As a researcher and interdisciplinary chemist, Edie Banner, PhD, has delved into Costa Rica’s rainforests to unearth natural products with medicinal properties. She has analyzed the chemistry of poison dart frogs, ultimately developing an efficient method to synthesize complex alkaloids for use as therapeutic agents. Her true passion lies in leveraging that research experience with her role as a biology and chemistry instructor at USF Sarasota-Manatee campus through mentoring students.
“I had a major turning point in my own career after a study abroad experience in the rainforest as an undergraduate and was inspired by teachers who helped guide me in pursuing my newfound interests,” Banner said. “I enjoy getting to know my students and their career goals and guiding them toward those goals through research projects that they develop on their own.”
Named USF Sarasota-Manatee campus’s Outstanding Professor in Spring 2017, Banner integrates experiential learning into courses and provides independent research opportunities for students. Not only does she strive to guide students in formulating questions, developing research methods, conducting investigations and communicating results, she also taps into their desire to engage in hands-on experiences, inquiry-based learning and community engagement.
Since joining USF Sarasota-Manatee campus in 2014, Banner has developed a collaborative course, “Medicines of the Rainforest,” which includes a service learning component with students volunteering at The Florida House Institute gardens. She also developed a study abroad program – “Field Research Experience Abroad – Costa Rica!” – in which students spend two weeks at biological research stations developing a pilot project on a topic of their interest. Upon their return, they use their preliminary studies to prepare a research proposal and present pilot projects at USF Sarasota-Manatee campus’s Student Showcase for Projects, Research and Innovation. Recent topics include bromeliads as tadpole rearing sites, bioluminescent fungi, caterpillar/host plant relationships and terrestrial gastropods.
One such project directly connecting students with research is the monitoring and research program in the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus Gopher Tortoise Conservation Area. Banner recognized the potential for the six-acre habitat to serve as an on-campus resource ripe for more thorough monitoring and student-led projects. And, more importantly, she saw its potential to demonstrate how such research experience would interest her students while creating a larger impact on the species that reside there.
“Gopher tortoises are a keystone species and are really critical in the ecology of the habitat,” Banner said. “If you remove them, there is a cascading loss of hundreds of commensal species that inhabit gopher tortoise burrows. We cannot take any one species for granted because the ecosystem needs to stay in balance. That’s why it’s so important to monitor this habitat to watch for changes that may destroy that balance.”
Under Banner’s advisement, students map and monitor the number of gopher tortoise burrows, commensals that reside in the burrows, tortoise health, availability of forage plants and identification and removal of invasive plants.
“Through mentoring, I hope to empower students to contribute directly to the greater understanding of this threatened keystone species and its habitat right here on their own campus,” Banner said. “The goal is that they could one day take these skills and experiences into their careers and inspire and mentor others.”
Upcoming projects for Banner and her students include examining antibacterial properties in flowering plants, the chemical characteristics of tortoise forage plants and the presence of endangered plants that also reside in the habitat.
“Throughout these research experiences I have watched my students build upon their critical thinking skills and develop confidence in their approaches to achieving their career goals,” she said. “Seeing their reaction when they get accepted into grad school, medical school or a research position is incredibly rewarding, and that is why I do what I do.”