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Student Entomology Research Ranked First in the Nation

Zoe KnippaSeven University of St. Thomas students working on undergraduate research under the guidance of Dr. Rosie Rosell, professor of biology, and Dr. Elmer Ledesma, assistant professor of chemistry, were awarded first prize for their fruit fly research and presentation at the Entomological Society of America Annual Meeting held in Austin, Texas from Nov. 9 – 14. Gina Duong, Zoe Knippa, Heather Skeen-Esterheld, Cecilia Dao, Luke Hebert, Katie Fisher and Maria Ton presented their research focused on determining the lethal concentration of toluene on fruit flies and the morphological effects of toluene exposure on fly offspring.

"This research project has been in progress for about 5 years however, this group of enterprising students have moved the project forward by leaps and bounds this year," Rosell said. "Gina Duong has been an organizing dynamo for the group.  The other students on the project have donated their time, energy and excellent laboratory skills performing weekly experiments to generate publishable data for the project.  Their diligence and persistence have paid off with the winning of the President’s prize competition in undergraduate research at a national scientific meeting.  However, this group has not stopped since their win and their plan is to bring the project to a point at which we can publish their work in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.  I am very proud of these students, they are self-motivated, hard-working, dedicated and fun to work with."

Toluene is a volatile organic compound found in crude oil, paint and as a by-product of petroleum refining. According to the Environmental Protection Agency and Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, toluene causes irregular fetal development along with neurological and hepatic defects in humans.

To study the effects on fruit flies, the students developed a continuous-flow system that delivers and exposes known concentrations of toluene vapor to test populations. To study the effects of toluene on fruit fly offspring, surviving toluene-exposed females were mated with unexposed males. Larval offspring were collected and, using light and scanning electron microscopy, morphological changes in larvae from both exposed and unexposed females were examined.

Zoe Knippa, a senior biology major graduating this December, has been working on the project for nearly four years and is impressed by how far the research has come.

“We had such a basic and rudimentary system when we began,” Knippa said. “We were trying to expose flies to toluene, and when we first started we were using Starbucks bottles. My sense of accomplishment comes from knowing we were able to determine the LC50 (the toluene concentration at which 50% of the test population die) because that has been our goal for so long.”

Knippa, a Health Occupations Students of America and Tri Beta member, is pursuing a career in healthcare and will attend a physician assistant program where she will focus in pediatrics. She credits a liberal arts education for allowing her to combine the theology and philosophy she studied with science, forcing her to think critically on the ethics of medicine and healthcare.

“What I learned during the fruit fly research, thinking critically and scientific writing, is going to be invaluable as I move forward,” Knippa said.

The student’s research beat out 42 poster presentations from undergraduate students from across the nation. The group will present their research at UST’s annual Research Symposium.

2013 marks the 20th anniversary of UST’s annual Research Symposium promoting undergraduate and graduate research. The Research Symposium will be held April 10-12, and is open to the public.