STEM Students Test the Lab
Among the stories of summer adventures told at Heritage this fall were tales fit for a blockbuster movie: DNA splicing mutant plants, specimen collecting in the arid shrub steppe, and growing blighted bugs. While it all sounds like something out of a comic book, it was some pretty great science.
At Heritage, summer research practicums are an integral part of the academic experience. With its small class sizes, department chairs are able to match up students with 10-12 week research studies. Students work directly with professional scientists at commercial, academic and government labs on actual, ongoing research projects.
“The experience that students get working in these labs in invaluable,” said Nina Barcenas, professor of science. “It is one thing to learn about how a lab operates and the scientific process in a classroom, quite another to be part of a functional, professional lab.”
This summer 18 students took part in research projects at labs ranging from those at Heritage to the USDA. Here are a few of their stories:
Growing upside-down tomatoes
For most gardeners, a healthy tomato plant has strong branches that reach up toward the sun. But Jennifer Delgado has a different idea—her healthy tomato plant has branches that droop and cascade.
This summer, Jennifer, a junior majoring in biomedicine, spent her time at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, researching a mutant species of tomato plant that grows away from the light source. Jennifer sought to identify which light receptor genes, present naturally in the plant, caused the unique dropping phenomenon.
Her work involved cloning the suspected genes and transferring the cells into another species of plant to try to replicate the growing pattern. She identified five light receptor genes that could be the culprit for the drooping plants and then tested to determine which of these was the cause. She was able to eliminate two of the receptors before her summer study was completed.
“I can’t help thinking about the kinds of benefits there could be to having tomatoes or even other kinds of crops that grow in this drooping pattern,” said Jennifer. “Maybe it could help expand gardening and food production in places like urban settings.”
For her the biggest lesson that she took from her research experience was a renewed commitment to her chosen profession of researching infectious diseases.
Tracking a tooth-decay culprit
Dentists have been warning parents for years about the dangers of sending their infants and toddlers to bed with a bottle. Early childhood caries (ECC, also known as bottle mouth), which causes massive tooth decay and tooth loss, is one of the most common chronic illnesses for children. As it turns out, the culprit behind ECC may be infectious bacteria. In 2010, researchers were able to identify this pathogen as a cause for ECC in children along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The disease is known to impact children from economically disadvantaged families at a higher rate than other populations.
Senior Brandon Mansfield and junior Kim Shannon both became lab assistants at Pacific Northwest University of Health Science on a project to identify the occurrence of the oral pathogen Scardovia wiggsiae in children with ECC in the Yakima Valley.
The multi-year study, which is in its early stages, involves collecting sample specimens from children both with and without ECC. During his service, Brandon researched cases of ECC in the Yakima Valley and helped to establish partnerships with two dental offices for the study. Kim, who began her research project this September, will assist with lab analysis of specimens collected from children participating in the study.
“The lab is replicating the inside of a child’s mouth to identify the ideal conditions in which this bacterium grows,” said Kim. “We need to know the cause of diseases like this so that we can build the most effective treatments.”
Avoiding a worm in my apple
A seemingly insignificant little insect can mean the difference between an apple crop going to market or total quarantine. Adriana Perez and Olivia Marquez, both seniors, spent their summers helping the USDA improve techniques to battle the codling moth infestations that can decimate entire crops.
No bigger than a sunflower seed, the damage that can be done by this pesky insect belies its size. Adult moths lay their eggs in the leaves of infected trees. Once hatched, the larvae make their way to the fruit where they burrow in to feast on the seeds at the core—making the fruit both unpalatable and unsellable. The lifecycle from larva to pupa to moth repeats itself constantly. Left untreated, these moths can infect entire orchards and lead to wide-spread quarantine and devastating financial losses.
Adrianna and Olivia’s work focused on helping the USDA determine if the existing results on the effectiveness of pesticides used to battle codling moth were accurate. They questioned if the micro-spore Nosema, which naturally infects these moths, led to false results. Adrianna worked to grow new colonies of moths in the lab to test how the insects responded to various controls, such as heat, cold and Nosema. Olivia took the moths that were produced and DNA-tested them to identify the presence of Nosema and levels of infection. The ultimate goal, though not yet realized, is to find correlations between the level of Nosema infection and the lethality of the insecticide.
“The tree fruit industry is a major part of our community’s economy,” said Olivia. “It felt good knowing that the work we were doing would help so many local growers and their workers who depend on strong crops for their livelihoods.”
Planting a pretty picky plant
In spring, the rocky shrub steppe of the Yakima Valley is dotted with vivid yellow bursts of the native flowering balsamroot. A plant of cultural significance to the Yakama people, balsamroot has stymied horticulturists and backyard gardeners for generations, and is part of an ever-shrinking ecosystem.
“In areas like ours where natural resources can be scarce, it is especially important that we look to native plants as an option for our home gardens,” said sophomore and biomedical science major Kayla Johnson. “They are much more drought and disease tolerant than plants from other areas.”
This summer, Kayla took on the task of figuring out how to propagate this temperamental native plant in a greenhouse, a feat that no other researcher has been able to accomplish. She hypothesizes that balsamroot needs a period of frost and thaw in order for seeds to germinate. She collected steppe soils and ripe seeds from plants around the Yakima Valley and started her experiments testing germination rates at set times and temperatures.
“The adult plants are extremely hardy. But the seeds require such precise conditions to germinate that mass reproduction is challenging,” she said. “I haven’t found that perfect combination of time and temperature yet, but I am going to keep trying.”