A knack for knapweed knowledge

Golden teen helps make weed control discovery


Vivian Weigel loves science. She isn’t sure yet what area of science she wants to work in someday, although the 16 year-old Golden High School junior is considering becoming a researcher in microbiology or doing medical research, especially on diseases. So she looks for opportunities to explore different areas of science.

During her freshman year she studied marine biology and ecosystem in Hawaii for two weeks, focusing on fish species living in coral reefs. She also enjoyed the opportunity to learn about Hawaiian culture.

Her interest in finding new opportunities to explore recently led her to the CU Science Discovery program, an outreach program in the University of Colorado’s Division of Continuing Education. It is for young students interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The STEM Research Experience is a four-week summer mentorship program that partners high school students with CU researchers.

“I love biology mostly so I decided to do an ecology project,” said Weigel.

She was paired with Timothy Seastedt, Ph.D., professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Seastedt, an expert in invasive weeds, was working on using insects as biological controls for spotted knapweed, an invasive weed common in many areas of Colorado.

“Work published in high-profile journals has suggested the insects are not sufficient to control the plant densities,” said Seastedt. “Our work suggests the opposite, but we’re trying to come to some scientific consensus on if and when biological controls can work and ‘manage’ the species in ways acceptable to both human well-being and the need to protect native species.”

“He introduced me to a lot of his work,” Weigel said. “He listed projects I could help design.”

Together they planned a research project that focused on the effectiveness of the root weevil, Cyphocleonus achates, one of three weevils that help control knapweed. The factors she chose to include in the study were the densities of the knapweed and the densities of the weevils in the areas studied. Two sites in Boulder’s Lefthand Canyon were chosen, an upper and a lower meadow. Each meadow had both a riparian (wetlands) area and a meadow area.

The goal of the research was to determine if biological control insects can actually ‘control’ spotted knapweed densities, said Dr. Seastedt.

“I really think the root weevil is an effective control,” said Weigel. “It impacts all the plants over time. It is definitely an effective option, especially if the knapweed is in a concentrated area.”

“Our previous research has shown that knapweed attacked by root weevils produces fewer seeds and also may die at a relatively young age,” said Dr. Seastedt.

Weigel’s research showed that the weevils attacked more mature knapweed more than younger plants and that there are more root weevils attacking plants in the riparian than in the meadow areas.

Weigel created a poster to illustrate her research and findings.

“Her findings are fairly original research contributing to our knowledge base,” said Dr. Seastedt. “We’ve published about ten papers on this topic, and we plan to publish more, and Vivian’s findings will likely be part of that effort.”

In addition to her interests in biology and ecology, Weigel is currently enjoying classes in chemistry and physics.

“I’m very much a student,” she said. “I love school.”

She also enjoys competing in debates and loves public speaking, she said.

“I like to research new topics every month, such as current events. I learn about the subject and find evidence for debate arguments.

“I’ve learned so much,” she said. “You can’t have an opinion unless you know both sides of an issue. Things are more complex than meets the eye.

“I just love the whole thing.”

She also loves to play the piano, and has been taking piano lessons since kindergarten. “It’s also a change of pace from school,” she said. Her favorite music is music from the 1930s. “It’s really beautiful. It’s more complex than our music now. We have simpler chords. They appeal to a wider audience.”

Weigel also loves to travel.

“I’ve been to Paris twice, London, Germany, 30 U.S. states and Mexico,” she said. “I love Paris. The energy is very cool. I speak French. I love the language and the culture.”

As she explores different colleges, she is leaning towards going to a university in Boston. “I love the architecture, and being on the water. The city has a great energy.”

Weigel offered some advice for other students interested in a career in science.

“Actively seek out opportunities,” she said. “If I hadn’t gone out of my way I wouldn’t have gotten to do this (research project). Take a lot of different science classes so you can explore opportunities. Talk to your science teachers. Advocate actively for yourself. Send emails to programs where they have opportunities. Even if they are college programs, they may be willing to take high school students.”


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