Until her senior year, Julia Dettinger had no experience with or had even thought about engineering. But through work this year with visiting assistant professor of biological sciences Jake Krans, Dettinger, along with senior Stephanie Albero, has succeeded in building a unique instrument for measuring muscle force in fly larvae. The device--a force transducer--is the first of its kind to be used in this manner, and Krans and the students recently presented their work at the East Coast Nerve Net conference at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Their presentation generated a great deal of interest and spurred visits and collaborations with at least two other schools, including Tufts School of Medicine and Brock University in Canada.
"Neither had a background in engineering, but with perseverance and gusto they worked out the problems," Krans said. "Their success is great evidence of their motivation and enthusiasm. They succeeded where other people have tried and failed."
While devices exist to measure force at the small (i.e., molecular) level and at larger levels of, say, frogs, there wasn't anything in between. So Krans and his students set out to develop, fabricate, characterize, and use their own technology in order to measure force from fly larvae, which haven't been studied in this way.
Dettinger, a biology and politics major, did most of the work building the transducer, spending countless hours to get it to work. "I just kept going until it worked," she said. "I didn't stop until it did what we wanted it to. I learned a lot about perseverance. And soldering."
Albero, a biology major, then put the device to work in the fly larvae to measure force generation. She spent many hours gathering, analyzing, and graphing data.
Together, the two put together a poster presentation for the conference, the first either of them have attended.
"It was fun to see other people's reaction to our research," Albero said. "We got to see how it all works and talk to other scientists looking at force generation in other insects."
Dettinger also presented her work at this year's Senior Symposium. "I remember being in awe of the seniors, watching their presentations as an underclassman. And now I'm one of them this year."
After graduation, Dettinger will be working for the nonprofit organization Global Health through Education, Teaching, and Service as a development and program officer. Albero plans to go into medicine.