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For Immediate Release
November 13, 2014

MVC Student to Present at Community College
Undergraduate Research Initiative

 

Moreno Valley College (MVC) student Hollie St. Claire has been selected to present at the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative, November 20-23, at Gaston College in North Carolina.

In spring 2014, St. Claire, 28, led a team of biology students investigating cochineal insects, which once were used to create a natural crimson-colored dye that rivaled silver and gold's value in pre-20th century Europe and America. St. Claire is the third MVC student invited to present at a national conference, following recent graduates Erika Brock and Rozalyn Wood who presented projects at the CCURI National Poster Session in Washington, DC in September.

"The fact that MVC is being represented is cool," said St. Claire, who plans to pursue medicine or bioengineering. "I've always been into science and love to discover new things. Doing field research was like coming home for me, since I studied anatomy when I was 11."

The MVC team's research sought to uncover why cochineal insects found on nopal cactus at the Yeager Desert Institute on campus preferred the sunny rather than shady side of the pads.

"We were walking the institute, trying to find something for our project," St. Claire said. "We noticed the insects on the cactus and when we looked closer saw a difference in numbers."

Scale insects, cochineal are indigenous to South America and Mexico. Other scale insects in the same genus are native to desert areas of the southwestern United States, but it is the Mexican and South American varieties that fueled a commercial industry. The insects exude caminic acid, which when mixed with aluminum or calcium salts makes carmine dye. That dye is then used in food coloring and cosmetics. At one time, Starbucks used the dye from crushed cochineal to color its drinks. If you see carmine, cochineal extract or natural red 4 on an ingredients list, it means there's a bit of powered bug in the product.

The MVC team began a semester-long study of the insects, which included dividing the pads into squares and counting the insects. That methodology became unsustainable after they discovered that male cochineal visit the cactus only to breed, and the females stack themselves on top of one another.

"It became impossible to accurately count the insects in each square, so we had to estimate," said St. Claire. "After we compiled numbers we looked at why the cochineal were attracted to the cactus and why they preferred the warmer side of the pads."

Eventually the team came to several conclusions.

"We concluded that the insects don't like a wide-range of temperatures. The warmer the pad the more stable the environment, which also probably helps their breathing. We also theorized that warmer nopal pads possibly produce more sugar."

St. Claire, who was homeschooled until enrolling in college at 25, said the research was a great experience. "It was neat to see the information be developed, crunch the numbers, and eventually interpret the data."

She credits the team for the project's success and her opportunity to attend a national conference. Her group included Sharukh Khan, now attending UCLA; Melissa Moore, a UCR graduate; and Julia Watson, a classmate at MVC. St. Claire holds a 4.0 GPA and hopes to transfer to Stanford University in 2016.

She said she is looking forward to North Carolina and seeing the research being conducted around the nation. CCURI uses an inquiry-based teaching model where students are exposed to real world science through a case study in an introductory course followed by a hands-on research experience. The organization provides start-up supplies and workshop and conference opportunities for 26 institutional partners, building regional and national collaborations.

"Presenting will be interesting, a way for me to find my own feet and increase my confidence," St. Claire said. "Representing the College will be an added reward."

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