Soup & Science: Animal edition

At McGill’s biannual intersection of science and lunch, Redpath Museum hosted Soup and Science, providing students with a look into some of the most interesting and exciting research currently underway at the university. In a series of short, three-minute presentations last week, professors from a wide array of scientific disciplines spent their lunchtimes sharing their passion for research and describing how undergraduate students can get involved. The McGill Tribune reports on their favourite presentations.

Neural cell torpedoes

Monday, January 14 – Celia Hameury

In her presentation on cellular changes in the cerebellum, a section of the brain crucial for sensory coordination and motor movement, Alanna Watt, associate professor in the Department of Biology, discussed the dramatic changes scientific hypotheses can undergo over the course of experimentation and research.

Watt’s research focuses on axonal torpedoes, which are rounded swellings of the Purkinje cells, a subset of neuronal cells that constitute  the cerebellum. Scientists had previously observed that axonal torpedoes were often more likely to occur in people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, and they hypothesized that axonal torpedoes must be a root cause of these diseases.

Knowing that axons are responsible for the propagation of electric currents and subsequent neuronal communication in the brain, Watt and her team analyzed the electrical currents in  axons with torpedoes. She noticed that normal axons occasionally fail to relay electrical signals. Axons with torpedoes, however, failed much more rarely. Moreover, increased failures lead to the formation of torpedoes, which helped reduce the failures and strengthen neurological paths. As a result, a new hypothesis emerged: axonal torpedoes are the body’s way of creating a balanced response to axon failures. Watt’s research is an exciting reminder of how, in science, things aren’t always as they first appear.

The birds and the other birds

Tuesday, January 15 – Kate Lord

Mélanie Guigueno, an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, gave Soup and Science attendees insight into the curious ecological phenomenon of avian brood parasitism, in which certain species of birds rely on other species of birds to raise their young. In particular, Guigueno’s research focuses on the brownheaded cowbird, which forgoes the energy-draining task of bringing up their offspring by dumping their eggs into the nests of other birds. When they have found a suitable host nest, cowbirds will typically wait until the resident bird is away before depositing a couple of their eggs and removing or damaging an equivalent number of host eggs. At the expense of their own young, the foster parents will then unknowingly raise the cowbirds.

“What’s interesting about brownheaded cowbirds, specifically, is that, with this species, only females search for host nests […] without being aided by males,” Guigueno said. “As such, females have more complex space use than males. This is a pretty neat system, as many […other] systems show a male-bias in the complexity of space use. Few systems see a female-bias sex difference in space use.”

Guigueno and her lab are particularly interested in the relationship between animal behaviour in its natural environment and how the brain is functioning.

“In [cowbirds], we see that females have higher levels of hippocampal neurogenesis [neural growth in the brain’s hippocampus] than males,” Guigueno said. “This suggests that, in females, the hippocampus is specialized for the brood parasitic mode of reproduction. So, what happens [in] the brain is associated with their behaviour in the field.”

A venom worse than death

Tuesday, January 15 – Kate Lord

Reza Sharif-Naeini, associate professor in the Department of Physiology, presented a thought-provoking account of how his lab began investigating the nervous system of an invasive species along North America’s western coastline—the lionfish.

“The story around this project starts in 1995 when divers off of the coast of Florida spotted some lionfish during their dive, which is not normal since this isn’t their natural habitat,” Sharif-Naeini said. “These fish belong to the Indo-Pacific region, where their growth is limited by the local predators such as the sharks.”

In the warm Atlantic waters and without a natural enemy, lionfish were free to reproduce at astronomical rates as, according to Sharif-Naeini, females can lay 15,000 to 30,000 eggs every four days.

“If you fast forward to 2015, the fish have invaded all of the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean Sea, and the Atlantic coast all the way up to Rhode Island,” Sharif-Naeini said. “It’s an ecological disaster because they eat anything smaller than half of their size, which means all the young of other species are being eaten.”

Beyond the devastating effects on local aquatic food chains and local marine industry economies, the venomous spines on lionfish pose an extremely painful health threat to people.

“Divers, snorkelers, [and] local fishermen often get stung by these fish, and the way they describe the pain is that, [while] it doesn’t kill you, you wish you were dead,” Sharif-Naeini said. “There is currently no antidote for this pain, so the only thing someone can do is immerse their stung limb in hot water in hopes of degrading the peptides [responsible for the pain].”

Sharif-Naeini’s lab was inspired to investigate the pain-sensing neurons activated by lionfish venom based on the determination of Stéphanie Mouchbahani-Constance, an undergraduate student in physiology.

“This [project] was really spearheaded by Stéphanie,” Sharif-Naeini said. “Just like you, she was an undergraduate [student], and this study would not have been done had she not come to me and expressed her interest [in doing research].”

From shells to shelves

Wednesday, January 16 – Krithika Ragupathi

Over five trillion pieces of plastic currently litter the ocean and pose a serious threat to its ecosystems. While initiatives such as the Ocean Cleanup Project, which employs large floating robots to sequester plastics in the Pacific, help remedy the issue, they do little to tackle the actual reliance on plastic to begin with.

Audrey Moores, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry at McGill, explained that McGill researchers have developed a biodegradable, alternative plastic. Chitin, a polymer found in the rigid shells of insects and crustaceans like lobsters and shrimps, is converted into chitosan, a compound which researchers have used to make plastics. While chitosan is ordinarily difficult to create in large enough quantities for manufacturing use, the McGill team has managed to create longer, more durable chains of the compound.

Moores explained that the conversion process does not require much material.

“We just mill [the shells] in a solid phase […], and, by letting them age in humidity, […] we have been able to make plastics,” Moores said.

Their lab is working on making the plastic product more flexible.

Matching data

Thursday, January 17 – Grace Hu

The standard machine learning process, useful for anything from emails to medical X-rays, takes spatial data points and then classifies them or uses them to make predictions.

William Hamilton, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, described how machine learning can be used to explore the relationships between independent data points in a dataset. This type of analysis has applications in both the biomedical sciences and in analyzing social networks on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. His algorithms currently power the Pinterest recommendation system, and it’s an exciting reminder of how websites that millions of people browse everyday are based on research conducted at McGill.

Hamilton stressed that students can get involved in such research, explaining that he himself started off as an undergraduate researcher at McGill, and his experience is inspiring for students unsure of how to start.

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