Sarah Oliver '19

05/16/17

Biology major designs research to study duck embryology

Sarah Oliver ’19, a biology major from Lexington, Ohio, came up with the idea for a summer research project from a place where many students come up with ideas—YouTube.

Oliver, the recipient of a 2017 Venture Discovery Grant, is attempting to hatch ducklings outside of their eggshells. The experiment will give her a better understanding of the embryonic development of ducks. The idea is based on a viral video of high school students in Japan doing a similar experiment with chickens. The grant is supported by The Venture project and was made possible through the generous support of the Council of Independent Colleges and the Lilly Endowment Inc.

“I am doing a giant developmental biology and embryology hybrid project of sorts,” said Oliver. “I am basing a lot of what I’m doing off of the studies used by the Japanese students, but I’d like to do a second stage where I try some embryo manipulation. That’s the way I’m going to make this my own. Not only am I changing the species to duck, but I’m changing the experiment itself.”

Dr. Todd Rainey, professor of biology, is Oliver’s main advisor on the project. However, Oliver is also utilizing the expertise of other faculty members including Dr. Charles Daws, professor of chemistry, and Dr. Angela Montel, professor of biology.

Oliver explained that Bluffton is unique because professors are willing to lend their experience to student-led experiments.

“This is a project that I concocted myself, and I just knocked on Dr. Rainey’s door and asked him if he wanted to do this project with me over the summer and he agreed,” said Oliver.

“I’m using Dr. Daws a lot for the chemistry side of things,” Oliver added. “One of the things I’m changing to the experiment is the way I am supplying calcium to the embryo and that requires a lot of chemistry that I either haven’t done in a long time or chemistry I don’t know how to do yet, so I’m heavily relying on him for that.”

And Dr. Montel is providing expertise with unfamiliar equipment. “I haven’t taken classes to know how to use some of the equipment yet because I’m going a little bit above and beyond what I’ve already learned right now.”

A project like this is something that Oliver believes would never be possible at another university. She’s taking on the challenge in preparation for next summer when she applies to the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. Research and lab experience is key.

Currently in the research and planning phase, Oliver is hoping to start her first round of hatching in June followed by a second hatching in July if everything goes as planned in the first batch. Oliver has also expressed interest in changing up the experiment in the second batch also if the first batch succeeds.  

Oliver plans to continue her study of embryology in the future. She plans to go to medical school and possibly study to be an OB/GYN. For now, she will write up her findings in August and will stay busy raising the ducklings until they are mature enough to be released safely on campus.

“I plan on naming all of the ducks,” joked Oliver. “But I’m not counting all my chickens before they hatch because that’s cursing the entire process.”

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-Jena O’Brien, public relations student assistant