August 19, 2016 at 9:15am
Dane Lisser

The field of ecological immunology is seeing a growing interest in the causes of variation in immune responses in populations. One question that has sparked from this particular field is what does this difference in immune response mean for organisms?

Leighty Scholars at Millikin University have spent the summer researching this topic with help from red-eared slider turtles at the Rock Springs Conservation Area in Decatur, Ill. Students Katie Stromsland, a senior biology major from Gillespie, Ill., and Whitney Gray, a junior biology major from Greenville, Ill., are looking at how variation in immune responses, and factors such as age, impact the turtle's defense against different types of parasites.

Millikin Leighty Scholars

"We're all studying their immune systems and looking at different things," Stromsland said. "I'm looking at their natural antibodies and ones that are interacting with the parasites."

Gray is looking specifically at salmonella antibodies and whether they are natural or adaptive.

Student Erica Forbes, a junior biology major from Bourbonnais, Ill., is working on validating a couple of new immune measures for use in the painted turtle, the most widespread native turtle of North America.

Millikin Leighty Scholars

"I'm researching to see if the turtle white blood cells will kill breast cancer cells," Forbes said. "We take their blood and put their white blood cells on cancer cells to see if there is any cell death."

Brooke Smith, a junior biology major from Franklin Grove, Ill., is taking her research in a different direction by researching turtles in a wetland to see how the wetland itself is functioning. Smith's research addresses an important topic in the agricultural arena as wetlands can be used to reduce nutrients, such as nitrates in water.

Through these projects, each student is able to take part fully in the research process through conducting studies, presenting at conferences and writing grants.

Dr. Laura Zimmerman, assistant professor of biology, has been working with the students throughout the summer. "Overall, I'm very excited about the projects that these students are working on," Dr. Zimmerman said. "Science is a process, and at Millikin, we recognize that the best way to learn this process is by participating in it. Through these projects, each student is able to take part fully in the research process through conducting studies, presenting at conferences and writing grants."

"It's a great opportunity to get this type of experience early because some students have to wait until their senior year to do research," Gray said.

Millikin Leighty Scholars

Katie Stromsland's research was funded by the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center, which recently held a symposium where Stromsland shared her results. She also supported her research by writing a grant which was funded by the Tri-Beta Biological Honor Society.

"Because of everything I learned as a Leighty Scholar I was able to pursue my own internship," Stromsland said. "We're all studying pre-med but our research is immunology-based, and it's exciting to tie-in our other interests with our pre-med interests."

Millikin Leighty Scholars

Each summer, Millikin University's Leighty Science Scholarship Program provides opportunities for students in the natural sciences to work on graduate-level research projects. Leighty Scholarships are awarded to first-year science majors and include a $3,000 stipend for science research conducted between their sophomore and junior years.

The John and Ula Leighty Science Scholarship honors Dr. John Leighty, a 1931 Millikin graduate, for his contributions to science. Leighty is best known for his achievements while working at the Eli Lilly Company, where he collaborated with the research team that first produced penicillin.