Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
Undergraduate Biology Research Program Conference
Student research related to social media, drinking water, drought conditions and the black-tailed prairie, among other topics, will be presented during the UA's 24th annual Undergraduate Biology Research Program conference.
If you've updated your Facebook status with information about that 5-mile walk you just took or how many pounds you were able to finally press, you likely have a sense that sharing on social media can encourage improvements – but what does research say about that?
And it is understood that high arsenic levels in water can have adverse effects, but can it contribute to the development of certain cancers?
Student researchers will present research related to these questions, and others, during the University of Arizona Undergraduate Biology Research Program's 24th annual conference, being held on campus Jan. 19.
More than 125 undergraduate researchers from the UA, Northern Arizona University and San Miguel High School in Tucson will present, representing the largest group to present in the history of the conference.
"We encourage UBRP students to present and expect that they will present. But others are welcome, and they really responded this year," said Carol Bender, a University Distinguished Outreach Professor who directs the Undergraduate Biology Research Program, also known as UBRP.
The conference, which is free and open to the public, will be held Jan. 19, 1-5 p.m., in the UA Thomas W. Keating Bioresearch Building, 1657 E. Helen St.
Shankar Vedantam, a science and human behavior correspondent for National Public Radio and author of “The Hidden Brain,” will serve as the keynote speaker for this year's conference. Vedantam’s address will be given after the first poster session, and he will be available during a book signing.
"He will talk about the things that go on in our brains that we are not conscious of," Bender said. "That is very much the theme of his book – how our brain influences our behavior. And he will liken that to the departure of women from science."
Also, the 2012 Outstanding UBRP Mentors and student presenters will be recognized during the conference.
For the second consecutive year, NAU students – eight in all – who participate in the National Cancer Institute-funded Native American Cancer Prevention Partnership project, will present at the UA. The collaborative project involves faculty and students from NAU and the UA, along with tribal communities throughout Arizona.
Also, students involved in the UA's January Term Bioscience Internships, or J-BIO, program also will present. UBRP generally involves several San Miguel High School students in year-round research with a UA faculty member and research team.
Loyola said she always enjoyed science but never knew how deep that passion ran until she had a chance to participate in University-level research.
"This kind of pushed me on track to go into neurobiology, without even realizing it," said Loyola, who has come to develop a strong appreciation for the field.
Working with Gronenbeg, Loyola has been investigating whether bees can differentiate between smells. She has been working to improve an existing theory, called "vibrational theory." The theory suggests that animals – in the case of Loyola's research, honey bees – can learn to tell the differences between normal and deuterated, or altered, smells even when they are similar.
Loyola provided her bees with the scent of an orange and a flower, giving them with sugar water as a reward if they chose the correct smell. It sounds simple, but differentiating smells is no easy task, Loyola said.
"The chemical compounds are so different that they are hard to distinguish," she said.
But the bees can.
The experience had motivated her to continue research and to pursue studies in biology after graduating from high school this year.
"I have a genuine interest in the research. It's very interesting, it's very detailed and it's the kind of work I like," Loyola said.
"I literally lose track of the time I spend because I am so involved in what I am doing," Loyola said, adding that she began to pick up on different characteristics and personalities in the bees. "And it's actually fun."
Another presenter is UA alumna Liz Bondy, who conducted research in Queensland, Australia while participating in UBRP's complementary international program, Biomedical Research Abroad: Vistas Open!, known as BRAVO!
Bondy studied the presence of a certain type of bacteria that is commonly found in insects, such as fruit flies, and how the bacteria, known as Wolbachia, affected its insect host.
In particular, she focused on aggressionin male fruit flies.
"Aggression is an important fitness trait for the males," Bondy said.
"You have to have some aggression toprocure mates, but too much aggression can cause injury risks or prevent time for other activities, such as looking for mates," she added. "So, if the bacteria alters aggression in any way, it could have serious effects on the host."
Interestingly, Bondy found that some strains of the bacteria do cause a decrease in the aggression among the males. Bondy noted that researchers have found that some strains of Wolbachia bacteria provide a resistance against viral infections for its insect host, which has important implications for the control of dengue fever.
"This could lead to possible biological controls," said Bondy who, in December, graduated with a degree in ecology and evolutionary biology.
For now, Bondy is continuing her data analysis and has plans for graduate school and encourages other students to take advantage of research opportunities.
"If it could be used for biological control and after more research, we could incorporate the aggression data into mathematical models to see how Wolbachia will spread," she said. "It is one major component of understanding the bacterium as a whole."
Other students will present work on investigations of black-tailed prairie dogs in an attempt to understand whether they have different discernible personalities; whether sweet sorghum, grown in drought conditions, be a strong source of biofuel; how to best prevent infections in hospitals, reducing mortality rates; how community consensus building can reduce instances of breast and cervical cancer; and ways magnetic resonance imaging could be used to not only diagnose diseases, but to also monitor the progression of a disease.
"What's really nice about all this is that the projects are very diverse. The breadth of research topics students will present is truly exciting," Bender said. "They all are doing such amazing things, and they all contribute to advancing what we know."
Undergraduate Biology Research Program Conference