Angling For Answers

Ohio Wesleyan Students Research How Baby Fish Differ Based on Their Origins

By Cole Hatcher

Alena Arnold ’23
Makenna Juergens ’23

Name: Alena Arnold ’23
Hometown: Ashland, Ohio
Majors: Environmental Science and Biology
Minor: Sociology-Anthropology

Name: Makenna Juergens ’23
Hometown: Springfield, Ohio
Major: Pre-Professional Zoology
Minor: Psychology

OWU Connection Experience: Arnold and Juergens are part of a group of students completing an independent study research course with Shala Hankison, Ph.D., an associate professor of Zoology and 1995 Ohio Wesleyan alumna. Their research project is titled “Maternal allocation to offspring: Comparing recently mated and stored sperm derived broods in the sailfin molly Poecilia latipinna.”

In explaining their work, Arnold says: “We examined how baby sailfin mollies were different depending on whether their mothers had access to a male or were forced to use stored sperm to fertilize their eggs. [Female mollies are able to store sperm from previous matings for at least three months.]

“This research looks into sperm storage, which is not well understood, and aims to explain how mother mollies invest their energy in babies.”

Juergens adds, “This research is important in knowing if mollies prefer new mates over using stored sperm when it comes to producing offspring.”

In addition to Arnold and Juergens, additional students working on the research include Alax Crawford ’21, AJ Lashway ’23, Sandy Otap ’21, and Katherine Walter ’23. The group participated in a poster presentation this spring at the virtual 2021 Animal Behavior Conference sponsored by Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior at Indiana University.

The group’s early results, according to their research abstract, “confirm that females can take advantage of stored sperm, which may be beneficial in cases such as previously mating with a preferred male or lacking access to mating during a reproductive cycle. They do so, however, at a cost to the number of offspring and possibly overall fitness.”

Lessons Learned

Arnold: “I have definitely learned a lot about the amount of work that goes into data collection and analysis. I have spent a lot more time measuring the lengths of babies than I have spent working with the babies in person! The analysis of data through programs like R is also much more complex than I had thought, and I have been developing my R skills in the classroom.

“I have always been interested in research, especially working with animals, and this experience has been a great boost into the world of research. I especially appreciated presenting at the Animal Behavioral Conference because I was very intimidated by presenting, but it turned out to be an amazing experience.” 

Juergens: “From this research experience I’ve learned a lot about myself and what I want to do with my future. I have always disliked the idea of going into research rather than getting to work hands on with animals in a husbandry position; however, I have learned that I actually really like research, and it might be something I look into when it comes to picking a graduate school or a career path. I’ve also learned that working in a group can be really fun, and sharing this research with my peers, as well as Dr. Hankison, has been really nice.”

The Power of Mentoring

Arnold: “Dr. Hankison is an amazing professor and mentor, and I have learned so much about the practical world of science through this research project. Every member of our team has responsibilities and opportunities to help out, and she has ensured that we are all engaged and learning while still having a great time!”

Juergens: “For me, being mentored by Dr. Hankison has not only widened my career options, but growing closer to her has awarded me many opportunities. She assisted me this semester in applying for internships, and I am so excited to get to intern at a zoo inside a museum this summer! Overall, Dr. Hankison has made my time at OWU, even outside of this research, very exciting. I always look forward to going to her classes, and I can’t wait to work with her the rest of my time at Ohio Wesleyan.”

Favorite Moments

Arnold: “Even though it was a little crazy, I loved coming in and doing the behavioral tests for the baby mollies. … I liked working with the babies and having the responsibility for keeping the experiment consistent.”

Juergens: “My favorite moment of working in the lab has definitely been getting to take care of the fish. As much as I love the research, I love walking into the lab and getting to feed and tend to the fish themselves. I don’t think fish can show affection, but I like to think that they like me back.”

Why Ohio Wesleyan

Arnold: “I am really passionate about traveling and learning about other cultures and ecosystems, and I truly believe that OWU is exceptionally supportive of travel experiences. I am hoping to study abroad next year, and I am part of a TPG (Theory-to-Practice Grant) going to Patagonia as well! Our science department is also just amazing, and professors are always willing to help you with whatever goals you have.”

Juergens: “I chose Ohio Wesleyan due to the small class size, and how at home I felt on campus. Actually, I paid my deposit after sitting in on Dr. Hankison’s animal behavior class on one of my visits. I knew that by coming here I would gain strong relationships with my professors and not be lost in the fray of tens of thousands of students.”

Future Plans 

Arnold: “I hope to work in conservation in the future, and I would love to travel and work internationally. OWU’s TPG and study abroad program is definitely helping me to achieve those goals by offering me conservation experience in other countries, and improving my Spanish skills in the context of ecology. My research with Dr. Hankison is also an incredible boost into the world of science.”

Juergens: “After graduation I plan to work for a few years before ultimately going to graduate school. OWU has prepared me for life after undergrad by offering a wide variety of classes I need to get into a good graduate program, as well as employing supportive staff and faculty that have helped me decide where I want to steer myself after graduation.”