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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Worm Sex et al.

Worm Sex et al.

Who says science can’t be fun? Not UMass Boston’s McNair Fellows. Mixing hard science with laughs last Friday, seven senior undergraduates presented the findings of research projects they developed under the aegis of the McNair Program. The Ronald E. McNair Achievement Program exists to assist lower-income students excel in the fields of math and science.

One of the presenters was Christopher Himes, who had studied the sex habits of free-living soil nematodes – or worms. Himes jokingly said on his subject matter, “Some people say I’m a scientist – some people say I have a problem.” Himes went on to cite his painstaking research. The nematodes in question come in two sexes, male and hermaphrodite – a worm that produces both its own sperm and eggs. As a hermaphrodite ages its sperm supply dwindles. “Outcrossing” or mating with the males of the species allows the hermaphrodite to continue producing fertile eggs.

Like all of the presenters, Himes presented his findings with humor. At the end of his presentation he showed a videotape entitled, “Lovin’ You.” It was a film he made of the worms he studied. With some quick cut editing and mood music, Himes’ film had people laughing to the point of tears. “That’s what happens with little supervision in the lab,” he said.

Another presenter was Charlese Harris. Harris conducted a study of a program called The Young People’s Project. YPP, as she called it, spun out of another program called the Algebra Project. That project was designed by people aiming to make high school students math literate. Harris equated math literacy not only with opportunity for future careers, but as a civil right and something fun. She evaluated the program’s goals and means and came up with findings on how to continue to make the program work. Harris said she plans on getting a doctorate in math, to become an educator to other educators, and to become a textbook designer.

Kearns Calixte studied the enzyme Polyphenoloxidase in barley plants. PPO is the enzyme that browns wheat, fruits, and vegetables. The oxidation of PPO in some plants deters animals from eating that plant. Barley PPO, however, does not “react freely upon contact with oxygen” and Calixte’s research was the beginning of an effort to find out why. He described the complex methods he used to isolate the enzyme in order to begin studying it.

Other presenters were Jennifer Webster who investigated differential protein expression in wild type and mutant E.Coli. Maruti Sharma studied the field effect conductivity modulation in amorphous indium oxide. Joanne Berrouet compared the Native American populations of Nantucket and eastern Massachusetts’ mainland. Meybel Morales identified bacterial genes that can be used by plants to biodegrade petroleum pollution. The process of ridding the environment of harmful contaminants is called “phytoremediation”.

All of the presenters thanked the adminstrators of the McNair program, their mentors – UMB professors – and their fellow McNair students.

Ronald E. McNair was one of America’s first black astronauts. He was born to a struggling family in racially segregated South Carolina. Despite expectations for a poor black kid in the South, McNair became highly skilled academically and in extracurricular activities from karate to music.

McNair went on to graduate from MIT with a doctorate in physics. In 1978 he joined the NASA Astronaut Candidate Program. He first flew into space in 1984. In 1986 McNair was mission specialist on board the shuttle Challenger. When that spacecraft exploded after lift-off, 35-year old McNair and his six crewmates died.

In the spirit of all he achieved, the McNair Program was begun to help other low-income and under-represented students succeed in, and contribute to, the fields of math and science.