Author Archives: Georgia Young

BSURF Reflection

If I had two words to describe this summer, they would be: pipetting and grateful. While this may sound cheesy, this summer has made me realize that, no matter how much pipetting you give me, I will still enjoy working in the lab (which I think is a good sign). Learning what the everyday life of a researcher is like has solidified my goal of wanting to go into research as a career. I also was able to learn practical lab skills which I will continue to use throughout my research path.
And now to the three-cheese-blend of a second word to describe my summer: grateful. I am, of course, grateful to BSURF for providing me the opportunity to explore research this summer, and to Jason and Dr. G for fostering my curiosity about research at Duke with the faculty talks and seminars. I am also grateful to each person (and dog) in my lab for being so welcoming and friendly, and providing an environment that made me want to come back every day and to continue to do research. Thank you to everyone else that made this summer so enjoyable and fulfilling (looking at you, BSURFers)!

“I’m Squawkin’ Here!”: The New York Accent of the Bird World

Dr. Stephen Nowicki lied to us. While I’m not a fan of lying, this lie was ~for science~, which made it acceptable. This lie, while small in size, made a big difference. The difference was between “pa” and “da” – a miniscule change of breath. This difference, clear to us, shows our categorical thinking: something is “pa” because its not “da”. Birds also, amazingly, display categorical thinking in their song. If it is not the correct song, the song has no meaning, just like how saying “dause” means nothing to humans (while the word “pause” makes sense). Birds from Pennsylvania do not understand the songs of birds from New York because of these slight changes (who knew birds had accents?). Throughout the faculty seminars this summer, I have noticed a trend: discovering connections in the world. I thought Dr. Nowicki’s research was incredibly cool because it uncovered more interconnectedness in the natural world. Additionally, I have been working in an animal behavior lab and Dr. Nowicki’s research sparked my interest into another side of animal behavior research I had never seen before!

Abstract Draft

This is a first draft of my abstract

Ecologic Factors Influencing Hormone Concentrations in Female Baboons

Although studies have shown how ecologic factors influence human female hormone concentrations and male baboon hormone concentrations, little is known about how these same factors effect female baboon hormone concentrations. This study measures correlations between estrogen, progesterone, and glucocorticoid levels and rank, weather, parity, age in the female yellow baboon population in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. To determine the hormone concentrations, each fecal sample collected in Kenya was purified into a serum. Radioimmunoassays were then run on each sample, and hormone concentrations were correlated with field data on the individual the sample was from, time of sample, rank, and temperature. Although we do not yet have results, our hypothesis is that female baboon hormone concentrations and female human hormone concentrations will be similarly affected by parity and age, and that weather will effect both male and female baboon hormone concentrations similarly. Rank in female baboons is matrilineal, that is, a daughter baboon will be lower in rank than her mother suggesting that rank and hormone concentrations would not be correlated.

Depression from Two Angles

Echoing what everyone else has been saying: The chalk talks this week were great and I really enjoyed learning about everyone’s different labs! I felt like this was a good way to see the scope of BSURF with (almost) everyone working in different labs on a variety of topics. One big theme throughout the talks was the brain. Alie’s research in the Dzirasa lab was in this theme, using a technique called social defeat on the mouse model. This technique induces depression in the mouse model, the mice are treated with antidepressants, and then the brains are dissected to see if a certain protein is present. If this protein, EmCP2, is present in a brain treated with antidepressants and the model does not show signs of depression, this could be a big breakthrough in treating depression in humans! Mental illness is a difficulty many people face, and it was especially interesting to see the different ways researchers at Duke are tackling this issue. We also got to hear from Annika who is researching depression in the mouse model using the social defeat technique from a different angle: the gut. Specifically, Annika is looking at how the micro-biome in the gut may lead to lower levels of serotonin in the brain, which may be a cause of depression. Both viewpoints on depression allow us to see the body as an intricate system and allows us to see how these systems interact, which I thought was very interesting. The two talks also made me think of my own research with baboons (explained in my last blog post), as we start with behavioral data and work backwards to hormone concentrations in the organism. In both Annika and Alie’s lab, they seem to be starting within the subject and seeing how an internal change may affect the external behavior. Again, I really enjoyed hearing all the chalk-talks, and they really broadened my view as to what research can be! Thank you for the time and effort everyone put into their talks, and I really look forward to hearing more during the poster sessions!

How To Get Your Thumb In Shape for Summer!

10:30 – 12:30: Say hello to the lab and the lab dogs. Pipette 10µl of one sample of solid phase extract into two tubes.  Repeat ~170 times for a great thumb workout. Our challenge every day is to get a coefficient of variance below 15% between each pair of tubes, which is harder some days than others. The extract we pipette out comes from a process called Solid Phase Extraction (SPE), which we did earlier this summer. The product of SPE is a purified liquid which contains hormones from the original fecal sample and methanol. Pipetting this liquid usually takes about an hour and a half to two hours, meaning I get to chat with the other undergrads in the lab! After pipetting out the samples, I dry them in the dryer under the hood which blows compressed air into the tubes, evaporating out the methanol and leaving only the dried sample. I then add the next necessary components for the radioimmunoassay (a set of standard/control tubes, buffer, tracer, and an antibody) and let the reaction (explained in my last blog post) go for two hours. While this process may sound tedious, my lab partner, Ariel, and I have said that we feel like “actual scientists” by doing this work. Mixing different colored components of the radioimmunoassays is also more entertaining than I’d like to admit! Having a great lab who gets along well also helps, and we can be frequently overheard chatting for these two hours.

12:30-2:30: Grab lunch from West Union, pet the lab dogs (pictured below), label the set of tubes for tomorrow, and help out around the lab.

A blurry picture of a good dog (1 of 3 of the dogs in the offices)

2:30-? : Add the second antibody needed for radioimmunoassays, vortex, and place in centrifuge. Clean up the bench, put materials away, and get ready to start again tomorrow. Pet lab dogs again for good measure. (Note: The dogs do not come into the actual wet lab, Ariel will take over from there and aspirate out the supernatant from both my set and her set of tubes. The precipitate left over gets placed into a gamma counter and is read over-night.

Stress and Reproduction

The research project I am working on in the Alberts Lab examines how drought, and the stress caused by drought, can affect pregnancy and conception in wild baboons. We are specifically studying the wild baboon population in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Like humans, baboons are fertile and mate year-round, rather than having a breeding season. This, then, begs the question: Why do female baboons not become pregnant each cycle? One potential reason could be stress-level, caused by environmental factors such as drought.

In the lab, I am using radioimmunoassays to detect the level of glucocorticoid, a stress hormone, in fecal samples collected from the baboon population in Amboseli. Radioimmunoassay, developed by Rosalyn Yallow, uses competitive binding between antibodies and antigens to determine the concentration of antigens (in this case, glucocorticoid). A set amount of radioactively-tagged glucocorticoid is mixed with an antibody and the two bind. Then,  a small amount of the fecal sample, which has been purified and concentrated into a liquid which contains the glucocorticoid, is added to the mixture. The radioactively tagged glucorticoid and the non-radioactive glucocorticoid from the sample compete to bind to the antibody. The antigens that have not bound to the antibody precipitate out of the solution, and the supernatant is removed. Then, the amount of radioactivity in the precipitate is counted by a gamma counter. The more radioactive the precipitate is, the less glucocorticoid hormone from the sample is present, meaning that this sample had less glucocorticoid originally. From this, we can extrapolate how much of the stress hormone was in the sample. Fecal samples collected in Amboseli are labeled with the name of the individual and the time and date of the sample. Using this information, data collected in the field about the reproductive cycle phase of the female baboon, and the glucocorticoid levels determined in the lab, we can look at the relationship between stress and reproduction.

Wild Baboons in Amboseli National Park (Source:

“Hot Oven” Experiences

Dr. Susan Alberts can trace her love for science back to one life-changing moment: learning about the fig wasp in freshman year introductory biology at Reed College. Dr. Alberts remembers being “mystified” by the relationship between the fig wasp and the fig and immediately wanting to learn more. While becoming a scientist was not the expected path for a once philosophy major, Dr. Alberts describes the job she has now as “the best job for me. Ever.”

Getting to her dream job, however, had ups and downs. First, the ups: Dr. Alberts received the Watson Foundation Fellowship, giving her funding to design a project and travel for a year. Dr. Alberts sent out letters to different potential projects and mentors, and received a call back from Jeanne Altmann, a behavioral ecologist who had set up a field research center in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Dr. Altmann offered Dr. Alberts the opportunity to work in Amboseli for the year, and Dr. Alberts accepted. Now, the (slight) downs: Dr. Alberts calls this first field experience a “tempering in a hot oven” experience, which I took to mean as a difficult experience which ultimately made Dr. Alberts stronger and more able to deal with challenges. Lack of easy international communication meant that Dr. Alberts was mostly on her own, figuring out how to run the project, from logistics such as vehicle repairs, to sometimes trying interpersonal relationships. After working in Amboseli for 15 months, Dr. Alberts came back to the states, received her master’s from UCLA, and began the first of two post-doc positions, one at University of Chicago and one at Harvard University. Dr. Alberts then joined the faculty at Duke.

During our interview, I also had the opportunity to hear Dr. Albert’s thoughts on being a woman in science. She, again, calls some experiences of being a woman in science “tempering in a hot oven”. While in training, Dr. Alberts saw some women not able to succeed because of familial expectations, sexual harassment, and unwelcoming environments. Dr. Alberts speaks to her first post-doc experience under a female mentor as a source of her strength in a male-dominated scientific community. Seeing herself reflected in a female-led environment allowed her to gain more confidence to stand up for herself when questioned, and to become a mentor to others. In 1998, Dr. Alberts found herself in a different mentorship role when her first child was born. The female graduate students at the time didn’t have many role models to look up to who were also mothers, and looked up to Dr. Alberts for advice on being a mother and working in the sciences.

Walking out of my interview with Dr. Alberts, I felt a renewed sense of determination to work hard to achieve my goals, especially those of working in the field. While I still have a lot of tempering to go through, I am enjoying being mystified by the work in the lab and the stories from those around me.

Fecal Samples!

I have spent the past five summers working as a summer camp counselor, so the day to day camp routine comes as second nature. I’ve learned how to tackle many a camp-specific obstacle such as poop in the pool, a lost shoe/pants/shirt/towel/favorite stuffed animal, and an awkward conversation or two. Stepping into a lab, however, is a completely new experience for me. I have been working in the Alberts Lab since January and have enjoyed getting settled into the lab and beginning to understand how a lab functions. Twice a week during the school year, I weighed baboon fecal samples. Walking into the lab this summer, however, I still felt the nervousness and excitement other BSURF-ers had mentioned.

The Alberts Lab focuses on animal behavior, specializing in baboon behavior. The lab studies the behavior of and collects samples from a baboon population in the Amboseli National Park in Kenya. The project I will be working on this summer will be studying how hormone levels fluctuate during the rainy and dry season, and how this affects fertility. Three other students in the lab and I are extracting hormones from fecal samples collected in Amboseli.

Now that I have gotten into a new routine in the lab, the nerves have subsided somewhat and I am simply excited to see what I will learn this summer. I expect that this learning will not only be proper pipetting technique and lab protocols. I also hope to learn what being a professional researcher is like and the different paths one can take. During lab meeting and lunches with the post-docs this past week, I have heard stories about field research that spark my interest and curiosity. I look forward to more of these in the coming weeks! Another expectation that I have for the summer (which has already come true) is that I will make mistakes. I know mistakes are part of any learning process, though they are far from my favorite part. I also hope to create strong relationships with the people in my lab. Finally, I expect to continue the research I begin this summer during the school year, and feel very grateful to be able to spend a concentrated amount of time in the lab.

The Alberts Crew, 1 week done!