Researching Evolution to Fight Avian Influenza: Kit McDonnell from Tufts University

images_Kit McDonnell Tufts

Written by Claire Forgan, Tufts University ’16

Kit McDonnell is a sophomore at Tufts University that engages in various types of research every summer in Chicago. “I’ve been working in a genetics lab in a natural history museum, Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, for the last three summers,” she says. “I love that there is very contemporary research going on in a natural history museum because they have such vast collections. Less than 1% of their collections are on display for the public; the rest is research oriented.”

Kit studied interesting topics that combined evolutionary studies and genetic studies. She says, “the first summer I was there, I was working on developing evolutionary relationships between Peruvian tanagers [a type of bird] and their malarian counterparts. So looking at the evolutionary divergence of one strain of malaria in birds and looking if that correlates with the divergence of another one: the coevolution of malaria in birds.”

The research that Kit did that summer, and that she continued to do her third summer there, was part of a larger project the museum was working on. She informs us that her research is “part of a big project that the museum is doing in collaboration with the University of Chicago. It’s called the Emerging Pathogens Project and they’re trying to collect as much information as they can about anything from swine flu to malaria.” This research is part of a greater cause to support health amongst human beings. Kit says that the goal of the project is to “stop things in their tracks before they become an epidemic, […] using evolution.”

McDonnell (pictured above) researched Peruvian Tanagers in an effort to prevent Bird Flu.

 “Two summers ago I was working with ants and I’m obsessed with ants now,” Kit enthusiastically states. During her second summer at the museum, Kit worked on ants and their relationship with a specific kind of tree. She explains, “I was studying these ants called mutualistic acacia ants. The ants live on a certain type of acacia tree and they eat the sap from it and in return they defend the tree from everything: from other ants to an herbivore that’s trying to eat it. They’ll actually go and attack it.” More specifically she clarifies, “I was studying those ants and their metagenomics, which is just all their bacterial content, and seeing if they have a reduced diversity of bacteria in their stomachs compared to non-mutualistic ants.”

This eager researcher affirms her love for working in a lab: “I love working in a lab not only because of the lab work but because it’s exposing someone to the realities of life in the research field in a much more meaningful way than you can get doing a pre-synthesized lab in a class.” The research process for her is all about discovering new questions and answers. She says, “sometimes you’ll be on one track, and you’ll learn about something else, and another question will come up, and you’ll forget the project you were working on and go on this new tangent and discover something amazing.”

Thanks to her great experience at the museum, Kit knows what she wants to do after her studies: “I want to go into research because of it. I was so lucky to get into a program that was so encouraging of it.”

This article was written by one of Project Lever’s guest bloggers - Claire Forgan, an undergraduate from Tufts University. Interested in contributing? Contact us at [email protected]

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