Long Island City, NY—LaGuardia Community College student Weily Lang placed first for her research on the effects of antioxidants on fertility in male fruit flies at the Sigma Xi Research Showcase, a nationwide online science competition.
Weily, a fine arts major who loves insects and research, was up against some 100 student researchers, 80% of whom came from four-year colleges, including such prestigious institutions as Yale, SUNY Stonybrook and the University of California.
“We were surprised that we won,” said Dr. Preethi Radhakrishnan, a LaGuardia biology professor and Weily’s mentor, “mainly because we were competing against such big name colleges.”
“While many community colleges do not have active research programs, LaGuardia faculty encourage any student with a passion for research to work with them on their scientific experiments,” said Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College. “Here a student like Weily can fulfill her love for science and research while focusing on another one of her deep interests–fine arts.”
But despite the stiff competition, Weily impressed the judges with her first-of-its-kind research on the subject; her two-and-a-half-minute animated video that spelled out the research in easy-to-understand layman terms; and her highly detailed and technical PowerPoint presentation that broke down the scientific steps taken in her research.
While the effects of antioxidants and fertility have been looked at in some detail in mammalian systems such as rodents and mice, Dr. Radhakrishnan pointed out that the exact connection between how antioxidants can boost sperm viability and male fertility had not yet been made.
“This direct link between antioxidants and sperm viability has not yet been made in insects,” she said.
When the team began the project two years ago, Weily said that what their research hoped to prove was that fruit flies with an enriched antioxidant diet would have a strong immune system capable of fighting off free radicals that negatively affect fertility.
To test the hypothesis, the team observed two sets of virgin fruit flies: an experimental group that was fed antioxidants for four days and a controlled group that had an ethanol-enriched diet without antioxidants. The groups were then starved for six hours, followed by a dose of paraquat, a toxic herbicide, which served as a free radical.
The flies were then split into two treatments: half were mated and the other half was dissected to check for sperm viability. At this step, the student research noted the mating probability and copula duration of the first group, and recorded the number of live and dead sperm of the second group.
“Our data matched up with our hypothesis,” said Weily who noted that they found three important results. “We discovered that while antioxidants had no significant effect on the mating and pre-copula behavior of the fruit flies, the antioxidant-fed group produced significantly more sperm and had close to two times more healthy babies than the controlled group.”
“We found a beautiful correlation that antioxidants significantly boost sperm viability,” added Dr. Radhakrishnan.
Weily said that the research results have huge implications in mammalian systems. “The nice thing about fruit flies is that they share about 80% of our genes. Even though they are an invertebrate system there are a lot of parallels we can draw.”
Not only did Weily’s research experiment win over the judges, but her short animated video that described the highly technical experiment in ways the general public would understand, equally impressed them.
“All the judges were very curious about how the video was created,” said Dr. Radhakrishnan. “They wanted to know where they could get the software so that they could use it in their teaching.”
The video spurred a lively online intellectual exchange between the judges and Weily, who, over a course of 28 interactions, was able to provide them with an in-depth explanation of her research.
“Very rarely in these science competitions do student researchers get to engage in long, comprehensive conversations with the judges,” said Dr. Radhakrishnan. “Through her online conversation, Weily was able to impress the judges with her deep understanding of the project.”
Dr. Radhakrishnan said she is planning on publishing their findings. In the meantime, Weily will be featured in Sigma Xi social media and in the American Scientist Magazine.
But the team is not ending its research there. Based on Weily’s observation that the females were attracted and wanted to mate with the antioxidant-fed fruit flies that were darker in appearance than the controlled group because of their antioxidant-enriched diet, their next set of experiments will see whether “mate preference” took place.
“Were the females preferentially selecting males?” she added. “Did the females realize that these guys were super males and wanted to mate with them? These are questions we hope to be able to answer.”
• • • •
About LaGuardia Community College:
LaGuardia Community College located in Long Island City, Queens, was founded in 1971 as a bold experiment in opening the doors of higher education to all, and we proudly carry forward that legacy today. LaGuardia educates students through over 50 degree, certificate and continuing education programs, providing an inspiring place for students to achieve their dreams. Upon graduation, LaGuardia students’ lives are transformed as family income increases 17%, and students transfer to four-year colleges at three times the national average. Part of the City University of New York (CUNY), LaGuardia is a nationally recognized leader among community colleges for boundary-breaking success educating underserved students. At LaGuardia we imagine new ideas, create new curriculum and pioneer programs to make our community and our country stronger. Visit www.laguardia.edu to learn more.
About Sigma Xi:
Founded in 1886, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society is a non-profit membership society of nearly 60,000 scientists and engineers belonging to more than 500 Sigma Xi chapters at universities and colleges, government laboratories and industry research centers.