U research aided by

Amy Olson

When 17-year-old Alison Boutin began her summer research project in botany with Bob Thompson, she never dreamed her work would take her to a symposium in France.
Boutin, a high school senior from Burnsville, Minn., applied to the Minnesota Academy of Sciences and was one of six students chosen to conduct a research project in the academy’s Research and Engineering Apprenticeship Program. Thompson and Boutin identified the types of corn grown and cooked by Native Americans by examining patterns of silicon dioxide left in cooking pots.
Thompson, who is director of the teaching and research greenhouse, is working on his Ph.D. in interdisciplinary archaeology. He began his research in the mid-1980s, studying the differences in cooking residue between corn and rice.
Thompson determined that the assemblage of patterns in the residue formed by phytoliths — microscopic glass skeletons that form around plant cells — indicated not only the difference between corn and rice, but between corn varieties.
Thompson presented his initial findings at a conference in 1993 in Pittsburgh. Although the results were well-received, Thompson said he methods were not universally accepted, so he continued his research.
To prove his methods, Thompson needed someone to duplicate his results. That researcher was Boutin.
When Thompson began looking for a research assistant, he expected to work with someone pursuing a Ph.D. or an honors thesis.
“Alison proved to be quite talented,” Thompson said. “At the symposium in France, researchers asked her where she was working on her Ph.D.”
After learning the lab methods with help from Margaret Davis in the College of Biological Science’s research training office, Boutin was able to reproduce his results with 100 percent accuracy.
“Who would’ve thought, ‘Hey, if we scrape the inside of the pot, maybe we can figure out what type of corn they ate?'” Boutin said.
“To get it right 100 percent demonstrates the strength of the technique,” Thompson said. Their results showed the patterns of silica deposits in the pots were genetically linked to the variety of corn cooked.
Boutin explained that the silica deposit patterns were the key to determining the corn variety.
“If an alien picked up one blond, blue-eyed human in overalls, it might assume all humans looked like that,” Boutin said. “If it picked up 100 instead, it might include a brunette, giving it a more accurate picture of what humans look like. It’s the same with the phytoliths.”
When one of Thompson’s colleagues found out about Boutin’s results, she urged them to go to present their findings at the French National Research Council’s Second International Symposium on Phytolith Research in Aix-en-Provence, France.
With grants from the Minnesota Academy of Sciences, Thompson and Boutin spent six days in southern France, enjoying a concert of 13th century troubadour music and a banquet in a castle, attended by the American Consulate from Marseille, France, the last night of the conference.
“It was a ride,” Boutin said. “It was a blast, not only meeting researchers face to face, whose work I’d read all summer, but also to discuss our research.”
Thompson said phytolith research is still in its early stages.
“It’s kind of like the wild west of science right now,” Thompson said. He also said the conference provided him and Boutin an opportunity to learn about other researchers’ work.
Thompson said he did not tell conference presenters Boutin’s age.
“I wanted the presentation of her research to stand on her own,” Thompson said, fearing some researchers might discount her work based on her age.
Thompson said questions about where Boutin was pursuing her doctorate degree dispelled any fears about her research being discounted.
“I was proud of the contributions she made to the discussions, too,” Thompson added.
Boutin, who works at Jerry’s Garden Center in Eagan, Minn., said her interest in plants led her to apply for the program. After her research experience Boutin said she plans to study botany in college, possibly at the University.