July 27, 2018, BY Matt Hughes

Bucknell undergraduate Lilly Courts is double majoring in biology and Spanish, but this summer she's delving into a new language: Indian jumping ant.

The rising junior from Thousand Oaks, Calif., is one of three students spending the summer working with the ants in one of Bucknell's newest biology labs. Together with neuroscience majors Bri Pomonis '20 and Marcy Kittredge '20 and their research adviser, Professor Greg Pask, biology, they're exploring how these large, sometimes bitey critters, otherwise known as Harpegnathos saltator, communicate with a highly advanced sense of smell.

Bri Pomonis ’20, a neuroscience major from Minneapolis, is using cutting-edge technologies to study the roots of ant behavior using genetically modified fruit flies.

"This breed of ants has a ton of olfactory receptors," said Courts. "Other insects have around 50 to 70 receptors, but ants have almost 400. So we are super interested and intrigued to see why it's advantageous to have so many, how they have rapidly evolved to have such a large amount, and the genetics behind it."

Courts and her colleagues are among the hundreds of students spending their summer on Bucknell's campus assisting in faculty research or following their own scholarship interests in fields from psychology to political science, chemical engineering to philosophy. Through funding sources like the Program for Undergraduate Research and the STEM Scholars Program, the students receive free on-campus housing, a living stipend and time to devote themselves fully to a project.

The group's work is cutting-edge stuff — and the students are deeply involved in all of it. Courts and Pomonis' experiments uses transgenic fruit flies that have been genetically modified to produce the same smell-receptor proteins as the Indian jumping ants. With an electrode puller, the students stretch glass wires thinner than a human hair, then connect one end to a fly antenna and the other to a computer with a speaker attached. Add a puff of the right pheromone, and you can actually hear the popcorn sounds of the neurons firing.

The electrophysiology rig registers spikes as Lilly Courts ’20 (seated) releases a puff of pheremones. Standing are Professor Greg Pask, Bri Pomonis ’20 and Marcy Kittredge ’20.

It's so advanced, in fact, that this summer a graduate student from Arizona State University came to the lab to learn how to use his lab's own version of the "electrophysiology rig" used in the fruit fly experiments. "We had undergraduate students helping to teach a grad student how to use this equipment," said Pask, who joined Bucknell in 2017.

A New Research Frontier
There's interest in their work because ants are a new frontier for genetics-based research, Pask explained. That's because unlike other species whose entire genomes are relatively well understood, namely fruit flies and mosquitoes, ants are social and hierarchical creatures.

The ants do bite, Pask cautioned, but it's only a one out of five on the pain scale.

"All of these ant colonies — and also honey bee colonies, and termites, and wasps — rely on chemical communication to work together as a team," he explained. "People call it a 'super organism,' where each ant is like a cell doing its own specific job within the larger body of the superorganism. Understanding how these smell receptor genes can work together to govern a wide range of  social behaviors is a great basic science question."

Pask's lab explores the intersection of evolution and genomics, and employs a fittingly interdisciplinary approach to doing so. Kittredge, for example, is a neuroscience major, but her main project this summer is a foray into engineering that combines digital modeling, 3D printing and computer programming. With the help of computer engineering major Andrew Hawk '20, electrical engineering major Owen Meng '20, biomedical engineering lab director Thomas Thul and electrical engineering lab director Matt Lamparter, as well as tools from the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering's Maker-E makerspace, the rising junior from Falmouth, Maine, built a prototype of a computer-controlled camera system to collect observations of ant behaviors around the clock in the presence of various introduced pheromones. She hopes to assemble 15 more camera rigs by the end of the summer.

Engineering a camera system to track ant behaviors was a brand new experience for neuroscience major Marcy Kittredge ’20.

All of this is new territory for Kittredge and the other student research assistants, and when you're exploring the unknown, failure is sometimes a given. "We've had some ups and downs — the first time we totally failed," said Courts. "We didn't get any of the results that we wanted, and it was a big letdown."

But when it works, it's also a deep and intensely personal educational experience.

"The next day in the lab, Dr. Pask introduced us to a new technique — he said, 'We'll try this,' and it worked," she continued. "I felt super successful and excited, because it was the first time that I had done something in a lab setting that we could then do research on, and learn something totally new."