Natchez Cathedral class participates in ant study

By Taylor Aswell/The Natchez Democrat

NATCHEZ — Staying at school late is all in a days work for six Natchez Cathedral High School seniors, who could be leaving early if they weren’t too busy researching ants.

Cathedral implemented a biomedical research class into its curriculum this year as a part of the rural biomedical initiative at University Medical Center.

The students are currently working on the Muse of Fire, a program in which the class is studying five different modules on red, imported fire ants.

Cathedral teacher Denise Thibodeaux is leading the seniors, and said the module they are studying now is on biodiversity.

“We recently went on a field trip to a hunting camp where there were two fields plotted out,” she said. “One of them was infested with fire ants, and the other one wasn’t.”

Thibodeaux said students searched both of the fields and gathered what they found.

“They are identifying all of the insects from each field,” she said. “They are then calculating the diversity among both of the groups.”

Thibodeaux said the group also collected soil samples from both of the fields.

“We are trying to see if there is any difference in composition between the two fields,” she said. “We are looking to calculate the species richness of each area and determine the effect of the red imported fire ant on biodiversity.”

CHS senior and biomedical class student Elly Smith said right now, the class is working on separating the insects they found in the area that was not infested.

“We are going to compare the number of insects from both of the areas,” she said.

While the class is currently working on identifying the insects they found, Thibodeaux said the class is going to be doing DNA testing for their next module.

“We are testing the fire ants to see if they are infected with a bacterial parasite known as wolbachia,” she said. “This parasite affects the reproduction of the red imported fire ants, and is being looked at to use for a natural way to control their population.”

Thibodeaux said Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., is using information from students gathered all over the country to find a pattern of infection in these ants.

“So far the infected ants have been only located in areas closer to the gulf,” she said. “It would be very exciting if we were to find any around here.”

Student Emily Hall said it is exciting to be a part of research that is actually being used by other labs.

“The stuff we are doing is real,” she said. “There is a lot of research we are doing, and it is going to help people out.”

Smith said the project allows the class to feel like more than just students.

“We are scientists,” she said.

Thibodeaux said the biomedical class has introduced new opportunities to students at Cathedral.

“We already have 25 students wanting to take the class next year,” she said. “We have a lot of interest in this class, and it is exciting to be able to offer students some research experience.”

Student Maddie Kirkwood said being able to train and work with the equipment is very important.

“It gives us an advantage when we get to work with this equipment in the future,” she said. “Biomedical is a very up and coming field, and we need to be exposed to it.”

Student Luke Martin said the class’ focus on research, not book-work is a great way to help the students learn more about the field.

“We get to do research and grow as students and researchers,” he said. “We can focus on things we want to learn.”

Thibodeaux also said that over time, she hopes to have more equipment with which the students can work.

“We are looking at going over to Natchez Regional Medical Center,” she said.

“Hopefully we can work out something to where our students can go to the hospital and work in the labs there.”

***

Information from: The Natchez Democrat, http://www.natchezdemocrat.com