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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.