The Post: OU student recognized nationally for her undergraduate thesis research

Presenting years of research before several national science conferences would be considered an achievement by any undergraduate’s standards.

But for fifth-year senior Lauren Johnson, a double major in anthropology and geology, her success was just a natural progression of her lifelong interest in nature.

A young girl saving tadpoles in the creek behind her house near Dayton, Ohio, planted the seed for the young academic, who presented her research to the Midwest Archaeological Conference in 2013 and Geological Society of America conference in 2014.

“I spent all my time outdoors,” Johnson said.

Of course, an interest in nature alone was not enough to get her where she is today.

It also took a lot of work.

“We had a lot of trial and error, and again she kept with it,” said Daniel Hembree, associate professor in geological studies. “There were lots of points where students would just give up, decide they didn’t need to do this anymore … She kept going despite all the issues.”

In the summer of 2013, Johnson joined the Field School in Ohio Archeology and analyzed prehistoric Native American rock shelters in the Hocking Valley.

“I quickly realized she was an exceptional student,” said Paul Patton, the director of the Field School. “She is, in that sense, what I would say one of the rare students — and what we want to see more of from students — with the ability to be an interdisciplinary scientist.”

Johnson’s research project examined these prehistoric shelters and worked to determine if the shelters were strategically or randomly placed.

The conventional belief among scientists holds that these prehistoric Americans lived nomadic lives, but evidence of insufficient agriculture caused by fluctuating climate changes of the time has led some scientists to propose that prehistoric Americans were sometimes sedentary.

The rock shelters — evidence of temporary storage — add an additional clue to this ancient puzzle.

“It’s not quite that simple,” Patton said of the project. “We’re beginning to challenge some of those old ideas of nomadic hunters and gatherers … and that changes the narrative.”

After completing the analysis for her summer project, Johnson went on to write a paper of the preliminary findings, which she presented at the Midwest Archaeological Conference in October 2013.

Johnson and Patton are now in the process of finishing the data analysis and formatting the research paper for publication.

Meanwhile, Johnson has been tackling her senior thesis project about the Eastern Spadefoot Toad.

Her thesis question explores the possibility of objectively comparing toad burrows with burrows of other animals, such as those of salamanders and scorpions.

“She was very dedicated to it,” Hembree said. “She kept wanting to do more.”

Johnson’s project makes up a larger, five-year analysis of additional animal burrow research, all of which looks very promising, Hembree said.

For the last three semesters, Johnson has been in the lab, working with live animals to complete the work required to test her thesis hypothesis.

Since Johnson first approached Hembree as a junior, she’s been working on the preliminary research, lab work and written analysis of the actual results.

In April 2014, Johnson presented her findings to the Southeastern Geological Society of America conference, and again in October 2014 at the annual Geological Society of America conference in Vancouver, Canada.

“It was a great experience,” Johnson said. “Of course, I was incredibly nervous, but I learned how to work under pressure.”

Johnson is trying to get her geology thesis published, which along with her nationally recognized presentations, is unusual of students at the undergraduate level, Hembree said.

“She will definitely go far,” Hembree said. “She has everything that’s needed to be a success in academia. She has the motivation, the desire, the interest, [and] the work ethic.”

After spending much of her childhood in the outdoors, Johnson said she enjoyed both the projects in her respective majors and the challenges that accompanied her work.

“It’s been a long five years,” Johnson said, a day after submitting the final defense for her senior thesis projects. “Athens has taught me, and not just in an academic way, so much.”

This story also appears on The Post