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Research inspires student

May 02, 2014 8:30AM

Samantha Young demonstrates the type of trap she used to catch tiny sand flies for her research.

Scientific research can be hard and tedious. Samantha Young, a graduate student in biology at Pittsburg State University, knows how maddeningly frustrating field research can be. It’s often dirty work and the results frequently raise more questions than they answer. These are just some of the reasons she loves it.

“Even though research is hard work and sometimes painful, being able to ask questions about what is happening in nature and observing enough to answer at least a part of these questions is exhilarating,” Young said. “In everything there is a story and I love being able to explore, be a part of, and help tell that story.”

Sand FlyYoung, who is originally from Bentonville, Ark., earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from PSU in 2013. As an undergraduate at PSU, she conducted field research that received one of just eight national awards from the Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology section of the Entomological Society of America.

Young, a K-INBRE (Kansas IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence) Scholar, was advised by David Gordon, an associate professor of entomology in PSU’s Department of Biology. She conducted research on “Sand Fly Vectors in Southeast Kansas.” Marcelo Ramalho-Ortigao of Kansas State University headed this collaborative project with Gordon’s lab at PSU.

Although Young’s research may sound arcane, it could have real-world implications.

A few species of sand flies, Young explained, are carriers of a parasite that causes Leishmaniasis, a disease found in 90 countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and southern Europe in the Old World and in some parts of Mexico, Central America and South America in the Western Hemisphere. To date, the disease is rarely found among humans in the U.S. Most infections occur in military personnel coming back from endemic areas.

Although Leishmaniasis in humans in the U.S. is rare, a strain of canine Visceral Leishmaniasis (canVL) is found among American Foxhounds across the U.S. In this case, although the disease is known to be transmitted directly from dog to dog, many scientists believe that sand flies could also be playing a roll in transmission. For dogs, the disease is fatal.

It is important to point out, Young said, that canVL has not been reported in the U.S. in any other breed of dog, unless they have been in endemic areas in other countries. The disease within the American Foxhounds has remained contained within the breed. She added that there have been no "autochthonous" or native human Visceral Leishmaniasis cases reported in the U.S.

Young said that because sand flies are vectors of the parasite that causes Leishmaniasis in other parts of the world, it is important to have a better knowledge of sand fly populations in this region to better understand any potential risks for humans and animals.

“We really don’t know much about sand flies at all,” Young said. “Leishmania infantum is the species of parasite that infects American Foxhounds in the United States. In South America, L. infantum also causes human infections. There hasn't been any report of it outside of Foxhounds and no human cases. We don't know if we have a competent vector (sand fly that is capable of transmitting the parasite) in the United States. That’s one of the things we’re trying to understand.”

Young began her work in 2011, using a special trap to capture the insects at sites in Cherokee and Crawford counties. In 2012, they published the first report of two species of sand flies in both Kansas and Missouri. The work, however, spanned three summer seasons.

“We are interested in learning where they can be found and what their seasonal activity is,” Young said.

Sand flies trapped in Kansas were identified at PSU, but were then sent off to Kansas State University for further analysis. She said the research is ongoing.

“There needs to be a lot more work done,” Young said. “We don’t know whether the sand flies we have here are capable of transmitting the disease. Each piece of research helps put the pieces of the puzzle together.”

Now a graduate student at Pittsburg State, Young has shifted her focus from insects to plants and is studying under Neil Snow, an assistant professor of botany at PSU and director of the Sperry Herbarium.

She said her research at PSU, both as an undergraduate and now as a graduate student, has only whetted her appetite for more.

“It’s been a fantastic experience,” Young said. “I’ve been allowed to get an idea of what research really means and the collaboration that takes place among researchers.”

David Gordon, associate professor in the Department of Biology and Young’s adviser for the sand fly research, said partnering with researchers at other universities allows students at PSU to work with some of the top scientists in their fields.

“Marcelo Ramalho-Ortigao at Kansas State leads one of the top teams in the field,” Gordon said. “It’s like a baseball player working with the New York Yankees. The expectations are very high.”

Neil Snow, assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Young’s adviser in her graduate program, said field research is a valuable and necessary experience for young scientists.

"To truly understand the process of science, at some point a person must become engaged in meaningful research,” Snow said. “That is true for both field-oriented and laboratory-oriented projects. Doing research at the undergrad and graduate level is what best prepares PSU students to excel in their chosen areas. Sam excelled in research as an undergrad, working with Dr. David Gordon, and is well prepared for her masters' degree research.”

Eventually, Young said, she’d like to get a Ph.D. and, of course, continue doing the research that she loves.

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