Freshman brings tremendous biology research skills to the College of Science

08-16-2013

Nicole Biddinger

Nicole Biddinger is one of 850 incoming freshmen starting their College of Science careers this fall.

The Bartlesville, Okla., native is majoring in Biological Sciences and comes to West Lafayette with an impressive resume already. During her last semester at Bartlesville High School, Biddinger raked in more than $3,000 for her first place finish in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Her category was in Animal Science at the May event held in Phoenix. Biddinger’s project was among the 1,600 submitted in the competition.

Part of Biddinger’s success at the ISEF was due to an internship at a zoology lab at Oklahoma State University as well as experience at her high school’s science fair, where she won a total of six awards over her high school career. She also won first place in Life Sciences at the National Junior Science and Humanities Symposia Competition in Dayton, Ohio. Biddinger was one of six winners out of 10,000 students that participated.

It's safe to say this freshman brings some serious research skills to the College of Science.

Question: What did your ISEF project entail?

Answer: My project this past year studied the effects of climate change on genetic evolution of Daphnia pulex, which are aquatic invertebrates commonly known as the water flea. Using resurrection ecology, I worked with sediment cores from a natural glacier lake containing dormant egg banks from as far back as the 1500s. 

Once the nine genotypes I worked with were exposed to proper spring-like conditions, they come back to life, allowing for a comparison of response in heat tolerance trials over a nearly 500-year time frame. The results of the heat tolerance experiments revealed that a strong correlation exists between tolerance and age of the daphnids, showing that an adaptation in their heat shock proteins may have occurred over time, which a molecular level analysis can support. I also placed the ancient daphnids in direct competition for food and nutrients in a controlled environment with those from today’s time at two temperature intervals to monitor response on reproduction rates. These genotype competitions in a higher phosphorus based media revealed that the ancient clones were initially dominant in the jars, possibly due to a phosphorus adaptation that occurred from higher levels in the original lake environment from phosphorus reservoirs found in the rocks centuries ago. 

I hope to apply the results of the heat tolerance experiments to human heat shock protein disease research, as the heat shock genes of the daphnids may be similar to those of humans.

Q: What other science accomplishments of yours stand out to you?

A: I was awarded second place in Environmental Sciences at the International Sustainable World Energy, Environmental, Engineering Project Olympiad in Houston, which hosts 600 students from 68 countries around the world. I have also received first place for the past two years at my state science fair in the category of Biochemistry/Medicine and Health, as well as honors from my regional science fair from the Army, Navy and Air Force. The Oklahoma Academy of Science Journal also published research I conducted two years ago on microorganisms on doctor’s office magazines and transfer rate differences between minors and adults. Oklahoma State University is also working to publish the research I began last summer.

Q: Do you suggest other young science students look for internships early in their schooling?

A: Working in a university level lab prior to graduating high school was an unbelievable opportunity. I was able to collaborate with graduate and undergraduate students on research and receive training for equipment that is far more advanced that what is typically found in a high school lab. Through my time in the lab, I’ve found that it’s one thing to read about application of the scientific method in a textbook and an entirely separate entity to physically apply it to your own research, which is why I strongly recommend other young science students look for internships. It not only allows for invaluable networking but also helps students gain priceless experience and a strong work ethic that will carry with them long after the internship is complete.

Q: What made you decide on Purdue and the College of Science?

A: Purdue was my dream school when I was filling out college applications. I have always believed that a degree from Purdue holds more value than most other universities in the Midwest -- not just because of its rankings and job placement statistics, but also because of its undergraduate research opportunities.

The College of Science appealed to me because of its variety of majors taught by world-renowned professors who I hope will continue to cultivate my passion for science and research. I wanted to be part of an environment that would challenge me in ways I never felt in high school, which I think Purdue will easily be able to provide.

Q: What focus within biology will you be pursuing and why?

A: I am planning on majoring in Biology-Health and Disease because I believe this will best prepare me for a job at the Centers for Disease Control or National Institutes of Health, which has been a long-time goal of mine. I was diagnosed with Raynaud's disease about two years ago, which means antibodies are formed against heat shock proteins in my hands, which can lead to the blockage of circulation in my hands and feet. The diagnosis became the catalyst for my pursuit of research to be able to help others battling disease, which this degree will help prepare me for.

Q: What do you like to do besides science work?

A: Aside from science, I have been involved in ballet and gymnastics for the greater part of my life, which taught me quite a bit about endurance and responsibility. I love reading and writing and also served as editor in chief of my high school newspaper.  These past few years have shown me that high school -- and particularly my newspaper class -- is often under-appreciated for the value it has in functioning as a “microcosm for the macrocosm of the world.” Within that environment and classroom, the leadership, organization and communication skills required of students can serve as incredible preparation in learning to work with other individuals from a variety of backgrounds found in much like that of a lab environment and the real world as a whole. 

Being editor had been something I only dreamed of attaining since freshman year, but the obstacles I was faced with were far from what I had always expected. After so many professors had told me over the past four years that I was “too young” for the level of research I wanted to conduct in their labs, it had become my goal to always give others a chance and my newspaper staff was no exception. With the support of my fellow editors, we worked with each staff member to identify individual goals and it was incredible to watch the transformations that occurred over the course of the past year. It was through those challenges that I learned relying on the support of others makes the team stronger as a whole. 

I have also been able to apply this to the time I spend volunteering in the community, and especially at the local homeless shelter.  From the humility the residents have to the pure joy on their faces when volunteers arrive to spend time with them, it is there that I have gained the greatest perspective on the world and initially discovered the need for basic cost-effective medical care that many are lacking.  I can only hope that my research in science someday will be able to aid them in attaining a brighter and healthier future.

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