Sand-dollar researcher out-competes graduate students
A. Frances Armstrong recently received a best student poster award at the latest meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB – formerly known as the American Society of Zoologists).
Winning this award as an undergraduate is remarkable because Frances' competition for this award (formally the Adrian Wenner Strong Inference Award) included graduate students working on Masters and Doctoral degrees. W&M Assistant Professor Jon Allen has reason to be proud because one other undergraduate student to win in the past five years was also working with him on echinoderm developmental biology.
The full impact of Frances’ research was unexpected and dramatically uncovered during the conference. Two leading experts in the field of hatching plasticity, Dr. Karen Warkentin of Boston University and Dr. Richard Strathmann of the University of Washington had just completed a symposium on the topic by concluding, in part, that echinoderms are unlikely to exhibit a delay of hatching. In the subsequent poster session, Frances’ findings were revealed in her poster Environmentally Induced Twinning in Echinoderm Embryos and its Effect on Larval Development. To the credit of the scientific process, these same senior researchers were delighted to find their conclusions contradicted by the student’s research, and embraced the addition that her findings bring to the field of developmental biology.
In an experiment designed to demonstrate that sand dollar embryos respond to environmental stimuli of high temperatures and lower salinities by twinning (a fascinating story for another day), Frances discovered that increased environmental stress also delayed hatching in this species. While Frances observed this in an experiment that Jon Allen helped set up, Dr. Allen explains that Frances had spent enough time carefully watching sand dollar embryo development that she recognized it was unusual on her own--so this really was a student-driven discovery.
William and Mary has a long history of contributions to this international organization. Frances Armstrong and many other students attended this year’s conference with funds from the Charlotte Mangum Award. Charlotte Preston Mangum (1938 – 1998), former Chancellor Professor of Biology at W&M, was a long-time president and was honored by the organization through the naming of its Charlotte Mangum Award it gives to students attending the annual meeting.