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October 27, 2005

Weird Wasps Hatch Fruitful Research Career

There are miniature, sci-fi movie monsters buzzing around the bucolic fields of Maryland’s wineries and orchards, but you have to know where to look.

Grab a magnifying glass, kneel down near the fallen grapes and peaches and soon you’ll see tiny fruit flies flitting from meal to meal and laying their eggs. Look closer and you may see a stealthy intruder injecting the unsuspecting fruit fly larva with its own eggs that will soon make the flies the surprise special of the day.

Weird wasps search for foodLeft: Parasitoid wasps, the inspiration for the Alien movie monsters, search for hosts.

For UMBC senior Kate Laskowski, this shape-shifting horror show worthy of a David Cronenberg or Alien movie is just another day in the field. The biological sciences major with a chemistry minor from Easton, Md., has spent nearly three years studying parasitoid wasps, a fascinating insect that could someday help us better understand human aging.

Kate Laskowski

left: Kate Laskowski

Laskowski, a UMBC Presidential Fellow with a 3.93 GPA, has studied the wasps at Boordy Winery in northeastern Maryland, a peach orchard in Severn, Md. and in the lab of her mentor, UMBC biological sciences professor Jeff Leips. She recently traveled to Cardiff, Wales, where she turned heads as the only undergraduate student at a research conference on the wasps.

“The poster that she presented on her research won first prize, beating out all other presenters that included graduate students and post docs,” said Leips.

Infected fly larvae

Left: Infected fruit fly larvae, before (left) and after the parasitic wasp egg hatches.

According to Leips, the wasps’ creepy means of reproduction was the inspiration for the Alien series of science fiction thriller films. The wasps literally rob the cradle of other insect species, injecting their eggs into living fruit fly larvae. The tiny time bomb lies dormant for four to five days until the larva pupates, or spins a cocoon around itself. Only then does the baby wasp hatch, killing its host and simultaneously providing itself with a food supply and comfy, secure home in which to grow.

More importantly to Laskowski, is the wasps’ interaction with fruit flies or Drosophila, the standard studied life system for geneticists. A particular fruit fly gene, known as Ddc, seems to be an enzymatic tradeoff between how long the fly lives and how well they can avoid a parasitoid attack. Long-living flies are more likely to get hit, while those better resistant to wasp attacks seem to be shorter-lived.

“Ddc accounts for a 15 percent variation in longevity in the fruit flies,” said Laskowski, “So myself and many other researchers in the Leips Lab and across the world are very curious about what else Ddc could teach us about human aging.”

Laskowski collects specimens at the orchard.

Left: Laskowski collects specimens at the orchard.

Laskowski’s field work sparked a passion for research that changed her life. “When I started at UMBC, I was pre-vet with an interest in wildlife pathology,” she said. “But Jeff was my academic advisor and at the end of my freshman year he offered me the chance to some fieldwork.” Laskowski’s career goal is now to become a professor, and she plans to work for a year after commencement and then begin graduate school.

She is also a founding sister of Alpha Sigma Kappa, a sorority for women interested in technical studies that includes majors in computer science and other physical sciences. “It’s not a traditional sorority with parties and all that,” she said. “There are so few women in our fields that it helps to connect and commiserate with other women with similar career goals.”

Leips is not surprised at Laskowski’s progress. “Kate is a dedicated, talented student who is going to have a great research career someday,” he said.

Posted by crose at October 27, 2005 5:32 PM