By Claire Walla
Last semester, if you couldn’t find Pierson High School Senior Alexa Lantiere, chances are she was in Dr. Schumacher’s science lab studying sea sponges. An atypical way for most Pierson students to spend their free time, Lantiere was figuring out the chemical make-up of a rare sponge for a paper she wrote called “Isolation and Structural Assignment of a Biologically Active Sesterterponoid From the Marine Sponge Collospongia.” This semester, her hard work has paid off. Lantiere is a semi-finalist for this year’s National Intel Science Talent Search.
The senior, who plans to study pre-med next year at university, spoke about her project from inside the lab where it all began.
How did you choose your topic for the Intel contest?
We started [this project] when we were told about the sponge from the curator at Atlantis [Marine World]. Usually there are different species of sponge throughout the aquarium, but they don’t grow all over the place because animals inhibit their growth. This one — it’s called Collospongia, that’s the genus — was the opposite. It was becoming a menace.
So, using methanol, you were able to extract all the compounds from the dry sponge, and then the idea was to study those compounds after you got them free from the sponge?
Yeah. We had to keep simplifying them and purifying [the substance] so we could get just one compound. First we [purified the substance] two times with flash chromatography. Then, once we got down to [a level] that we thought was starting to get pretty pure, we separated it out and did the trituration, which formed crystals. Those crystals were an indication of the pure compound.
Are you impressed with yourself for knowing all this terminology?
Yeah, I guess it’s cool.
What was the most exciting part about doing the research and the experimentation for you?
I think the most exciting part was definitely when we got the crystals because we got the compound and we were pretty sure it was pure. We were able to send it to [the University of] Mississippi and that’s when we knew we definitely had a project.
It must have been kind of nerve-racking before that point. Science requires a lot of experimentation and you never know if it’s going to work out. Did you feel at any point, like, “I hope this works?”
Yeah. We were getting close to the deadline and we had to work a lot. I was working extra [class] periods in September and October, and the project was due in November. So, we were pretty much rushing a lot of the time.
Did it ever seem way too laborious?
No. I was excited. I was always happy to work on it. I mean, some of the machines are boring. Doing the same thing over and over is not very fun. But, it was definitely worth it and I had a great time doing it.
What are the implications of your findings?
After we got the compound, we tested it for antimicrobial activity and it was positive for that, so that has implications to become a medicine or an antibiotic, depending on how it works out. But, we’re not really going to get into that. A university or someone else will have to take that part on. The compound also had anti-fouling properties.
What does that mean?
An example is, like on boats they put heavy metals to make sure nothing grows on the boat. It’s the kind of thing that inhibits anything from growing on [a given surface]. We think that’s also why the sponge didn’t have anything growing on it, because it had this compound that was so astringent.
Where does your passion for science come from? Are your parents science-y?
No. I don’t have any history of scientists in my family. A lot of people I’ve met, especially [those] going into pre-med, either know someone who’s a doctor or their parents are doctors. So, I think it’s nice that I can do it without any other kind of inspiration — just myself.
Do you think your parents understand all the research and experimentation you did for this project?[laughs]
Not really. My Dad was telling me what he told someone the project was about, and it was… not very right.
What did he say?
He said that we got an enzyme from the sponge and that we tested it on rats. We never had rats! We never had mice!
Did you promptly correct him?
Yeah. So now, hopefully, he won’t make anything else up.