From ‘robomussels’ to sunblock: Summer scholars pursue hot topics

10 February 2014
Summer scholars pic-300px

What’s does a ‘robomussel’ have in common with a feral pig, a pest beetle that eats pine trees and sunblock?

All are central parts of the research projects in which School of Biological Sciences summer scholars are involved. The 40 students each won a $5000 scholarship to work alongside experienced academics on real-world research in the summer break.

That’s how Sam Kettle, who embarks on a masters in marine science this year, encountered the ‘robomussel’. It’s a fake mussel (centre bottom of the picture) containing a temperature logger that was adapted by Dr Brendon Dunphy from overseas designs.

Sam says the robomussel is placed among colonies of New Zealand Mussel to explore how they cope with heat stress. “The fake mussels … are glued into mussel beds at east and west coast beaches around the Auckland area.”

Robert Vennell, who is undertaking a BSc in Ecology, is working with Dr Cheryl Krull on a project exploring ways to monitor feral pigs in the Waitakere Ranges, where they can do a lot of damage. Explains Robert: “My role has been to help set up motion-capture cameras throughout the Waitakere Ranges, which are triggered by the movements of large animals. I'll be examining the footage and recording sightings of pigs, and then will use this to calculate an estimate for the size of the pig population.”

Stacey Lamont, who starts postgraduate study in ecology this year, is working with Dr Cecilia Romo of Crown research institute Scion to develop an artificial rearing technique for Hylastes ater, the black pine bark beetle, so new fumigation methods to eradicate it can be tested. “The current artificial rearing process has proven unsuccessful, with larvae only surviving for a short time on artificial diet,” she says. “By modifying aspects of this process such as the diet recipe, the temperature they’re held at, and the larval set-up, we hope to increase H. ater survivorship in the laboratory.”

Irene Hao is working with Comvita researcher Gregor Steinhorn on a project to identify a natural ingredient containing UV-absorbing properties that the natural products company can add to its sunscreen cream base. “This project involves a lot of reading and research into natural sunscreen composition and also identifying which natural plant or non-plant extracts may provide UV filtering or healing properties,” says Irene, who is undertaking a BSc in Medicinal Chemistry. “I am screening potential ingredients for their chemical composition and their ability to filter UV rays.”

Associate Professor Joanna Putterill, SBS Deputy Director (Research), says that studentships offer a great opportunity for undergraduates to try out research in all its forms in the lab and in the field. “They get to see what it’s like working on their own projects in a research group rather than in a class situation, as in undergraduate labs. Summer students also help to revitalise research groups with new ideas and raw energy.”

• The 36 other summer scholars are Ben Fitzgerald, Sam Lincoln, Nalini Singh, Jeremy Raynes, Elizabeth Lamb, Aiman Bagasra, Asher Cook, Karan Govindpani, Helgard Wagener, Jerry Dong, Yunyuan Sun, Diana Lee, Carmen Mendez, Nestor Robinson, Jordan Douglas, Herman Cheung, Syrie Hermans, Ben Reed, Mark Robertson, Jess Ryder, Olivia Sigglekow, Briana Robson, Tom Saunders, Emma Edney-Brown, Shannon Hunter, Jie Ren, Sean Mahendran, Rachel Zussman, Alana Whitcombe, Ruoxi Li, Lola Hoffmann, Elina Ashimbayeva, Liana Bisson-Rowe, Kelly Styles, Morgan Hand and Angel Peng. To read more about them, see the SBS Facebook page.