Talented Student Program - Examples of Projects

Steph Yee

A photo of Steph Yee

"For me, the most exciting thing about the TSP is that it challenges you- whether it’s looking at things from an entirely new perspective, or solving problems you’ve never thought about before. There was a lot to get out of doing it- for many of us, TSP Showcase (the first major TSP event for first years) was our first taste of a ‘real’ scientific project.

Working with the Smart Ants was quite a different and interesting experience. Who would have thought that the humble ant may hold the key to our future? I certainly didn’t. It’s a lot of fun because you’re working with academics who are experts in their field and you get to discover a lot of new things- not many people know what it’s like to have hundreds of ants crawl up their arm! It really tested and developed our teamwork and communication as well as time management skills to be able to come up with ideas, conduct experiments, collaborate and get the task done in such a short period of time.

Despite the fact that it is quite demanding at times, the relaxed and easy-going atmosphere makes TSP very different from normal subjects, and I think it’s these small differences about the TSP that makes it worthwhile."

Smart Ants: Nature's solution to humanity's problems

Simon Ho

A photo of Simon Ho

"My experience in the Talented Student Program in the School of Biological Sciences was extremely rewarding. I was given the opportunity to conduct independent research projects, supervised by academics in the School. My projects exposed me to research questions and methods that were beyond the scope of the standard curriculum. I found the work so interesting that I continued with an Honours project in the same area of research. This prepared me for a PhD at Oxford and some postdoctoral experience at the Australian National University, but I’m now pleased to be back in the School of Biological Sciences as a member of the academic staff. Looking back to my time as an undergraduate student, I can say that my experience in the Talented Student Program played a key role in my decision to pursue a research career in biology."

Supervisor: Dr Lars Jermiin

The Evolution of Snakes

The evolutionary history of snakes was investigated by examining both skeletal and ecological data. The analysis involved comparing modern-day species with various fossils, some of which appear to have been aquatic snakes with limbs, to determine whether snakes evolved from burrowing or aquatic ancestors. Sources of error in reconstructing evolutionary histories were also examined with regard to such problematic data.

Morphological vs Molecular Data in Snakes

There has been a long debate concerning whether nucleotide sequence data or the physical characteristics of the organisms are more accurate for reconstructing evolutionary histories. Both data types are available from the snakes and were were investigated using a compatibility approach. It was shown that the amount of conflicting phylogenetic signal, which causes problems in the phylogenetic analyses, was comparable in both data sets.

TSP Project conducted by Philippa Walter at Cornell University

Are invasive weeds endangering monarch butterfly populations?

There is concern that populations of the monarch butterfly, Danus plexippus may be further endangered if substantial numbers of eggs are laid on weed species rather than the natural host plants. Previous lab tests had shown that eggs laid on the invasive weed species, Pale Swallow-wort Cynanchum rossicum or the Black Swallow-wort Cynanchum nigrum led to 100% larval mortality.

Trials were conducted in which female butterflies were given a choice of 3 plant species to lay their eggs on. Contrary to the previous lab tests the monarchs only laid eggs on the natural host species and not on either of the two weed species. In further tests, larval survival was slightly higher on one of the weeds C. nigrum, than on the natural host plants. This last result was unexpected and may be an artefact of using severed leaves. The flow of toxins which kill the larvae would be lower in these leaves, compared to leaves still attached to the plant. Further work is needed to determine whether larval survival on the weed species is similar in the field.

Student: Jeremiah Flores de Leon

Supervisor: Dr Bing Yu, Dept. of Molecular & Clinical Genetics, RPAH, Central Clinical School, The University of Sydney

In Silico Analysis Of A Genomic Locus Related To Athlete Performance

The maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) is a useful measure of cardiorespiratory function dealing with the delivery and utilisation of oxygen. Many studies have demonstrated that the genotype (DNA genetic makeup) significantly contributes to individual variation in key physiological parameters such as VO2max in response to exercise. Franklin et al. stated that "Natural endowment (i.e. 'selecting the right parents'), rather than training per se, plays a major role in producing a gold medal winner in an Olympic encurance event". The heritability of cardiorespiratory endurance phenotypes is considered to be ~25-60% following adjustments for age, gender and other relevant parameter. A recent study coming from Bouchard's laboratory identified five loci that were related to the changes of VO2max in response to 20 weeks training program, where VO2max was used as the phenotype in the conventional 10 cM genome scan. This work represents a significant contribution in the phenotype-genotype relationship between human genes and performance / health-related fitness. However, it also presents a great challenge to pinpoint the underlying gene(s) contributing to the phenotype since the actual distances of the loci are very large and so beyond the capacity of traditional gene discovery techniques. With the completion of the draft of the Human Genome Project, there is now an opportunity for in silico cloning which means gene discovery using computer based resources.

The proposed project will analyse chromosome 2 locus (2p16.1) that was identified by Bouchard's group and is related to VO2max in response to exercise. The anchor point of the locus is the calcineurin gene. A locus-specific database will be established over 5 cM on either sides of the anchor point using BioManager as a platform. This database will collect not only genomic sequence information, but also known genes and ESTs based on existing information available in different databases and genome centres. The potential functionality of these genes and ESTs will be further analysed based on their expression profiles and homolog searches. A set of candidate genes will finally be selected based on their locus-specific identify, and their signifiant expression in the cardiorespiratory system. SNPs associated with these candidate genes will also be selected for further laboratory analysis in more than 700 ironman athletes (an endurance sport).