Chloe Wang’s chemistry senior thesis was guided by her environmental studies minor. Wang was concerned about the pressing ecological concern of honeybee health and hoped to use her capstone research to try and diagnose some reasons for conditions like colony collapse disorder, in which worker bees suddenly abandon their hive, which have remained mysterious for years.
“Bees are essential to global food security and biodiversity and are facing many health problems at present, some of which are difficult to predict because no one has been able to pinpoint a single cause,” said Wang. “There are many possible stressors at play, including pesticides, pathogens, parasites, habitat degradation, climate change, genetics, and so on. And there’s much to learn about bees from a chemical perspective because they are exposed to many chemical compounds in the environment as they forage, use pheromones to communicate and maintain their social structure, and like all of us, synthesize metabolic compounds in their bodies.”
Given the large number of potentially relevant variables, untargeted chemical analysis—which is premised on the statistical extraction of useful information from large data sets collected without a single hypothesis—seemed a promising route for her research. So Wang’s thesis, “Methods for Untargeted Analysis of Chemicals Related to Honeybee Health,” developed a method for such an analysis to detect a broad range of chemicals in and on bees and see how they might correlate with an array of biological variables such as parasites and bacterial, fungal, and viral pathogens.
Now that she’s graduated, Wang is continuing the environmental focus of her work. She was chosen as a Haverford House fellow, the Center for Peace and Global Citzenship’s postbac program in Philadelphia. As part of her fellowship, she will work at Bartram’s Garden, helping to develop and implement environmental education programming related to the Lower Schuylkill River. After she completes that yearlong program she hopes to continue working on ecological issues, she said, “hopefully through transdisciplinary approaches that incorporate multiple ways—across and beyond the academic—of understanding and responding to problems.”
“If I am involved in scientific research in the future, I would like to work on topics as relevant as bee health research, and this project has certainly broadened my skill set and concepts of how science can be done,” she said. “On a different note, I have a newfound interest in beekeeping that I hope to explore further!”
What did you learn from working on your thesis?
I learned many different things working on my thesis, from the basics of beekeeping and how to interact with hives, to methods of multivariate statistical analysis! I definitely got a sense of the challenges involved in using a very sensitive instrument and casting a broad analytical net–it’s tricky to settle on a method that will extract the widest possible range of compounds without overwhelming the data with irrelevant biological compounds that are present in all bees. And how do we balance comprehensive methodological experimentation for a small set of samples with the need for large data sets for statistical significance? Ultimately, any method will be limited and every view is a partial one. The principle of untargeted analysis can sound simple and efficient–just collect a bunch of data and let the statistics show you patterns–but in practice, the details really matter. That’s pretty much always the case in science, and the ambiguity of our goals in untargeted work makes decision-making harder.
And how did your thesis advisor help you develop your topic, conduct your research, and/or interpret your results?
My thesis advisor is [Associate Professor of Chemistry] Helen White. She really helped to prioritize the method development aspect of this project that became my thesis, because this is a new approach for us and some troubleshooting and fine-tuning is necessary before we can dive into large-scale analysis. Together, we talked through decisions about what sorts of chemical extractions to try, and Helen helped to train me in running the high-resolution mass spectrometer we are using, as well as the data-analysis software. Throughout the process, conversations with her were important to making conceptual sense of the project.