Tuesday, August 10, 2010

What young scientists do on vacation

Yamini Potini did evolutionary biology experiments with monarch butterflies.

Morgan Mingle spent her summer analyzing the musical tastes of chimpanzees. Julie Margolis cut up human bones with a bandsaw. Yamini Potini immersed herself in the world of monarch butterflies.

All three say they had a blast doing hands-on science that led to discoveries. They were part of this year’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program at Emory (SURE), which awards selected students a stipend, free housing, and a chance to work with top scientists.

Mingle, who won a spot in the lab of primatologist Frans de Waal, designed an experiment with chimpanzees to look deep into the evolutionary history of music. “Music is in every human culture, but we can’t figure out what makes it so biologically important to us. It’s a big mystery,” says Mingle, a neuroscience major from Southwestern University.

Mingle (below, center) with de Waal at the SURE poster session.

The chimps showed a preference for African and Indian tunes over Japanese music or silence. The Japanese recording may have put the chimps off because it resembled the rhythmic slapping and stamping sounds made by a male chimp displaying dominance, Mingle says. “Socko does amazing displays,” she adds, referring to a famous resident of Yerkes National Primate Research Center. “He keeps really good time.”

Related: Singing the praises of psychology and music

Margolis, a junior entering Emory from Oxford College, analyzed tetracycline in ancient remains for bioarcheologist George Armelagos. “My mom used to bury animal bones in my sand box so I could dig them out,” Margolis says, explaining why she was thrilled to work alone in a basement with human skeletons. “This has been my passion since I was a little kid.”

She used a bandsaw to slice 1,000-year-old rib cages from Nubia into thin pieces. She submerged the bone slices in epoxy, then baked them and ground them down for slides. When she studied the samples under a microscope, she found markers for tetracycline spread throughout.

Related: Ancient brewers tapped antibiotic secrets

“Tetracycline is an antibiotic that binds to calcium,” Margolis explains. Although the bones pre-date the official discovery of the drug, “it appears these people were ingesting tetracycline throughout their lifetimes.”

Her work supported Armelagos’ growing body of research into how tetracycline may have been a byproduct of an ancient beer-making process.

Potini, an Emory sophomore, also studied ancient forms of medication – involving monarch butterflies. Her project took her into the field and into a lab, where evolutionary biologist Jaap De Roode raises eastern monarch butterflies in flight cages. De Roode studies complex interactions between parasites that infect the butterflies, and toxic chemicals, known as cardenolides, in milkweed plants.

The study that Potini worked on found that females infected with parasites preferred to lay their eggs on plants with higher levels of cardenolides, raising the question of whether they have some kind of medicinal benefit.

“Self-medication probably occurs more often than we realize in wild life, but we don’t have a lot of data on it,” Potini says. Learning how insects self-medicate could provide clues to fight human parasitic diseases, such as malaria, she adds.

Notes on the musical brain
Scholar reads the classics -- and bones
Working through the bugs of evolutionary biology
Undergrad research booming

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