Two junior researchers, Stephen Coyle (a rising college sophomore, top) and Kevin Catalan (a high school student, bottom), have been hard at work at Fordham University in New York City looking at how different colonies of invasive ants have been affected by Superstorm Sandy. I sat down with them virtually to discuss their exciting research in the lab of our collaborator, Dr. Sergios-Orestis Kolokotronis.
Kevin, I’ll start with you. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about yourself and what is it that you do?
What do you like to do in your free time?
Stephen, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Stephen: I’m an undergrad and just finished my first year at Fordham. I’m transferring to NYU in the fall. I’m a biology major. I first met with Professor Kolokotronis around December 2013 and we chatted a bit about the research. Then in the Spring he let me join his lab so I could start doing work. Little by little I got more involved; now I’m more self-sufficient and we’re both working pretty independently.
What did you know about ants in cities before working on this project?
Stephen: Not too much, I had just seen them around. But I didn’t really think about them as anything ecological – nothing more than just ants that roamed around on the streets and sidewalks as opposed to the native, forest area.
Kevin: I didn’t know much about ants at first, other than they had a mutualistic relationship with aphids. Through my research experience in the lab I learned about ant biodiversity in cities.
What got you into ants, Kevin? It sounds like you had a little background knowledge, but what was it about ants?
Kevin: We went through the Urban Barcode Project and they helped me find a mentor. I was paired up with Dr. Sergios-Orestis Kolokotronis and he gave us different options of what kinds of insects we could work on. We decided, Why not ants? They’re very easy to find, they’re very interesting and they could be found just about anywhere in the world, other than Antarctica.
Stephen, you described your research as a little more independent. Maybe describe that process – what is it like as an undergrad and a high school student working in a university lab on a project?
Stephen: When I first started out I was shadowing one of the lab techs that we have; she was very patient with me because it took me a little bit of time to learn the procedures of all of the experiments so that I could do them well, quickly and without issues. It was very fulfilling to have all of the systems down and have my own independence. We have our own big picture goals and procedures we work towards with the ants; we know what we’re extracting and we’re putting it together ourselves.
Kevin: We’re seeing how invasive ants in different colonies in Manhattan have been affected by Superstorm Sandy.
Have you done any field work?
Stephen: All of the ants that we’ve received were collected by a different professor and given to us, and we’ve been doing the lab work.
What’s your favorite part about working in the lab?
Kevin: It’s a new experience – I’ve never been in the lab before. It’s been interesting starting to identify ants and the process of extracting DNA, using PCR and sequencing the DNA.
Stephen: I really enjoy working in the lab because in the past I’ve had an interest in science for quite a while. I’ve always read the news and seen “Recent Experiments” in the textbook and I’d wonder, Oh, that’s interesting – I wonder where that’s going to go, what are they going to do? But to actually be able to work on the science myself and be a part of it has been very rewarding.
Were you both in the New York City area when Superstorm Sandy hit?
Stephen: In New Jersey, about 25 minutes away from where we are right now.
What is it like conducting research that has been affected by a natural disaster that you were so close to?
Kevin: I feel like I’m helping my local community and learning how Superstorm Sandy affected the lives of ants.
Stephen: I think it makes the project more personal. As we look back at the downed trees – we had so many issues with power outages. I lived on a dead-end street and we were all blocked in when a tree fell in the road. It makes a very interesting connection to how something that happened two years ago. At that time I didn’t think big picture, outside of myself, but seeing how a natural disaster can also affect the biodiversity of ants.
What have you found out by doing your research?
Stephen: We just got back a diverse set of sequences for the ants and we’re just starting to look at them. We’re still putting together all of our data and identifying the different species. It’s my first time looking at sequences, but not Kevin’s.
Do you think that you’ll continue to pursue this research or move on to something else? What are your plans for your careers?
Kevin: I’m more than happy to continue with ants and will most likely continue working on them in the upcoming school year, but am also willing to expand within the branches of entomology and molecular sciences.
Stephen: I enjoyed working on this project a lot and I’ll definitely look into pursuing research like this in the future as well. As for my career, I still need to decide; I am leaning towards research, but I am keeping the options of going into industry or going to medical school open.
Is there anything else you want to share about your experiences? It seems like you both are doing some really exciting work.
Kevin: I had previously worked on an ant project titled “DNA Barcoding Highlights the Genetic Diversity of Native and Non-Native Ants in Broadway Medians, Central Park, and Riverside Park.”
Stephen: I am just really grateful for this opportunity that I was given. Most undergrads who go out looking for research aren’t accepted into a lab until they’ve been around a little while. I just wanted to say how thankful I am for Professor Kolokotronis giving me this opportunity during my freshman year. I would definitely encourage other undergrads to strongly pursue finding research as early as possible.