Wednesday, July 27, 2011

What do those researchers do?

Now we've already given an inside look of the other interns who wander around our little it's time for the big guys: the ones who do the real work. The masterminds behind the lab are so diverse and numerous we couldn't possibly get everyone in front of the camera, but getting a few faces up here was absolutely necessary. So here they are!

The Researchers from Kevin Feldheim on Vimeo.

**note: Kit and I *ahem* prefer to be on the other side of the camera... don't be alarmed by our awkwardness...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Insects! Behind the Scenes!

A few weeks ago, Corrie Moreau, the Assistant Curator of Zoology, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum's insect collection! 

When we came in, there were display cases of some really fascinating insects. We saw butterflies that had evolved to resemble leaves when they closed their wings and beetles that resembled dead, shriveled leaves (so as to appear "undesirable" to hungry one wants to eat dead leaves). There was even an entire display case devoted to insect jewelry! Corrie showed us a tenebrionid that people bedazzle and wear on a leash pinned to clothing... while alive! Their wings are fused together so they can't fly, and people can keep them in a little jar for years... I want one! 

No, these aren't leaves.

Then for the most amazing part, Corrie brought out containers of living insects! There were two scorpions (fun fact: they glow under UV light), a big and hairy tarantula, and lots of hissing cockroaches.  And we got to hold the cockroaches and tarantula!!!

Champ and Evan bonding! 

Prahi loves his hissing cockroach!

Unleashing the tarantula! 

It was surprisingly light!


Good results with intern Will Montag??

Friday, July 22, 2011


As you know, Simona, Evan, and I have been assisting Holly in extracting, amplifying ("PCR-ing"), sequencing, and identifying strains of malaria through tanager blood samples from Peru. During PCR, we used primers that isolated specific segments unique to Plasmodium and Haemoproteus, so when it came time to identify each DNA sample after sequencing, ideally only samples containing these malarial strains would remain and move on to the next step.... sequencing!

To match our sequences with known ones, we used the BLAST feature on the NCBI GenBank. This online database contains millions of species' genomes. We found that our DNA samples had around a 98%-99% overlap with known genomes, which is considered quite distant by scientific terms.

(Here's part of a note from Holly with some great news!)

Plus, this was sitting next to it haha.
It's probably a good half-inch thick of BLAST results!

We can use these results to help Holly answer questions such as do certain genera of birds at specific elevations tend to be infected more than others? Do particular vectors infect particular families, genera, or species over others? Have these vectors co-evolved with the birds they infect? Do interactions amongst different genera of hosts lead vectors to infect more organisms? How many potential vectors can carry/pass on strains of malaria?

At the start of this internship, we didn't really know if our work was going to be a significant contribution to the Emerging Pathogens Project. But as it turns out, the data we collected proved very useful (also with no errors!), and Holly plans on incorporating it into a paper she will be publishing!

- Kit and Simona -

Sequencing! (Plus BLAST)

After we PCR-ed our samples and ran them on agarose gels, we sequenced the positive samples (ones that contain malaria DNA and glowed over a UV light) in our 3730! Luckily, it didn't take too long because we only had one plate of 96 samples, and one plate takes about 2 hours... so imagine having 4-5 plates as some do!

Here's a capillary array of our sequences from the 3730 - isn't it beautiful?

See how the color bands (horizontally) are in basically the same patterns? 
This means that the samples we tested have very similar sequences, 
yet are still quite different.

Then we uploaded our data onto a computer program called Sequencher. It's so high-tech! We can edit each segment, clarify ambiguous bases, and trim off unwanted ends. 

After cleaning up each segment, we copied each sequence individually and inserted it into this online GenBank database (BLAST) that contains pretty much every published genome sequence. It searches its database and compares your segment to known species. 

- Kit -

Thursday, July 21, 2011

A Day of Hard Work

On one innocent day, Kit and I were busy at work when we heard some odd yelling coming from the front of the lab. We were cleaning up our sequences on Sequencher in one of the back computer rooms, but we just had to go investigate what on earth was going on. What we found were Champ and Kevin ardently naming movie after movie from their generation, while criticizing everything from the 90s.

For some background: It all began when Kevin and Champ were talking about Total Recall (which none of us kids had ever seen...apparently that was unacceptable). Although, they found it hard to even remember how the whole debate had started.

Anyway...we walked in right at the start of the argument, when everyone was just starting to get riled up. At this point, the lab hadn't yet focused in on just movies. Internet, cell phones, and TV were all up in the air, but all those adults quickly conceded television. They didn't want to admit we win cell phones and internet, because according to them we only had them due to their inventions (a shabby argument if you ask me). But since we did start out with Total Recall, it was a consensus that we should focus in on movies.

That's where the true climax began. Yelling, laughing, and taunting were all heavily included in our little squabble. We were at a slight disadvantage considering we knew none of the horrible movies made in the 70s and 80s, but they could compare their classics to our...not so classic movies (ex. The Cutting Edge vs. Slap Shot). And then we also had to take the "Well we get good Mel Gibson (and Harrison Ford and John Travolta and Charlie Sheen and Tom Cruise) and you guys get crazy Mel Gibson." Every time they came up with a movie (that none of us had heard of) someone would be reminded of another, and their list expanded.

That's not to say we had no classics of our own; they agreed on several points that we had some solid movies. Some of our favorite movies growing up were from their generation, though. All in all, from 10:30 until 2 we were very hard at work, wracking our brains and wildly scribbling out movie names on the back whiteboard. No doubt everyone outside believed we were writing down all the primers we needed...

At the start of the debate....
By the end of the debate....


A Little Video...

Although this is a little late...we conducted our wee interview during one of the first weeks of the program. People visiting the museum, both those who have been members for years and out-of-state visitors, have little to no idea how much goes on behind the scenes. In fact, when asked most believed that the majority of the collections were out for the public to see. The fact that less than 1% of all collections are on display reveals an intriguing aspect of the museum as a whole: there is MUCH more than you can see by just walking around the exhibits. It's almost as if people see the DNA Discovery Center, acknowledge it as a cool part of the museum, but never make the connection that people in the lab are constantly working on real research - I know I didn't.

The Other Interns

People are constantly walking around the lab, and even if their desk benches aren't in the public eye like ours, we see the same interns every day. It took Kit and I a few weeks to meet a majority of these other undergrads (but still not all). In fact, we talked to Holly today who happened to take a glance at this video; as good of friends as she is with the people in the lab, she has no idea what they're working on. We wanted to show the diversity of projects going on, along with the loads of interns present in the lab.

        Our Fellow Interns from Shannon Hackett on Vimeo.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Embryology Lab!

Yesterday afternoon we did a fantastic embryology lab with Dr. Bill Strausberger and John Literacki in the Zoology Classroom! When we walked in, there were nearly 100 eggs lined up along two tables! Literally. We saw white eggs, round eggs, speckled eggs, tic-tac-sized eggs, eggs bigger than my head, and just about everything in between!

Then John gave a really interesting lecture on the morphology of eggs and their anatomy plus more on the variability among bird species. Did you know that the capillaries and heart develop outside the embryo? Or that an egg twirls continuously while it forms inside the mother to prevent any inner components from sticking to the side of the shell? Or that embryos are wrapped in a "chalaza" membrane, which is similar to the way a candy wrapper is situated? Or that in regards to bird size to egg ratios, an ostrich lays one of the smallest eggs, and a hummingbird lays one of the largest?

 And in a kiwi, its body is nearly the same size as the egg! Where are all of its organs in the egg then??

Some other cool facts:
- While the egg is forming and twirling, it scrapes cells from its mother's duct walls, so researchers can recover and study DNA from one of its unknown parents (as is the case for cowbirds)!

- Cliff-dwelling birds' eggs have pointed tips. As a result, if one falls out of a nest, it will roll in circles in relatively the same place, which minimizes the risk of it falling off the cliff!

Bill took a few chicken eggs out from the incubator (temporarily, of course) and put them on this really cool machine that can track the developing embryo's heartbeat!

Embryology lab-time!

We each got to look at eggs in various stages of development with an egg candler, and we saw some of their baby organs!

Then we cracked them all open and got to estimate how old we thought each one was. It was so fascinating to see the progression of an undistinguishable organism into a nearly-developed chicken! 

Simona with one of her eggs!


My handiwork!




(this one is about 21 days old)

Here we are looking at more eggs with Bill!

- Kit -

(in response to the kiwi question posed, the organs are all squashed around the edge of the egg... poor things!)