The territory’s young scientists gathered at the St. Thomas campus of the University of the Virgin Islands Friday for the 13th Annual Summer Science Research Symposium, an opportunity to share their research in fields ranging from nuclear fusion to mental health.
Nearly 50 undergraduate and summer program students participated in the symposium.
The strength of UVI’s marine biology program was on display at the symposium, with several student presentations focusing on research conducted in the waters around the Virgin Islands. The impacts of fishing on parrotfish, the migratory patterns of sharks and diseases in sea grass were among the students’ areas of study.
Paul Anderson, a junior marine biology student, said his tests on the sea grass population of Brewer’s Bay yielded results that were “pretty exciting but bad news for the environment.”
Anderson, with mentorship from professors Teresa Turner and Sandy Wyllie-Echeverria, conducted research to find out whether the marine protist Labyrinthula is present in sea grass beds around St. Thomas.
Labyrinthula causes a disease that prevents sea grass from being able to photosynthesize, killing off the undersea plant in large numbers. After seeing black and brown streaks and spots on samples of local sea grass, Anderson and his mentors decided to conduct testing with the help of Lisa Muehlstein from the University of Hawaii.
“We’re not conclusive, but we’re about 60 to 70 percent sure that we’re seeing labyrinthula. It’s been found here before back in the 1990s,” said Anderson.
Anderson said that 90 percent of eel grass along the Atlantic Coast of the U.S. was killed off by the disease caused by Labyrinthula in the 1930s, which can be spread amongst some sea grass species via direct touch. He said only the native species of sea grass in the Virgin Islands appear to be effected by the disease; invasive species have so far not shown signs of contact with Labyrinthula.
Once the presence of Labyrinthula in the Virgin Islands is confirmed by tests conducted with the help of Friday Harbor Laboratories, Anderson’s pilot study will be expanded to find more about the causes and ecological consequences of the marine protist.
UVI students conducted equally probing experiments on land.
Sudi-Ann Lewis-Dawkins shared the results of her research on the prevalence of childhood obesity on the East End of St. Thomas.
Lewis-Dawkins measured the body mass index of 290 students at schools on the East End. Students selected for the study were 11th graders from Ivanna Eudora Kean High School, 4th-graders from Joseph A. Gomez and E. Benjamin Oliver elementary schools, and 8th-graders from Bertha C. Boschulte Middle School.
Lewis-Dawkins compared the data she collected with data collected in Texas, where similar research with a similar sample size was recently conducted.
“When we compared the data side-by-side we concluded that Texas has a higher percentage of normal weight students when compared to our East End (St. Thomas) students,” she said.
About 67 percent of 11th graders in the Texas sample, for example, were normal weight. Only 56.7 percent of 11th graders in the St. Thomas sample were normal weight.
While students on the East End of St. Thomas had higher rates of obesity than students in Texas overall, Lewis-Dawkins said obesity rates among the 8th grade students on St. Thomas were lower than the 8th graders in Texas.
“Health starts from the home,” she said, suggesting that parents and families should have access to health and nutrition education in addition to students.
Not all the researchers at Friday’s symposium had begun their university classes yet. Recent high school graduates in UVI’s Math Behind the Science preparatory summer program also participated.
Samuel Liburd Jr., an IEKHS graduate who earlier this year was awarded the Magens Bay Authority Edmund L. Penn Scholarship for science, was one of those summer program attendees. Liburd shared research he conducted with Deyjah Foster and Jenisha Stapleton on gene and cell therapy for the treatment of HIV. Jhara Irish and Ja’Nea Simon, also attendees of the summer program and incoming UVI students, shared research on the impact of cars on the environment.
Other research presented at UVI’s Summer Science Research Symposium included the effects of marijuana on epilepsy and the presence of antioxidants in sorrel, herbs and algae.