While many students spent their summer break enjoying the beach, University of Central Florida junior Grace Avecilla helped discover a new organism while interning at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Getting a chance to culture single-celled protists, a diverse set of microorganism, was the highlight of the internship, made possible through the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduate program. The competitive national program, which works with various labs and universities nationwide covers travel and relocation expenses and gives students a stipend.
Avecilla spent three months working with scientists at the museum. While culturing protists –single-celled organisms usually found in algae – Avecilla discovered a new organism, which she will get to help name next year. Scientists study protists because they can provide information about evolutionary events in multicellular species such as humans and large animals. Additionally, protists can give insight about parasitic evolution and human pathogens like malaria.
“I’ve always been interested in evolution and how species survive based on what traits they keep and lose over time,” Avecilla said.
Avecilla worked in the lab of Eunsoo Kim, a researcher and faculty member at the American Museum of Natural History and Richard Gilder Graduate School. She turned down a similar position at the University of California in San Francisco for a chance to work in Kim’s lab, which focuses on the evolution of plants and protist.
The UCF biology major said she was well prepared for the internship thanks to her work in Biology Professor Hojun Song’s lab. Her research here focuses on the role proteins play in American birdwing grasshoppers.
“The research I do on campus taught me how to work in a lab and research setting,” she said. “So the transition wasn’t difficult.”
The transition may also have been aided by Avecilla’s outgoing personality and passion for all things bug. As treasurer of the UCF Entomological Society of Central Florida, a group that offers hands-on educational workshops about insects, Avecilla enjoys sharing her love of insects with the public.
When she is not working with insects she is helping others through UCF’s Alternative Spring Break Program.
Last spring break, Avecilla went to New Orleans where she helped build a community garden just outside the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit especially hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The area is considered a “food desert” meaning that affordable and fresh food is not easily accessible to its residents.
“The garden will provide an opportunity for the people to purchase fresh produce and learn how to grow it on their own,” Avecilla said. “I am very interested in sustainable living and access to nutritious foods. I especially think access to healthy food is a very important issue because I think there is a direct correlation between poverty and obesity, here in the United States.”
Avecilla plans to graduate in the spring of 2016 and has plans to continue onto graduate school.