The College First Program Opens Doors to New Possibilities in Plant Conservation and Ecological Restoration

By Olga Kildisheva and Isaiah Spears

Now in its 21st year, the College First internship program brings students from across the Chicago public schools system (IL, USA) to spend the summer exploring the diversity of potential environmental science careers. This opportunity is often missing from the curriculum in the city’s highly racially and ethnically diverse urban high schools. The program is based at the Chicago Botanic Garden, where students work alongside researchers and college-age mentors (who are part of Garden’s National Science Foundation’s funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program). Working with their mentors, students help to address important challenges in plant conservation and restoration. The goal of the program is to increase diversity in STEM fields, with an emphasis on a university education as a means of creating and achieving career aspirations for students, many whom are often the first in their families to attend college. The students are responsible for developing and carrying out an independent project to get hands-on experience conducting plant-based research. Experiences like these are unique and spark a deeper understanding and appreciation of the natural world, a sentiment which can sometimes seem distant in a large metropolitan area like Chicago. Moreover, it has given students the opportunity to develop and pursue pathways to careers they may have never known existed and provides training and assistance with the completion of college applications and facilitation of campus visits.

Being able to have hands-on experiences with different types of sciences helps find what you’re good at, what you like, and what you would like to do in the future. It gives minority students opportunities that aren’t otherwise available to them.
— Isaiah Spears, Collge First Student (2017)

If you measure accomplishment in numbers, the College First program is succeeding, with 95% of program participants having gone on to college, 78% of whom have majored in STEM. But numbers don't tell the whole story; by opening doors to continued learning and sparking a passion for the world around us we build hope for a better, shared future!

Below is a snapshot of this years’ students who helped the recovery and conservation of plant communities through their scientific endeavors.


David Nguyen (junior, Lincoln Park High School) worked on a project which focused on understanding whether the color of Comandra umbellata seeds can be used as a proxy for seed maturity, fill, and optimal collection date – a species whose germination requirements have puzzled restoration practitioners for nearly 20 years.The samples used in this project were collected from Nachusa Grassland, a 3,000-acre preserve that is home to 700 native plant species, including several that are federally threatened. The preserve is subject to major restoration and conservation efforts, which are guided by the Nature Conservancy and executed by an army of volunteers. Major efforts are put into harvesting thousands of pounds of native seeds from remnant habitats here. These seeds are used in conservation and restoration efforts. However, many species, like C. umbellata, are difficult to propagate from seed. The problem could stem from poor seed quality or premature seed harvest because many native animal species use its seeds as a food source. Thus, collectors must harvest late enough in the season to allow the seeds to reach maturity, but before they are consumed – often this is a gamble. Additionally, nursery managers often complain about the poor germination and establishment of the few seeds they are able to collect – it is currently unclear whether seed quality or dormancy are contributing to this challenge. To answer these questions, David used X-ray, photography, and seed dissection techniques to correlate seed color with embryo development and fill. Along with an REU mentor, he also set up germination trials across a range of temperature conditions.


Isaiah Spears (senior, Intrinsic High School) examined methods of breaking seed dormancy in Sphaeralcea munroana (or Munro’s globemallow), a plant native to the sagebrush steppe ecosystem of the western United States. This species is well-adapted to the harsh desert environment and can establish readily after wildfires (which are now common in this region). However, dormancy poses a limitation to the restoration of this hardy native plant from seed. For species that are physically dormant, the inability to take up water serves as a dormancy mechanism to prevent germination at a time when survival is unlikely; however, in a restoration scenario, this is a major disadvantage. Scarification, a technique used to make seed coats permeable, offers a solution to this problem. However, techniques such as sandpaper scarification are time-consuming, while the use of chemicals like sulfuric acid is dangerous and can damage seeds. The goal of this project was to evaluate alternative scarification techniques to break dormancy. Ultimately, the best techniques could be scaled-up to treat large quantities of seeds, which is typically done in “real world” restoration scenarios.


Jasmine Uruchima (senior, Lane Technical College Prep High School) worked on a project which compared the genetic diversity between the native and reintroduced populations of Castilleja sessiliflora (or downy painted cup), native to the Great Plains of North America from southern Canada to northern Mexico. This perennial herb is hemiparasitic, hence derives some of its water and nutrients from tapping into roots of other plants. Loss of connectivity between wild populations poses a serious risk to the persistence and resilience of many species, including C. sessiliflora. To help protect this endangered Illinois native, Jasmine examined the DNA of both native and reintroduced populations to quantify the genetic diversity of each. She was interested in whether the reintroduced population were lacking diversity and whether reintroductions were effective in restoring healthy populations of this species to our prairies.


Cedric McDaniel (junior, Disney II High School) worked to examine how various factors affect the DNA extraction process and influence DNA quality. DNA extraction methods can help determine whether the decline of a species is due to genetic or man-made drivers. Cedric focused on species of a North American oak (Quercus olgethorpensis) predominantly found in the Southeastern states. This species is IUCN red listed due to its drastic decline in the wild. Conservation efforts hope to ensure that the remaining genetic diversity is conserved and properly quantified within the species’ natural populations to maximize its chances of persistance in a changing climate.


Paola Ramirez (senior, Chicago Academy High School) worked on research related to the conservation of the nearly extinct plant species Brighamia insignis, commonly known as Ōlulu or Alula, and native to the Hawaiian islands. By extracting DNA from a range of populations of B. insignis from samples collected from Botanic Garden collections around the world, Paola helped quantify its genetic diversity. The project hopes that if sufficient genetic diversity is found within existing collections, this species can be propagated and re-introduced to its native range.