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Student Research: From Saving Endangered Sea Turtles to Diagnosing Skin Cancer

Findings Highlighted at Annual Symposium

Sea turtle on the beach Photo by USEPA
The Kemp’s ridley, shown here as a juvenile, is the smallest and rarest species of sea turtles. It is threatened by human disturbance of its nesting grounds as well as trawl and longline fishing and boat strikes.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Sea turtles are ancient marine creatures. They have been around for 110 million years, since the time of the dinosaurs. But natural and manmade threats to their habitats in modern times have decimated their populations worldwide. One species — the critically endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtle — is getting help from a team of student researchers.

Erin Mangan Sullivan MS ’12, a doctoral candidate in the UMass Intercampus Marine Science Graduate Program, along with biology undergraduate research assistants Sonia Marcello and Alfred Lutaaya, are studying parasites found in young Kemp’s ridleys, which get stranded in mass numbers on the New England coast every year. The students’ goal is to assist wildlife veterinarians and biologists from Boston’s New England Aquarium in making clinical decisions on how to treat these marine creatures. The team presented its findings during the recent Student Research and Community Engagement Symposium.

Held each spring, the symposium enables students to showcase their work through oral and poster presentations to their peers, faculty and guests. These include creative work, internship and co-op experience, community service-learning, study abroad and thesis research. This year, 138 posters from more than 130 students in all of the university’s six colleges and schools were presented. Symposium attendees voted the poster of Sullivan, Marcello and Lutaaya one of the “fan favorites.” (Marcello and Lutaaya both graduated in May.)

The student projects addressed everything from developing new cancer detection methods to improving food safety for soldiers on the battlefield. For instance, Jillian Martin, a doctoral student in the biomedical engineering and biotechnology program, presented her project that uses terahertz imaging for detecting non-melanoma skin cancer. Civil engineering junior Michaela Fitzgerald and Ph.D. candidates Junwei Su (mechanical engineering) and Margery Pelletier (biology) shared information about their efforts to use nano-imprinted sensors for detecting pathogenic bacteria in soldiers’ meal rations. Fitzgerald’s poster won the symposium’s “Best Poster Presentation in Undergraduate Engineering.”

Understanding the Ecology of Sea Turtles

Sullivan, Marcello and Lutaaya are collaborating with researchers at the New England Aquarium’s rescue and rehabilitation center in Quincy, where juveniles suffering from “cold stunning” are brought for examination and treatment. Sea turtles feeding in Cape Cod Bay during the warm summer months can get trapped as winter approaches, resulting in severe hypothermia that often leads to beach strandings or death.
Erin Mangan Sullivan MS ’12, a marine science doctoral candidate, along with biology undergraduate research assistants Sonia Marcello and Alfred Lutaaya, are studying parasites found in young Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, which get stranded in mass numbers on the New England coast every year.

“To see the actual turtles and see how severe their conditions are is really a unique experience for us,” says Marcello. “We want to look at the parasite community within these turtles and try and identify as many parasites as we can.”

They also conducted necropsies on the deceased turtles, dissecting the organs looking for parasites. “By examining the biodiversity of parasites present in juvenile Kemp’s ridleys, we hope that our data will contribute to the understanding of their ecology as well as future rehabilitation efforts,” says Sullivan, who also serves as a seasonal biologist at the aquarium.

The team is advised by Asst. Prof. Jessica Garb of the Department of Biological Sciences.

A Non-Invasive Way of Imaging Skin Cancer

Non-melanoma skin cancer is the most common form of cancer, with approximately 3.5 million new cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. It is also nearly 100 percent curable if diagnosed in time and treated properly. Currently, early detection of skin cancer is based on visual medical assessment by the doctor, and diagnosis requires a biopsy.
Student doing research in the lab Photo by Joson Images
Graduate student Jillian Martin conducts research at the university’s Biomedical Terahertz Technology Center.

Martin’s goal is to use a terahertz-imaging technique, called “continuous-wave circular polarization,” as an effective, non-invasive method for mapping the extent of a cancerous tumor “in vivo” (on a living body) so it can be surgically removed. Unlike X-rays, terahertz radiation is inherently safe and has no known harmful effects on living tissue. It has been shown to be capable of detecting intrinsic contrast between normal and cancerous tissues. This makes terahertz radiation well-suited for biomedical imaging of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.

Martin’s adviser for the project is Cecil Joseph of the university’s Biomedical Terahertz Technology Center.

Increasing Food Safety for Soldiers

Keeping soldiers safe and healthy is a top priority for the Army. That is why a simple, compact, portable tool is urgently needed that would allow them to quickly detect and identify pathogenic bacteria, such as E. coli, salmonella and shigella, in their food with minimal sample preparation. Current methods typically require bacteria cultures, costly lab equipment and technical training.
Student presenting her poster at the symposium
Michaela Fitzgerald presents her team’s findings during this year’s Student Research and Community Engagement Symposium.

To meet the challenge, Fitzgerald, Su and Pelletier are developing nano-imprinted sensors — thin, nanostructured layers of polymers decorated with silver or gold nanoparticales — that operate using “surface-enhanced Raman scattering” to detect pathogens. Initial studies have shown that the sensors exhibited an enhanced Raman signal and were able to detect low concentrations of a fluorescent dye. The students are now working on moving this technology from the lab to the field, with the goal of producing low-cost, disposable sensors.

Prof. Pradeep Kurup of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Ravi Mosurkal of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center are serving as advisers on the project.