What They Learned: Emma Bullock ’19

The chemistry major’s thesis began as an attempt to apply the techniques that her advisor uses to study oil to honeybee health, but quickly became a lesson on the importance of flexibility in the lab.

For chemistry major and German minor Emma Bullock ‘19, the thesis process was all about improvisation and re-evaluation.

Bullock’s thesis advisor was Associate Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Helen White, who studies how the chemical composition of oil changes after an oil spill. Bullock’s project began the summer of 2018 as the continuation of an ongoing attempt by White’s lab to take the techniques that White uses to study oil and apply them to research into honeybee health. Although the two topics may seem entirely disparate, Bullock notes that the chemical compounds honeybees use to communicate are very similar to the ones that White studies in oil, meaning that the same instruments and techniques used to study oil spills can be efficaciously imported to the study of honeybees.

“The original idea behind this study was linking chemical signals from bees to their health state,” said the ACS-certified chemistry major. “Unfortunately, our sample size ended up being too small and the factors involved too complicated for us to feasibly carry out the originally conceptualized study.”

This meant Bullock needed to reimagine her project. Reflecting on her thesis, she remarked on the centrality of such flexibility. “You need to constantly be stepping back, re-evaluating what you’re trying to accomplish, and shifting your goals when something turns out to be infeasible.”

This sense of academic agility allowed Bullock to find a new, successful way to use the techniques and instruments with which she began her project.

“We were able to create a solid method for using bands in hives and established the types of compounds they are able to identify in hives,” said Bullock.

Best of all, by moving the goalposts, Bullock simultaneously made progress on her initial project. “This groundwork is necessary for the originally designed study to be realized in the future,” she said, recognizing that so many Haverford theses form a small part of a much larger genealogy of study. By beginning to work on this project, Bullock paved the way for future chemistry majors to study honeybee health using White’s methods for studying oil spills.

What is the title of your thesis? And what inspired your thesis work?

My thesis title is “The Utility of Using Silicone Wristbands as Passive Samplers in Honeybee Hives.” This research was inspired by two key factors. The first is the decline in honeybee health that has occurred over the past several decades, due to numerous factors including a rise in parasites, pathogens, pesticides, and herbicides. The second factor was the fact that current methods used to study the chemical ecology of honeybees are either complicated or extremely expensive. In this study, we wanted to see if we could develop a method for sampling the chemicals in the air of honeybee hives in a way that was both cheaper and contained no complicated mechanisms.

What are the implications for your thesis research? How or why could this help other researchers or academics, if at all?

Hopefully, my thesis provides a foundation that will allow other researchers to perform statistical studies on honeybees, investigating honeybee health through their chemical ecology. Previously, these studies were hard to implement, because of how expensive the sampling devices were. These [silicone] bands are incredibly cheap. With the methods we developed, they could be used in a variety of honeybee studies, allowing researchers to sample larger numbers of hives at a much lower cost.

What are your plans for the future and does your thesis have anything to do helping to guide your future career path?

This upcoming year I will be working at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany. The lab I will be working in deals with carbon monoxide cycling in freshwater lakes. So while I won’t be doing anything that relates directly to honeybee research, my thesis has helped prepare me for doing other forms of environmental research, specifically due to the analytical chemistry techniques I have learned. I hope to eventually get my PhD in biogeochemistry and do research on the impact of climate change on agricultural practices.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.