Texas Tech University

After Tragedy, Biology Students Finish Friend's Research

Heidi Toth

January 21, 2015

After Tragedy, Biology Students Finish Friend's Research

Chris Rodriguez is listed as an author of the biology research he started before his death in 2012.

Christopher Rodriguez
Christopher Rodriguez died following a motorcycle accident in 2012.

Four names were in the author spot of a Texas Tech University study presented at a biology conference in Sacramento in August.

Senior biology student Tailor Brown's name was at the top; she did most of the field research, which examined how oak tree resprouts respond to drought conditions. Joshua Willms, who is now a joint MD/Ph.D. student at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, is second; he helped coordinate all the research. Associate biology professor Dylan Schwilk, whose name is fourth, guided the undergraduate researchers.

Christopher Rodriguez is third. The project was his brainchild. He learned how to use the equipment and wrote a research proposal. He told his friends about this exciting new research he'd started, and he made plants and droughts sound exciting.

Just a few months into the research, on Oct. 3, 2012, he suffered life-threatening injuries in a motorcycle accident. He died three days later.

After Rodriguez's death, a few of his friends approached Schwilk and said they'd like to continue Rodriguez's research. It would be their friend's legacy. Schwilk allowed himself to be persuaded.

“It's not a story of the work almost being done and students chipping in and finishing it,” he said. “That was their idea, but instead some students who would not have otherwise learned about our lab's research became interested in plants and ecology.”

Forming a hypothesis

Rodriguez hadn't taken ecology yet when he walked into Schwilk's lab, but as an undergraduate researcher in Texas Tech's Center for the Integration of STEM Education and Research (CISER), he was looking for a research project.

“He was interested in ecology and plants, and that's a bit unusual,” Schwilk said. “Students here tend to be self-described pre-health, so it's rare to find those who aren't. He came and talked to me and was clearly really interested. He wasn't just looking to pad his resume.”

The summer before his junior year, Rodriguez learned the processes and how to use the equipment. He went on research trips to the Davis Mountains and was developing a proposal that would allow him both to do this research for Texas Tech's Howard Hughes Medical Institute (TTU/HHMI) research program and use it for his honors thesis.

Presentation of thesis
Josh Willms, Tailor Brown and professor Dylan Schwilk presenting their research.

“He was getting so annoyed there were obstacles to his combining an honors thesis with his TTU/HHMI research,” Schwilk remembered. “Fortunately, he was good at pushing stuff through. He was a very charming guy, so he could try to push his point of view and not irritate anyone in the bureaucracy.”

Stepping in

Brown got involved after a fellow research scholar and friend of Rodriguez told her about the research project. Brown was interested in plants, but she didn't really know Rodriguez.

Others did. After a memorial service on campus for Rodriguez, Willms and others approached Schwilk asking to continue their friend's research.

“To be honest, I thought this was not a particularly good idea,” Schwilk said. “I think you have to love what you do, and it was wonderful to do something in Chris' memory, but research whatever you love as a legacy instead. And that's what I told them.

“It wasn't like Chris' project was almost done. He was just starting.”

Willms, however, kept asking. He was working on an honors thesis as well as doing TTU/HHMI research in a marine biology lab, but he believed finishing Rodriguez's research would help the research group heal. The TTU/HHMI group was small and tight-knit, he said, and they were all affected when Rodriguez died.

“I wanted everybody in TTU/HHMI to at least have a chance to work on it,” Willms said.

He knew everybody couldn't be trained on all the tasks, so he left the more technical work for himself, Brown and Schwilk. He invited students to do work that could be done fairly easily and in small increments, like data entry or running centrifuge. The training was quick and easy and a steady supply of students rotated through the lab for an hour or two at a time.

He also organized a memorial field trip for any students who wanted to see where the research was happening.

Memorial Field Trip
Dylan Schwilk (left) and TTU/HHMI scholar Andrew Armstrong on the memorial field trip to the Davis Mountains.

“Everybody got to see where Chris was working and spend some time in the mountains,” Willms said. “I think that was also good to help people heal.”

The finished research project provided healing for more than just the students involved, said Julie Isom, the TTU/HHMI associate program director.

“We have been awed by the compassion and dedication the involved scholars have had for this amazing journey to honor the life of their friend and preserve his legacy through his research,” she said. “It is a testament to the beauty and power of what a small but determined group of individuals can accomplish. There is an inspirational lesson here, one we will all remember.”

Answering the question

Rodriguez researched how oak trees respond to drought conditions. Schwilk and a graduate student were already researching full-grown trees, so Rodriguez focused his efforts on resprouts – the trees that grew after fire destroyed the parts above ground. These new trees had a full-grown root system but were immature trees.

That research required numerous field trips to sites in the Davis Mountains, southwest of Midland/Odessa. To collect samples, Schwilk and the students brought bags full of water in which to contain the tree stems; each stem was immersed and cut underwater to ensure it was never exposed to air. They collected samples from different types of oak trees in various environments in the mountains and brought them back to Texas Tech for testing.

To simulate a drought, the stems would be run through a centrifuge, which spun the plants around quickly, creating the same tension in the plant that lack of water would create. Plants bring water in through the roots, and it moves up through the plant pulled by tension in the vessels. In a drought (or extreme heat, which to a plant feels about the same), that tension becomes too extreme and the vessels embolize, causing water flow to the leaves to stop.

Data Collection
Tailor Brown and Josh Willms collecting data on a trip to the Davis Mountains.

If drought conditions last long enough, part or all of the tree may die.

This seems obvious – of course plants need water to survive – but the big picture turned out to be much bigger. Brown found that post-fire resprouts were more vulnerable to high tension than were the adults and examined how much danger the oak populations could be in, particularly in already arid areas like West Texas that are just going to get hotter and drier as the Earth heats up.

If the oak populations are in trouble, that also has ramifications for the other life forms that depend on it. The trees are already largely confined to mountaintops, called “sky islands” in the research. They don't have many other places to go from there.

“Those forests are very important for wildlife,” Schwilk said. “These are unique islands of habitat for many animals. The bears in West Texas all depend on oaks. If you do not have oaks, you do not have bears.

“If the climate warms, perhaps these trees will be pushed off the top of the mountains and be gone.”

The legacy of Chris Rodriguez

Willms remembered a meeting at the Honors College for all the students doing a thesis. A student asked a physics question. Rodriguez jumped in, eager to share his love of science.

“It was really cool to see someone who is so excited about science and so excited about sharing it and trying to get someone to understand it,” Willms said. “You can tell when somebody is excited about what they know, somebody who's excited about basically how cool the world is, and I think that was Chris.”

Schwilk echoed that sentiment. He remembered being out in the mountains with Rodriguez, talking about science and answering questions.

He also remembered Rodriguez asking questions about everything on their first trip, trying to figure out how to do all of the processes and why they were testing the plants as they were. He was excited to know.

“Once he said something like, 'I just never knew this was what science was like,'” Schwilk said. “He picked up stuff really fast, and he was good at asking the right questions and not being afraid to ask silly questions. When he asked a question, he remembered your answer and you didn't have to tell him again.

“It's great when students are smart, but, more importantly, he was interested in education and introducing other people to science and in doing good things in the world. We didn't get to see what Chris could do, but I've had students like him who are not only smart but really good people. I care about that a lot as well.”

Willms met Rodriguez's family twice, first at an HHMI memorial service and then at a universitywide memorial for all the students who died that year. He and Rodriguez's other friends told his family how they had continued doing his research.

“They were really happy,” Willms said. “They were very emotional. I don't know how to describe it.”

Then he paused.

“I guess they really appreciated it.”