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Biology undergraduate students publish research in peer-reviewed journal

Dustin Luu and Hillary Vo
From left, Dustin Luu and Hillary Vo

Two biology students at The University of Texas at Arlington have accomplished the rare feat of becoming lead authors of a peer-reviewed, published article while still undergraduates.

Dustin Luu and Hillary Vo, seniors working in the lab of Sen Xu, assistant professor of biology, co-authored the article, titled “An efficient method for hatching diapausing embryos of Daphnia pulex species complex (Crustacea, Anomopoda).” It was published in the November edition of the Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A: Ecological and Integrative Physiology.

“For undergraduates who juggle a busy schedule of classes and other extracurricular activities, publishing peer-reviewed articles as lead authors is a tremendous achievement that requires rigorous training, strong dedication, and excellent time management skills,” said Xu, who served as the corresponding author of the paper. “Dustin and Hillary are great examples of the very talented pool of undergraduate students we have at UTA.”

The study explains a new, efficient method for hatching embryos that have stopped development but remain viable for an extended period of time, a condition called embryonic diapause. In their research, Luu and Vo used two species of Daphnia, a microcrustacean commonly known as a water flea. They examined the effect of ultraviolet light and different amounts of storage time in darkness on the hatching efficiency in two Daphnia species – Daphnia pulex and Daphnia Pulicaria.

The Daphnia embryos were stored in incubators in a dark environment for different periods of time and they were exposed to ultraviolet light, which accelerated the hatching process.

“Using previous literature on the subject, we found a quick and simple way to reach high levels of hatching these diapausing embryos,” Luu said. “It's interesting to note that, although we were able to reach up to 100 percent hatching in some clones, you only need one female Daphnia to survive to repopulate the clone population, since they can reproduce both asexually and sexually.”

Added Vo, “Based on previous studies, we found a quicker and more efficient way to hatch these diapausing embryos under a certain temperature and dark-light periods.”

The new method is extremely useful for research being done in Xu’s lab as part of a five-year, $1.89 million grant from the National Institutes of Health that Xu recently received.

“The method that Dustin and Hillary described in their paper is important for many experiments that involve crossing Daphnia strains of different genetic makeup to understand the genetics of meiosis and asexual reproduction for my recent NIH grant,” Xu said. “We have three ongoing projects – all are part of the grant – that take advantage of the newly published method.”

Vo and Luu said they were thrilled to have their work published.

“I was so excited and happy since the effort that we have put into the project for a year has finally borne fruits,” Vo said.

Luu grew up in Grand Prairie and Mansfield and graduated from Mansfield Lake Ridge High School. He decided to major in biology because he plans to go on to medical school after graduation.

“Biology covered many of those prerequisites that medical school looks for while leaving enough free time for extracurricular activities like shadowing, volunteering, and research,” he said.

Vo was born in Vietnam and came to the United States at age 13. She graduated from Grand Prairie High School and chose to major in biology because, like Luu, she wants to go to medical school and a biology degree covers most of the prerequisites, she said.

Luu joined Xu’s lab in August 2018 and Vo joined two months later. Both of them plan to graduate in Spring 2020 and go on to medical school.

Clay Clark, professor and chair of the UTA Department of Biology, lauded the students’ achievement and noted that it speaks to the College of Science’s emphasis on making research opportunities available to undergraduate students.

“Hillary and Dustin should be very proud of their research and of becoming published lead authors before they complete their undergraduate careers,” Clark said. “They are receiving excellent training in Dr. Xu’s lab, and their experience with writing and publishing their research will give them an advantage over their peers as they continue in their education.”