Ozarks grad presents research at national biology conference in Puerto Rico

Release Date: 6/7/2012

Andrea Muffuletto, who graduated from U of O in May with a degree in biology, took some of her award-winning work last month to the 2012 National Beta Beta Beta (BBB) Biology Honor Society convention, held in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

At the end of March, Muffuletto won the John C. Johnson Award for her presentation at the BBB South Central Regional conference at the University of Oklahoma Biological field station on Lake Texoma, Oklahoma. The award came with money to attend the national convention in Puerto Rico.

Muffuletto's research involved separating and identifying levels of a certain protein in both cancerous and non-cancerous melanoma. "It was my fifth time to give this poster presentation on my research," Muffuletto said. "I'd done it previously at regionals and before that during my summer research last year at UAMS, as well as on campus at Ozarks and at the Arkansas Idea Network of Biomedical Research Excellence conference in Fayetteville. Anyway, it went really well. In fact it went so well I only got to see one other presentation that Saturday when everybody was presenting their posters. Although they allowed us a time period to go and look at some of the others, I had so many people coming up to ask me about mine that I never actually had time to go look."

She said she was grateful for having the opportunity to present her material several times. "I was able to perfect it a little bit more each time I gave it," she said. "I was worried a little in San Juan because I didn't get as much time to go over the material beforehand as I had in other presentations. But I realized once I got out there that the information was basically ingrained in me by that point. All the information I'd thought I couldn't remember came out as soon as I started talking about it. I haven't had numerous opportunities to give presentations like that more than once, so it was a good opportunity. Probably something I'll never forget."

Muffuletto did get to enjoy one other presentation. "It was very interesting. I got to know the girl presenting it pretty well afterward. Her research was over the coquí frog, which is one of the most common frogs on the island of Puerto Rico. Coquís have also become established in Hawaii, where they are considered an invasive species. She had actually gone to Hawaii to do her research. They were studying this frog because it is influencing the environment in Hawaii and they want to figure out how much."

Muffuletto is intrigued by studying the effects of invasive species to an eco-system. "It's hard to say whether the effects are always negative," she said. "I think obviously if the species is not native, there can be some unintended consequences of bringing it to the area. Even if the species is brought there for a 'good reason,' it's hard to predict the side-effects. Sometimes though an invasive species just appears, and it takes awhile to figure out whether it was introduced accidentally, or migrated there because of changing conditions in its home environment, etc. An example is the recent invasion of giant Asian Tiger shrimp in the Gulf of Mexico. Not only are they cannibalistic, like most shrimp, but they are so much bigger that they are decimating the smaller shrimp population. Nobody knows why they're showing up. If you talk a scientist, I'd assume their presence is a bad thing because not only is it devastating the native shrimp population, but it's going to have numerous effects that probably haven't been pointed out or understood yet. On the other hand, if you're talking to someone in the restaurant business, you might think 'Giant shrimp cocktails? Sure!' Maybe they'll be able to figure out what exactly the long term impact really is. It's a fascinating topic."

Muffuletto said the Puerto Rico trip wasn't all spent giving presentations. "The convention was four days long, and the first couple of days were devoted to field trips to see some of Puerto Rico's great natural diversity," she said. "The field trips were fantastic. On that Thursday we visited the Parque de las Cavernas del Río Camuy, the Camuy River Cave Park. It's one of the largest cave systems in the world and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. The caves were carved out by the by Río Camuy, the third-largest underground river in the world. On that same day we also went to The Arecibo Observatory, which is a radio telescope with a 1,000 ft. dish. It's enormous. It has been used in different movies, including the James Bond movie 'GoldenEye.'"

On that Friday, Muffuletto's explorations included a trip to Puerto Rico's 'dry forest' -"You know they have rain forests there," she said, "but also they have these dry forests, which is kind of misleading because they're not really dry" - but she said her favorite of all the different excursions was to one of Puerto's famed bioluminescent bays. "There are bacteria in the water there that are naturally bio-luminescent," Muffuletto said. "When they are stirred up they glow. So you go out in a boat and they have a volunteer who hops in the water so they start moving. That was really neat. Probably the best thing I saw. But the whole trip was such a wonderful experience and one I will never forget."

Muffuletto says she is torn about what to do next. "I have thought about going on to get my master's degree and Ph.D.," she said, "but also maybe to pursue certification as a Master Physician's Assistant. But I'm also interested in the administrative side of working in medicine. I like people. I met a woman at UAMS in Little Rock who had a Ph.D. in Molecular Biology but chose to work as a recruiter for UAMS. She knows her science and can answer any questions anyone might have about the school. That would be interesting to me. My father got his undergrad degree in Radio/Television but ended up going on to law school. You never know where life is going to take you, and that's where I'm at right now. I want to do everything but I am having to narrow it down. I think I might learn Spanish next. They say Rosetta Stone is the way to go!"