The proof’s in the poop

Chico State grad student crowdfunds research in the emerging science of environmental DNA

Lawson in the lab with Chico State’s resident soft-shelled turtle, Pancake.<i> </i>

Lawson in the lab with Chico State’s resident soft-shelled turtle, Pancake.

Photo courtesy of Gin Lawson

Some biologists believe there’s a campaign of genocide bubbling in the creeks and streams of the Hawaiian islands, where an invasive species of turtle is suspected of eating the Hawaiian goby fish toward extinction.

If green science was all black and white, the answer might be as simple as setting some traps for the problem species and voilà, fish and turtle soup for everyone. But in this case the suspect turtle—the Chinese wattle-necked variety—is itself endangered. Furthermore, both species are endemic to the islands of Kauai and Oahu, meaning they exist nowhere else in the world, with the fish arriving by nature’s design and the turtles at the hands of late-19th century Chinese immigrants. The turtles have since been eaten out of their native China and Vietnam by human predators.

Chico State professor Tag Engstrom and several students have been involved with researching the fish-turtle conundrum since 2007, and biology graduate student Gin Lawson believes she can help the process through the emerging science of environmental DNA, known as eDNA. And she’s going about it in an unconventional way—through crowdfunding her efforts.

Lawson explained the first step in establishing a plan for the wattle-necks’ future is to find out for certain the turtles are eating the fish, and obtain the requisite scientific proof.

“People who watch cop shows are familiar with the forensic process of searching a crime scene for DNA,” Lawson began when asked to explain eDNA and its potential role in the research. “This is similar, because I’m also looking for DNA in the environment—eDNA is targeted toward a specific organism or animal.”

This comes in handy in several ways, she explained. In past expeditions, Engstrom and other researchers relied on setting traps to find turtles to study, but the animal’s rarity made this difficult. The process can be expedited by testing waterways for DNA evidence that the amphibian lives there for certain.

Using Lawson’s techniques to locate the turtles should mean more samples with which to conclusively determine if they eat the endangered goby. Previous studies using stable isotope analysis by another CSU graduate student determined the turtle eats fish, but the genetic evidence is needed to see what species it snacks on. The proverbial pudding wherein this proof lies is turtle poop.

“The traditional method of studying an animal’s dietary habits is to induce vomiting,” Lawson said. “We’ve tried that, but these turtles have long, telescoping necks. Getting the buggers to throw up just wasn’t working, so we figured we needed to wait for everything to come out the other end.”

Lawson said eDNA is fairly new to the world of environmental science, with the first papers published on its processes and applications in the last decade. In 2013, the scientific journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution listed it as one of the top 15 scientific horizons to watch in the near future, particularly for its value in detecting aquatic species. In addition to facilitating the finding of more—and more precise—data, it is less invasive and less expensive than traditional methods, Lawson said.

Lawson is no stranger to the nontraditional, as evidenced by her life and educational path. She attended Feather River College as a married mother of three in her early 20s and transferred to Chico State in 2005, but her scholastic success was hindered by troubles at home, which led her to spend about a month in a shelter two weeks into starting at Chico State.

But Lawson soldiered on, working multiple jobs to care for her children and enduring a two-year-long divorce process. In that same two years, she also earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, which she used to begin substitute teaching.

Though subbing kept the single mother afloat, Lawson said she still struggled financially, and believed the ticket to a better life for her and her children was further education. She also decided the best course of action would be to pursue her lifelong love of biology, and began taking advanced science and math classes at Butte College to prepare to re-enter Chico State as a graduate student in biological sciences.

This is Lawson’s first semester back at the university, and she’s already made headway by designing primers and otherwise working to fine-tune eDNA techniques to assist in the turtle research. She said her early expertise in the field will be a marketable skill after she finishes her master’s, so she can enable her children—who are now in high school—to attend a university. She said things are better in her personal life now, and that she’s happily remarried.

Lawson conducts most of her research in professor David Keller’s lab, but is concerned that the materials she uses come directly from his budget. To lessen this weight, Lawson is trying to fund her own research the best way she knows how—unconventionally. Prompted by a story she heard on National Public Radio, she’s launched a crowdfunding campaign on to raise $2,500 for various materials.

“I personally wouldn’t post this project on another site, like Kickstarter, because my request would have to compete with multitudes of other projects, and the projects are for everything under the sun,” she said. “You’ve got people saying, ‘I want to start a rock band,’ and ‘I have a prototype that I want to bring to market,’ and ‘I want to attach rockets to a pogo stick and see what happens.’

“I like that is just for scientists.”

Lawson’s crowdfunding campaign can be found at, and runs through late January.