is thousands of miles away. In living out a meaningful witness of Christian faith, I have a strong conviction that something as simple as putting down a phone and making eye contact with strangers is a huge way we as Christians can demonstrate we’re different. There’s value in the natural world, naturally, but there’s also such value in ‘the other.’”

Visit Bethel

The best way to get a feel for the Bethel community is to take a tour of campus. During a customized visit, you’ll experience the energy of life on campus and meet professors like Winters, who are driven by a deep desire to inspire learning and passion in their next generation of learners. Enjoy lunch in the Dining Center, hear students’ perspectives firsthand, attend Chapel, and feel what it’s like to know you’re home.

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