Spotlight on Student Research

Winter 2011 | Article by Robert M. Morris

Students in Dolphin BayConverting newsprint to gasoline, the evolution of the strawberry poison frog, autism and red blood cells are all among the research interests that have recently drawn attention to current students in the School of Science and Engineering. Here are a few highlights:

Undergraduate Hailee Rask has been having to balance her class and research schedule with interview requests from the national media since the fall about her cutting-edge research into a strain of bacteria that can convert newsprint into butanol, an environmentally friendly fuel that can power cars without modifications to their engines.

"Basically, she is developing a biotechnology for converting plant-related waste—grass, leaves, old paper, corn stocks, corn cobs, etc.—into a liquid fuel that can replace gasoline," says David Mullin, associate professor of cell and molecular biology.

More than 100 science websites have featured Rask's work, and her story has already been featured on National Public Radio and in USA Today, with more stories to come.

Six undergraduates conducted independent research projects focused on the "amazingly diverse" strawberry poison frog, Dendrobates pumilio, in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago of Panama last summer under the guidance of Cori L. Richards-Zawacki, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"Kaiti Tasker and Shemi Benge studied the impacts of habitat disturbance on the health and reproduction of these frogs, respectively," Richards-Zawacki reports. "Henry Bart and Erin Valley took different but complimentary approaches to studying how predators perceive and learn to avoid these brightly-colored and toxic frogs in order to better understand how they evolved such variable warning coloration.

"Anisha Devar studied the impacts of color variation in the context of sexual selection, by comparing females preferences for differently colored males. Eric Rightley also studied the frogs' reproductive behavior, but focused on variation in their mating calls, rather than their coloration. Together, Eric and Anisha's work will help to understand the multi-modal signals that are important mating cues for females, and how they have come to vary among populations.

"These six undergraduates worked alongside Tulane PhD students Justin Yeager and Layla Freeborn as part of ongoing research on this species in the Richards-Zawacki lab. The overall goal of this research is to better understand the ecological and evolutionary forces that drive populations to diversify and eventually lead to the evolution of new species."

Richard Held, a senior in Cell and Molecular Biology, was awarded a Tulane Neuroscience Summer Fellowship recently traveled to the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington, D.C., to present his data. These data are also being published. Held is also second author on a paper recently accepted at Neuron, slated to be published on Dec. 8.

Kristin Ates, a junior in Cell and Molecular Biology, was awarded a CMB Ching Summer Fellowship and a CELT Fund for Scholarly and Artistic Engagement Award to continue her research on the development of ultrasonic vocalizations in a potential mouse model of autism. This past summer, she trained for the World Deaf Swimming Championships in Portugal where she and her teammates set a world record.

Both Held and Ates are students in the laboratory of assistant neurobiology professor Benjamin Hall.

This past summer, undergraduates Hannah Williams and Danielle Ferraro studied tropical biology in Costa Rica in a class offered through the Organization for Tropical Studies, a non-profit consortium involved in education, research, and conservation. At four different research stations across Costa Rica, the students learned about the tropical ecosystem, observing howler monkeys, peccaries, coatis, poison dart frogs, sloths, and other animals in their natural habitats. They conducted their own research and wrote four formal research papers that are published in a coursebook on the OTS website.

"For me, the program was hugely beneficial," Williams writes. "Of course, it helped me towards completion of my major but, more importantly, it helped shape my vision of my future career. I have always wanted to be a veterinarian, but this experience pushed me to volunteer at the zoo this year so that I may determine if my interests lie specifically in exotic animal treatment. Additionally, until the course, I had only considered a DVM degree after college, but now I am thinking about a split DVM/PHD degree because I really enjoyed the research I was able to do in Costa Rica. This class also provided me many connections to the ecological community, if you will, which may be helpful for any future research I choose to pursue."

Fifth-year biomedical engineering graduate student Jose M. Sosa co-authored a recently accepted article, "Artificial microvascular network: a new tool for measuring rheologic properties of stored red blood cells," currently in press in the journal Transfusion. He is also the recipient of the 2011 Joyous and William C. Von Buskirk Graduate Student Fellowship.

Sarah Hunt, a senior working in Professor Jeff Lockman's psychology lab, had several posters accepted for national professional meetings. Hunt studies the development of handwriting in young children, using a portable eye-tracking device on 5- to 6-year-old children to examine how eye movements and hand movements become coordinated as they begin to write letters.

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