An eye-openning summer

Posted: August 6, 2013

Rosie's research experience has faced some challenges this summer, and she is better for it.
Some of Rosie's research subjects

Some of Rosie's research subjects

This summer has certainly been an eye-opening one. After finishing up my sophomore year of high school, I was pretty confident that I wanted to enter into a career path of research, either biological or chemical. My experiences this summer have shown me that my confidence was perhaps misplaced and a little premature. That’s not to say that I have changed my mind, but this summer has helped me better understand what research truly entails.

For the summer, Anjel and I have primarily been focused on one experiment that looks at the trade off between physical and chemical defense mechanisms in plants. A small percentage of goldenrod plants display a ducking phenotype, a physical trait that seems to allow the plants to better hide from herbivores. Anjel’s hypothesis was that since plants do not have unlimited resources, the ducked goldenrod plants would have lower chemical defense capabilities. To test this we collected leaves from both ducked and straight plants. We also artificially straightened some ducked plants to see how that would affect our results. We took two leaves from each plant: one undamaged and one damaged. The plan was then for me to run a phytohormone extraction procedure on the samples so that we could use the GC-MS to analyze the chemical defense levels. While that sounds pretty straightforward, the summer did not go quite as planned.

To start, we ran out of larvae to feed upon our plants. We ended up having to borrow some caterpillars from Moshe, but they were not too cooperative when it came to eating goldenrod. It worked out though, and now we will be able to compare the phytohormone levels in response to a specialist and non-specialist herbivore. The sheer number of samples we collected was another unexpected development. Seventy-five plants and four leaves from each plant resulted in several weeks of processing for me. We also had numerous problems with the GC-MS. The filament and syringe both broke. There would be no explanation for the error messages we received, but after much frustration and confusion they would go away just by restarting the program or unplugging the machine. Perhaps the most unforeseen issue came just this past week when a set of my samples showed an unusual contamination. All of the set, including the two blanks that were processed, showed extremely high peaks of trans jasmonic acid, but were normal for all the other compounds (even other forms of jasmonic acid). After a lot of troubleshooting, the best explanation that we could come up with was that a compound from the bottom of the nitrogen tank had contaminated the samples. It seems unlikely, but the next batch of samples that were processed with a new nitrogen tank came back clean.

The experiment is back on track now, and hopefully it will go smoothly from here on out. I have processed enough samples that Anjel and I can begin to analyze the results to see if there is any significance to our findings. Alongside the knowledge that I have gained about plants, insects, and evolution, I have also learned a lot about what it takes to plan and execute an experiment. This summer has been an amazing opportunity and I will be sad to see it end. 

- Rosie Sowers, 4 August 2013