Each year, the Department of Biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis awards a prize to a graduating senior in memory of Marion Smith Spector, a 1938 WUSTL graduate who studied zoology under the late Viktor Hamburger, PhD.
Hamburger was a professor of biology and a prominent developmental biologist who made many important contributions while a WUSTL faculty member.
The Spector Prize, first awarded in 1974, recognizes academic excellence and outstanding undergraduate achievement in research. Students are nominated by their research mentors for outstanding research that has made substantial contributions to a field.
This year the prize has been awarded to two students, Megan Kelly and Jennifer Stevens, both of whom are majoring in biology.
Kelly worked in the lab of Audrey Odom, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and of molecular microbiology in the School of Medicine.
“I originally planned to complete the premed courses
and then apply to medical school,” Kelly said. But the summer before I started college, I spent seven weeks in a lab as part of the Summer Scholars for
Biology and Biomedical Research program.
I enjoyed it so much, I joined Dr. Odom’s lab that fall. And she filled me with a
passion for science, giving me an opportunity to see what it’s like to be the
first to discover something, to learn and to solve problems with
Kelly worked on the chemicals released by the parasites that cause malaria. The parasites synchronize their life cycles so that, for example, they all emerge from red blood cells into the bloodstream at the same time. In addition, mosquitos are more attracted to people infected with malaria than those that are not. Both observations suggest the parasites may be communicating by means of chemical signals.
“The object of my research was to figure out what the chemicals might be,” Kelly said. “I used a fairly new method called SPME to sample the gas above the parasites ,and I found a class of chemicals called terpenes that had been previously unidentified in the malaria parasite.
“We think they may be responsible for some of these behaviors; we have already been able to show that mosquitoes can smell the terpenes,” she said.
“Because of my experience working in Dr. Odom’s lab, I realized I wanted to do science as well as medicine,” she said.
Kelly plans to continue her
work in Odom’s lab in the coming year, and then to begin a dual MD/PhD degree program in 2014.
Stevens conducted her thesis research in the lab of Bruce Carlson, PhD, assistant professor of biology.
“When I came to Wash U,” Stevens said, “I intended to go to medical school to become a physician. My first work-study assignment, however, was fish care in the Carlson lab.
“I had never really thought about research before, but as I attended lab meetings and interacted with others in lab, I began to realize how much fun research is. With Dr. Carlson’s unending encouragement, I started my own research project as a sophomore and became increasingly involved, until I ultimately decided to apply to dual-degree MD/PhD graduate programs last year.”
Stevens studied the evolution of weakly electric fish in Carlson’s lab, concluding that fish species invested in either complex electrosensory systems or large eyes with good visual acuity, but not both.
This trade-off implies that species generally cannot specialize in multiple sensory systems simultaneously, she said. That might explain, for example, why bats that rely on echolocation for hunting tend to have poor eyesight and why people who lose their sight sometimes develop more acute hearing.
She plans to start the Medical Scientist Training (MD/PhD) Program at Washington University School of Medicine in June and intends to conduct her graduate work in neuroscience.
Kelly and Stevens presented their research at the Spector Prize seminar April 29 in Rebstock Hall.
As part of the Department of Biology’s recognition of their outstanding work, Kelly and Stevens will be recognized at the Biology Honors and Research Emphasis Reception, at 3:30 p.m. May 15 in McDonnell Hall, Room 162.