High school student gets a jump-start on research at ISU

November 14 2006

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White-tailed deer like these are the subject of research in Indiana State University's life sciences department.
Ethan Sperry wants to become a doctor and conduct medical research. While medical school is still a few years away, the Terre Haute South Vigo High School senior is getting an early start on research thanks to Indiana State University's life sciences department.

Sperry is examining the genetic make-up of a specific herd of white-tailed deer. It's a project that builds on his longstanding interest in DNA, specifically sequencing, the process of determining the exact order of the billions of chemical building blocks of life.

"I started this research with the idea that I would like to participate in some of this work and hopefully become a doctor later on," Sperry said. "I'm currently thinking about a medical doctor or Ph.D. program where I can conduct research and practice in the same place."

Sperry contacted Rusty Gonser, assistant professor of Life Sciences at Indiana State, in order to get some hands on experience in his molecular ecology laboratory.

The research involves deer from a naval air station in southern Maryland. The base is enclosed by an eight-foot-high fence on threes sides and a river on the fourth. One-third of the herd's population is harvested yearly, with DNA samples collected and sent to ISU to be analyzed. Gonser and Sperry are studying the "founder effect," so named because the herd of 300 to 400 deer has grown from an initial "founder" population of 10 deer introduced to the military base in the 1960s.

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Ethan Sperry prepares to run tissue samples from white-tailed deer through a DNA thermocycler to assist in genetic analysis. Sperry, a senior at Terre Haute South Vigo High School, is working in the ISU life sciences department under the direction of Rusty Gonser, assistant professor.
The researchers want to know more about the genetic variation as a result of a rapid expansion of the population. Additionally, what would happen if the population would decrease by 50 percent. Both have studied four years worth of tissue samples from the population and a fifth will be collected this fall. They have a supply of samples from 400 deer in freezers located throughout the ISU Science Building.

Gonser and Sperry plan to expand the research to other areas in the United States as a way to compare populations. They have received samples from Indiana and Michigan.

This year they plan on comparing the DNA sequence for MHC genes, to estimate the variability in the immune system of a deer.

"There may not be very much genetic variation in the immune system of this population of deer. It is possible that the population may be more of a mono-culture, kind of like a crop, for example if one plant gets sick, then the whole field is at risk, therefore if one individual gets sick, then many individuals in a population are at risk because their immune system is compromised by reduced genetic diversity," Gonser said.

This may also play a role in what diseases humans are susceptible to and how disease spreads from one individual to another. It's a project that could answer many questions and for a high school student such as Sperry to take part is a great learning experience.

Gonser is glad to open ISU's doors to such an outstanding student. Sperry has earned several honors as a result of the research, including placing third at the National Junior Science and Humanities symposium, a trophy from the regional Science and Engineering Fair that immediately qualified him to participate in the 2006 International Science and Engineering Fair hosted by Intel Corporation. He then went to state competition where he was awarded top honors.

Other events where he was recognized for his research include the Indiana Junior Science and Humanities Symposium, Crane Naval Surface Warfare Center Science and Engineering Fair, and the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. He received awards at each of these events ranging from honorable mention to first place.

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Terre Haute South Vigo High School senior Ethan Sperry poses with some of the awards he has received in connection with research he is conducting on the genetic make-up of white-tailed deer in Indiana State University's life sciences department.
Sperry's most significant achievement may have occurred recently when he placed first at the Indiana Academy of Sciences Talent Search. As a result Sperry and Gonser were invited to present their research at the world's most prestigious general science meeting, the 2007 joint meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Association of Academies of Science (NAAS), and the American Junior Academy of Science (AJAS). Sperry is extremely thankful for Gonser's leadership

"He has not only helped me engage myself with population genetics and molecular ecology and evolution, but he has trained me on many lab techniques," Sperry said. "Dr. Gonser has been a wonderful mentor. He has supported me through all of my trials and tribulations within this project."

Gonser has taught in public schools and knows how difficult it is for high schools to receive sufficient resources to challenge high-achieving students such as Sperry.

"It's hard to do hands-on sciences," Gonser said. "Some of the equipment that Ethan is using costs tens of thousands of dollars. The polymers and enzymes he is using are anywhere from $500 to $1,000 per kit."

In many cases this could be the yearly budget for a high school, he noted. "It gives ISU an opportunity to recruit young scientists," Gonser said. "It wins for Ethan Sperry, it wins for the high school and it wins for Indiana State University."

Contact: Rusty Gonser, assistant professor, life sciences, Indiana State University,(812) 237-2395 or rgonser@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Briana Bullerdick, media relations intern, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3773 or opadept@isugw.indstate.edu

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Story Highlights

A high school senior who wants to become a doctor and conduct medical research is getting a head start on those plans by conducting college level research in ISU's life sciences department. Working with Rusty Gonser, assistant professor of life sciences, Ethan Sperry - a senior at Terre Haute South Vigo High School - is examining the genetic make-up of white-tailed deer confined to a naval base in Maryland. Sperry's research has already resulted in several awards.

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