Today we continue our summer series, Meet the Worker Bees, where we introduce the undergraduate students, high school interns, and research technicians who make our research engine hum. Meet Shaliek Morgan, originally from Brooklyn, NY, who is a junior at Shaw University majoring in biology. Shaliek is working with Dunn Lab post docs De Anna Beasley and MJ Epps and faculty mentor Eric Butler from Shaw University on an NSF-sponsored Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) project.

What got you interested in Biology?

I had a lot of questions; I would look outside and wonder How is this done? And instead of just throwing my questions into the void, I wanted to find answers to my questions. I like knowing how things came about; I just like knowing a lot of things, that’s just it.

We were talking earlier about how you were pre-med and you changed your mind, what happened?

I started going camping with Dr. Butler; he’s a professor at Shaw University and part of the Wildlife and Biology program. I also started going on botany trips with Dr. Whitmire. So it was that dynamic duo who really got me more into ecology.

Describe the project that you’re working on right now.

Right now I’m working on a project to see how the warming of the atmosphere due to climate change affects the immune systems of ants. We are injecting filaments into ants and then we will look at the melanin they produce in response. Darker ants are usually in colder temperatures. What we hypothesize is that they would make less melanin as it gets warmer, but the problem with that is that melanin ties into their immune system. So when they make less melanin, they’re actually making less of what’s helping them fight off diseases.

What are some of the “take homes” of the project? If you’re measuring the melanin, what does that mean?

Let’s all just think: If the climate gets warmer, and they do start changing color, and they make less melanin … that means that they’re affecting their immune system. Not only that – the other organisms around them will be harmed if these ants start picking up diseases or getting killed off. There’s a lot of things that could be affected by it because although ants are so small, they’re also so important. The whole food chain will be thrown off. There’s so much that could happen just because ants change color with climate change.

What’s the most interesting aspect of working in the lab? What was most surprising to you?

In the Dunn lab, at any given time you could have five people that could all be in the lab working and we’re all doing five different projects, five different things. The first thing that I like about it is that we’re all just so curious. Even if my project has nothing to do with their projects, if they start explaining what they’re doing – I’m always saying, That’s pretty cool! There is no cap on how much you can be interested in the different projects. The second thing is how creative it all is; for instance, to poke holes into the tops of our ant cages we use a tin can attached to a stick. We heat up the can and that’s what burns a hole in the top. You always assume that things are made by putting it through a machine; but really it’s just that someone sat down and thought, If I just tie that to that, I can make something else. That made the lab even more interesting to me.

I’m glad I came to NC State for the summer. People always say, “When you get to the real world, your boss might be a moron.” But I’m so glad that’s not the case! I like that I’m working with a bunch of people that can’t mind their wandering eye and just need to know the answers to things. That’s what I enjoy – I’m glad and excited to see how the project turns out.

You had your ear buds in when I walked up to you; what were you listening to?

I was listening to Kendrick Lamar, a song called “I Promise You’ll Sing About Me.”

What do you like to do for fun?

Read. I love to read about astronomy; that’s my favorite to read about. I love reading about snakes. I love random facts. Playing basketball, I love that more than anything, it’s just so fun to me. And rapping. I like to do a whole lot of everything.

What are your career goals?

I want to work at an animal refuge center or a research center – anything where I can help the environment or animals. Anything to put use to my degree. I want to work on preserving animals and the environment and making the world a better place. That’s what I want to do.

If you could give a college freshman some advice, what would you tell them?
  1. Study. Study. Study. Any downtime could be study time.
  2. Don’t procrastinate; just do it. Don’t say, “I’ll do it tomorrow morning.” No. If you start it right now, you won’t have to worry about it tomorrow.
  3. Don’t let the freedom go to your head. Even though some people are getting away from their parents for the first time, still know that you want to graduate and you don’t want to get kicked out. Put your priorities in the right place.

Photos by Lauren Nichols.