Biology Grad Student Earns Two Research Awards

SOCORRO, N.M. February 18, 2015 – Biology graduate student Rachel Perez won two awards for her research project presented at the Society of Integrated and Comparative Biology in West Palm Beach, Fla., in early January.

Perez won two travel awards out of only 15 that were offered. In addition to her research, Perez submitted an essay that in order to win the awards.

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Biology graduate student Rachel Perez with her poster at the Society of Integrated and Comparative Biology conference in January. 


Along with her research advisor, Dr. Jamie Voyles of the Biology Department, Perez has been studying infectious diseases and ecology of the Panamanian rocket frog. They are examining an amphibian population that was stricken by an epidemic.

“I’m studying the surviving population,” Perez said. “We’re looking at one species that is very susceptible to disease, but we’re finding a few individuals that are persisting.”

The Panamanian rocket frog was nearly wiped out by a disease caused by a fungus that grows on the frog’s skin. Perez and Voyles posited that the surviving frogs produce a certain protein on their skin that protects against the fungus.

Perez has been to Panama four times to collect samples and is currently conducting experiments on how proteins and fungi interact. She is plating samples of the proteins that the frogs produce and seeing how good they are at killing the fungus.

“In the future, we can figure out the exact protein, but now I’m interested in the mixture and how peptides work against the fungus,” she said. “My poster was focused on the environmental data; temperature is important to the survival of the fungus. I looked at the microhabitats of the frogs to see how it might be helping to kill the fungus.”

Voyles was full of praise for Perez. her ability as a researcher and her presentation skills.

“I was extremely excited – but not surprised – that Rachel got these awards because she’s an excellent student,” she said. “I’m overjoyed that she had the experience to travel and present at an international high-level meeting.”

Voyles said she started this project as a graduate student when the disease first wiped out the species in Panama. She has been collecting peptides from the frogs’ skin to see how effective they are at combatting the fungal disease.

“The overarching idea is to understand if their immune system has evolved to allow them to come back from near extinction,” she said. “We think it’s a change in the immune defenses. Here we are many, many years later and the frogs are coming back.”

Voyles said Perez’ work and her success represent a hallmark of the New Mexico Tech student experience –involvement in hands-on research.

“I think this hits squarely within that mission,” she said. “Rachel got her hands dirty – not just figuratively, but literally too. We are out there working in the mud and rain, slogging through the jungle to get samples.”

Perez earned her bachelor’s in biology at the University of California-Riverside. She selected New Mexico Tech because she had heard of Dr. Voyles’ research and wanted to join her team. She hopes to enter a doctoral program after finishing at Tech.

“The conference was a great experience because I was able to talk to people I’m interested in working and I got face time with them,” she said.

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By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech