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Environmental Science Research Projects at the 8th Symposium of Rising Scholars

3 minute read

At Polygence’s 8th Symposium for Rising Scholars (in the Spring of 2023), over 160 scholars presented their student research projects. Today, I will highlight a few of the projects from the environmental science session of the symposium. I was really impressed by all of the hard work the students put into their projects. While I’m not an environmental scientist, every student presented their work in a clear and accessible manner. Keep reading to learn more about their fascinating research!

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Environmental Science Research Presentations

Research Projects about Marine Life

Keeping Up With the Immortal Jellyfish (Lily Nguyen)

In Lily Nguyen’s presentation called “Keeping Up with the Immortal Jellyfish,” she discussed why some animals are biologically immortal and whether it is possible for humans to be biologically immortal with those same mechanisms. Biological immortality means that an animal cannot die from aging or natural cellular breakdown. (They can still die from environmental causes, though.) Lily discussed four biologically immortal animals: lobsters, hydra flatworms, Turritopsis Dohrnii jellyfish, and water piglets. 

All of these animals’ methods for being biologically immortal were interesting, and what I found most intriguing is that the Turritopsis Dohrnii jellyfish can revert back to an earlier stage of its lifespan under stress. However, Lily pointed out that while it works for those jellyfish, there are greater consequences to keep in mind if this mechanism existed in humans. The idea of being a kid again is enticing, but society would not be able to function if people were constantly reverting back to babies! At the conclusion of her talk, Lily pointed out that there are benefits to knowing we have a limit on our lifespan and encouraged the audience to appreciate what they already have. Lily won First Place for Conference Talks at the Symposium.

Explaining Genetic Variation in the Pacific White-Sided Dolphin (Ria Talwar)

Ria Talwar used machine learning and other analytical tools to explore factors related to genetic variation in populations of the Pacific white-sided dolphin. The Pacific white-sided dolphin is threatened by water pollution and global warming, and these threats can impact the genetic structure of a species. While researchers have studied genetic differences between populations of the Pacific white-sided dolphin, they have not studied the potential environmental drivers of these differences. 

Thus, Ria’s research goal was to identify those environmental drivers. She found an existing study that sequenced genomes of dozens of organisms across Japan. Next, she collected environmental data of the regions where those dolphins were from and analyzed those datasets side-by-side. Using R, she created a heatmap of the data and conducted several Principal Coordinate Analyses. Through her Distance-based Redundancy Analysis, she found that the stability of the current and the salinity of the water were the two most important factors in genetic variations between dolphin populations. She then confirmed these results with the machine learning method of random forest. Future research can investigate why the stability of the current is such an important factor.

Research Projects about Climate Change

There were several projects discussing ways to lessen climate change by controlling the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

How Algae Biofuels Can be Used to Make Airplane Fuels More Eco-Friendly (Kushaan Naskar)

In a nice segue between the marine and climate change projects, Kushaan Naskar researched how algae biofuels can be used to make airplane fuels more eco-friendly. The aviation industry is a major contributor to global warming, so the International Air Transport Association is looking into ways to reduce its carbon footprint. 

One way to do so is to use sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is made from agricultural crops or microorganisms like algae. Crops and microorganisms are renewable resources, unlike petroleum.

Algae biofuel is a great alternative to petroleum-based fuel because it eliminates 60% of CO2 emissions in comparison to petroleum fuel. It also produces 30 times more fuel than fuel made from crops! Scientists use four methods to mass-produce algae: metabolic and genetic engineering, aquafarming, biotechnology, and Artificial Intelligence. Unfortunately, the cost to cultivate and mass-produce algae is high. There must be continued investment in Research and Development to increase algae production and lower the costs to produce algae. Kushaan won the most popular presentation award for the student who had the most attendees registered for their talk!

Analyzing the Protein Rubisco for Improving the Photosynthetic Efficiency of Non-Model Plants (Aditya Kewalram)

Aditya Kewalram discussed how we can manipulate a protein in trees to address climate change. Since trees absorb CO2, deforestation lowers the amount of CO2 that is absorbed in the atmosphere. Reforestation is a well-known method to reduce the impact of deforestation, and in his talk Aditya focused on another solution: finding an effective method to manipulate the plant protein Rubisco such that it is faster and takes in more CO2.

Researchers have explored various methods to change Rubisco, including protein engineering (changing the protein shape and the charges of amino acids within the protein) and transplanting different Rubisco types from more efficient plants into less efficient plants. However, these methods ran into problems. For example, protein engineering only worked under very specific conditions. Aditya concluded that although Rubisco has been a focus for decades, it is not completely viable since it is difficult to modify the protein properly. Researchers have found that other routes, such as editing metabolic pathways and using different proteins, are more effective. 

Carbon Sequestration in Highly Efficient Native Versus Highly Efficient Non-Native Plants (Chloe Berkowitz)

The theme of Chloe Berkowitz’s presentation was roadblocks: journeys aren’t always linear and sometimes you have to pivot to overcome obstacles and achieve your goal. She wanted to have an impact on climate change, but it is such an overwhelming issue. Her mentor encouraged her to do extensive research on climate change and identify a tangible way that she could have an impact. She designed an experiment that would test a way to lower the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, focusing on plants’ ability to take CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is known as their sequestration rate. The goal of the experiment was to identify if the sequestration rate of non-native plants (e.g., Italian plants) would change if they were grown in a different environment with a similar climate (e.g., Los Angeles). After exploring two ways to conduct this experiment, she realized that she simply did not have the equipment to do it. 

Thus, Chloe pivoted to a new idea: using marketing to guide consumers to choose plants in the nursery that have the highest sequestration rates. She designed various stickers that nurseries and growers could put on these plants. After successfully pitching the idea to the head of Armstrong Nurseries, she called the largest grower in California. They were intrigued but wanted an expert to verify that it was valid. She reached out and found an expert, Robin Kobaly, who loved the idea. Chloe and Robin have partnered together to spread this marketing idea to growers and nurseries throughout California. They are currently working on making a list of the best plants and finalizing the design of the sticker. In addition to the roadblock message, Chloe left the audience with the importance of changing your mindset - every little thing helps to address climate change. Chloe won the Third Place Conference Talk award!


As you can see, these Polygence students have done incredible work. You can also check out our articles on creative methods to explore your passions, ways research gives you an edge on college admissions, and tips for conducting scientific research at home. If you want to do research under the guidance of an experienced mentor, you can apply for the Polygence program.

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