It’s astonishing that something so tiny – in this case, a few gene variants in an aquatic microorganism – can have such devastating effects.
But some fungi called oomycetes, already deadly to some plant life, evolve to become more pathogenic. Franklin & Marshall College senior Anna Ming Bauer is working with Associate Professor of Biology Jaime Blair to discover how and why.
“Here’s one of the big questions: Is this hybridization, this heterozygosity from two different species (of oomycetes) that are combining and ‘breeding’ with each other, like interbreeding? Or is it something in the environment that’s kind of inducing this mutation?” Bauer said. “We’ve kind of figured out where the heterozygosities are, but now we’re trying to figure out why they’re occurring.
“Once you figure that out, you can control for it more and then help the environmental impact.”
Bauer spent part of her junior year in Buenos Aries, Argentina, studying public health. Blair helped her secure a Hackman Scholarship to return to campus over the summer before her senior year and gear up in the laboratory. Bauer said the project fits well her goal of doing graduate work in genetic counseling.
When Bauer arrived on campus for her first year, she wanted to pursue something in science. Part of the reason she chose F&M was the quality of research resources offered to undergraduates. “I had heard about the vivarium,” she said. “I knew I wanted to volunteer there.” She now works there, primarily as a caretaker for the monkeys.
Bauer knew a liberal arts education would allow her the flexibility to study the sciences at an advanced level without having to focus on an area such as a pre-med path.
Enamored with science since dissection class in middle school, Bauer said she also loves “reading and literature and English classes. I like that science has concrete aspects to it that you can study. This gene controls this protein, which will control this outcome … whereas, in English class, you open a book and the phrase ‘this red chair’ can mean anything, right?”
Her independent research project for biology, “Analysis of hybridization events in aquatic Pythium using flow cytometry and molecular cloning,” has been a lesson in how the sciences actually are not always concrete.
“When we do labs in classes, you usually get what you’re expecting. You usually get results,” Bauer said. “But with the oomycete study, there were so many trials where things would just not work, and we wouldn’t know why. So you have to try it again, and figure out many different ways you can approach research.”