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Science High

Science High
Devan Fay Gartman, Crockett High School Class of 2009, amongst the fish tanks of Hans Hofmann's laboratory.

Devan Fay Gartman, Crockett High School Class of 2009, amongst the fish tanks of Hans Hofmann's laboratory.


When Hans Hofmann, an assistant professor of integrative biology, agreed to take on some interns from a local Austin high school, he imagined that he was doing them a favor.

What he didn’t imagine was that both of the students from Crockett High School—Devon Sepeda and Devon Fay Gartman—would end up doing him a favor as well.

“This is publishable data,” says Hofmann, of the results obtained by Sepeda and Gartman. “They generated the kinds of datasets that will probably end up getting their names on  papers.”

Sepeda’s experiments, says Hofmann, suggest that when given a nudge from a particular drug, female African cichlid fish will exhibit an uncharacteristic sexual preference for one kind of male cichlid over another. Gartman’s suggest that the age of their young affects how likely brooding female cichlids are to startle and swim away when they hear a sudden noise.

Sepeda and Gartman, who graduated from Crockett in May, were two of four students who spent their senior years interning in faculty labs as part of a new collaboration between the high school and the College of Natural Sciences.

“They learn what it’s really like to be in a college environment, what it’s like to be in a lab environment,” says Hofmann, who managed the internship program along with Michael Herring, a science teacher at Crockett.  “They get to know grad students, post-docs and faculty, and they can establish relationships that can turn out to be quite beneficial.”

For two mornings a week, for the entire year, Sepeda and Gartman went directly from their homes to the lab, where for half the day they worked directly under the supervision of graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, with faculty overseeing the overall direction of their research. At lunchtime, they caught the bus to Crockett in time to make their afternoon classes.

Sepeda, who spent the entire year in Hofmann’s lab, was able to take on a small piece of one of the bigger questions that Hofmann’s lab is trying to answer: What’s happening at the behavioral, hormonal, and genetic levels over the course of a female cichlid’s reproductive cycle in terms of her preference for different kinds of males?

Sepeda found that when treated with a synthetic reproductive hormone, female cichlids exhibit behavior—preferring more masculine males over less masculine males—that normally they only exhibit when they’re in the mating phase of their reproductive cycle.

“This has implications not only from an evolutionary point of view, in terms of sexual selection,” says Hofmann, “but also some interesting public health and human implications, in that it has been shown that human females, as they go through their reproductive cycle, have very different preferences for masculine versus less masculine features.”

Gartman spent the first half of the year in the lab of biologist Lauren Ancel Meyers looking at aspects of what happens to viruses in different kinds of host cells. In the second half of the year, she was in Hofmann’s lab, observing startle responses in brooding and non-brooding female cichlids.

“Basically, I scared fish,” says Gartman.

In order to compare the startle responses, Gartman placed the fish in a special observation tank, equipped with extraordinarily high speed cameras, and then introduced an auditory pulse to simulate, in effect, what the cichlids might hear when a predator comes near. The cameras took pictures of what happened.

What Gartman found was that there was no significant difference between the reaction of brooding and non-brooding females, but that in brooding females, the older their offspring were, the more likely they were to startle. It was a significant enough result, says Hofmann, that he expects that he may assign next year’s intern, or perhaps even a graduate student, to follow up on it.

“A lot of college students don’t even get to be in this kind of lab,” says Gartman, who’ll be attending Hawaii Pacific University in the fall. “To be a high school student, going to one of the best universities in America, and working with these amazing teachers—it was just incredible. They didn’t treat me like a high school student, but like a partner, and I was making a difference, contributing to their research.”

“It was the kind of learning I couldn’t have done in class,” says Sepeda, who’s starting in the fall as a freshman in the College of Natural Sciences. “I was doing it rather than just reading about it.”

For Hofmann, as well, the experience has been rewarding. His research was advanced, he helped to nurture some young scientists, and he was able to give his graduate students and post-doctoral fellows valuable experience in managing young researchers. Looking forward, he’d like to slowly expand the program until perhaps 10 or 15 students a year from Crockett are participating, and perhaps even to organize a summer internship program that would be open to students from throughout Austin.

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Monday, 19 April 2021

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