Two local high school girls, Charlotte Gorgemans and April Tong, have been volunteering regularly for over two years in the Peleg Laboratory, an intersection of the Department of Computer Science and the BioFrontiers Institute at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Led by Orit Peleg, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, the team seeks to understand the behavior of disordered living systems, including bees and fireflies, by merging tools from physics, biology, engineering and computer science.
The students’ work with the laboratory has led them to submit projects to several science fairs with great success, and has benefited the laboratory’s research through their involvement and their curiosity.
A collaborative process
Golnar Gharooni Blush is a doctoral student co-supervised by Peleg and Elizabeth Bradley. She also serves as a mentor for community volunteers.
“She is a remarkable young scientist – driven, insightful, intelligent, widely trained and a deep thinker. Her character is reflected in her mentorship and dedication to educating the next generation of scientists,” said Peleg.
Fard sees the research process as a collaboration between researchers and beehives.
“There’s a feedback loop between researchers on one side and these living organisms on the other. We really owe a lot of our life and our food to these little creatures,” she said.
This spirit of mutual exchange is also manifested in the inclusion by the laboratory of community researchers.
Charlotte Gorgemans, who just graduated from Boulder High School, decided to log on to BioFrontiers two years ago. She was fascinated by the work they were doing and wanted to understand what a research journey at the undergraduate and graduate level would look like.
“I am very grateful for the guidance I received, as this mentorship from CU has helped me find my niche in IT,” said Gorgemans.
She began to attend regular lab meetings and asked questions that she gathered from lab experiences.
Gorgemans is always curious and active, asks good questions and tries to find out more, Fard said. With Fard’s mentorship, she began to focus on how food is shared in a colony.
Bees need to share food, but if the food is unhealthy, research suggests the hive will take action to reduce the number of other bees they interact with. Fard saw that Gorgemans was interested in how models might be used to explain the experimental data she was seeing.
For his experience – titled Modeling and analysis of the impact of an unhealthy diet on the health of bee colonies – Gorgemans won second place at the Boulder Valley School District Regional Science Fair in Behavioral Science and received the Ralph Desch Memorial Technical Writing Award from the Colorado Science and Engineering Fair.
In the fall, she begins her computer science degree at CU Boulder.
Behavior of the construction model
April Tong, now a senior at Fairview High School, began her journey with BioFrontiers through CU Science Discovery, which pairs high school students with researchers.
“I thought it was so cool that as a lab we could watch the bees move and then use the computer to analyze their trajectories, like the turn angles they use, that you wouldn’t normally think of. “Tong said.
At the end of the program, she asked if there was a way for her to continue volunteering, and Fard agreed to guide her. Through his continued involvement in the lab, Tong became interested in the modeling process itself and its applications in all disciplines, including swarm robotics.
“She started learning the agent-based programming language that we actually use, which isn’t easy,” Fard said. “She started taking classes and ended up writing parts of our code for us.”
Tong’s experiment – titled Exploration of the clustering function in western honey bees to improve the exchange rate of liquid food and its applications in swarm robotics – received third place at the BVSD regional science fair and a special prize from the Society for In Vitro Biology.
Fard believes in the power of community volunteers for both the lab and the students.
“What I really like about working with high school students is that they look at the problem from a very new perspective. As soon as they think of something to ask, that’s what I want to hear. “said Fard.
Because students are not yet experts in the field, they can think about a question without immediately jumping to existing tools or research. This openness may lead to a new question outside academia.
Gorgemans and Tong were both deeply grateful to Fard, Peleg and Bradley for their time and respect. They felt their involvement in the lab was important and appreciated the skills that the Peleg lab helped them acquire.
Fard also appreciates seeing these skills develop.
“After working with these volunteers for two years, I can see the impacts of their involvement in the lab on their thinking. It’s a bit of mentor time, but I see a huge impact on the students. “