An Elms student and professor traveled to a remote area of South America this summer to continue research on flowers and wasp-fly interactions. Part 1 of this story appears here.

0.5411° S of the equator near Sumaco, Ecuador.

Taking the Elms Experience International

First Trinidad, now Ecuador. Elms biology majors have been busy globetrotting around the world for the past two years, gathering data and samples to support a long-term research study concerned with flowers, wasps, and flies.

Four weeks after graduating with her degree in biology, Alyssa Barnes ’19, BMS ’20, was on a plane with Prof. Nina Theis, Ph.D., headed to Ecuador. For nine days the pair worked out of a field station near Sumaco volcano, about 60 miles east of the state capital of Quito. Their purpose was to hike into the jungle every day and setup elaborate systems of pumps, tubing, and cartridges to collect the liquid perfume of flowers.

While in Ecuador, the team collected fragrance samples from six different plant species. Two of these species were also harvested in Trinidad, which allows the team to make comparisons between climates thousands of miles apart.

Prof. Theis is broadly concerned with the ways that flowers influence the surrounding environment through scent. Her central question for this study is whether parasitic wasps detect their prey with the help of floral aromas.

Parasitic wasps must inject their eggs into specific species of fruit flies (Blepharoneura). Otherwise, the wasp larvae will die within the hosts. Scientists are interested in how the wasps find the flies. Prof. Theis’ working theory is that tropical flowers emit olfactory “road maps,” or blueprints that lead the wasps to the flowers. Once they find the flowers, the wasps have access to the flies.

Photo of a student conducting research in Ecuador.
“Research is a great benefit to my education and shows me how to use data and find an answer,” said Alyssa.

To test this hypothesis, Prof. Theis and Alyssa gathered 75 samples of liquid perfume from six types of flowers that are known feeding grounds for fruit flies. Two of the flower species — Psiguria triphylla and Gurania spinulosa — were also harvested from Trinidad in summer 2018, when Prof. Theis began her work on this project. The team will analyze the chemical composition of the perfume to determine if their are unique scents that the wasps pick up on.

“Understanding what drives host recognition for the pests of these crops could have important implications in controlling herbivore damage and in developing pesticide-free pest control methods.”

Nina Theis, Ph.D.

In Alyssa’s case, traveling abroad for a research opportunity plays into her long term career goals, which include completing her master’s in biomedical sciences degree at Elms, and then applying to physician assistant (PA) schools.

“Anything that gives me more knowledge and teaches me as much as possible will be a major help for PA school,” she said.

Under the (Fume) Hood

After returning to campus, the team began preparing the perfume samples for analysis. Senior Trevor McCarthy ’20, a biology major in the pre-physician assistant track, worked with Alyssa in the Lyons Center research lab.

Photo of students conducting research using a fume hood located in the Lyons Center
Alyssa and Trevor prepare samples in the fume hood.

Using hexane, Alyssa and Trevor “washed” the perfume samples off of each scent trap. Using nitrogen gas, they then “dried” each sample, which concentrates the liquid. The chemical composition of each sample will be analyzed at UMass Amherst, using a technique known as GC-MS analysis.

“Almost everything I’ve done this summer has been new to me. I learned a lot about the actual process that developing a scientifically-backed conclusion takes. That isn’t something you really get in the classroom itself, as lab exercises are streamlined to fit a certain time frame.”

Trevor McCarthy ’20

While it is too early for the team to draw any conclusions from their research, Alyssa and Trevor paved the way for other biology majors at Elms to experience a long-term research project.

Interested in conducting research and using science to solve real issues? Read more about the biology program at Elms.