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SHU Juniors Conduct Research in Germany at World-Class Science Institute

News Story: March 1, 2009

Junior Matthew Rigoli worked with a European Starling at the Max Planck Institute.

Sacred Heart University juniors David Peregrim and Matthew Rigoli spent the entire Fall semester cooped up in a laboratory, often for as much as 10 to12 hours a day. When they weren’t hard at work analyzing the impact of diet on migratory birds, they were working on a couple of online courses to keep up with their classmates. But don’t feel too sorry for them: they were spending their semester in Seewiessen, Germany, at the foot of the Alps as student researchers at the world-famous Max Planck Institute. They were collaborating closely with Ph.D.’s and Ph.D. candidates as virtually the only undergraduates at the institute, where they were greeted with open arms and a collegial welcome.

Peregrim, of Milford, and Rigoli, of Shelton, were part of a unique experience for Sacred Heart. It was organized by Biology Professor Barbara Pierce in conjunction with her colleague, Dr. Scott McWilliams of the Department of Natural Resources Science at the University of Rhode Island, where she received her doctorate. They applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation and were awarded $420,000 from the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems at the NSF. About three-quarters of the grant went to URI, where much of the research was analyzed, and $110,000 was earmarked for her work.

Dr. Pierce explains that despite its complicated name, integrative organismal science simply works to predict why organisms are structured the way they are, and function as they do.  “Projects that combine experimentation, computation and modeling, and which lead to new insights and predictions that can be experimentally verified, are particularly encouraged by the National Science Foundation. The competition is extremely intense, and fewer than five percent of the applications are approved.”

A graduate of Notre Dame High School in West Haven, Peregrim plans to pursue a master’s program in biology upon graduation and then his doctorate. Like his classmate, Matt Rigoli, he is a commuter and had never lived independently before. That they were the most junior members of the research team seemed to be no problem at all for his colleagues, who are among the tops in their field and more than willing to assist and to listen respectfully to their findings. By chance, an international gathering of dozens of Max Planck scientists from around the world – experts in physics, chemistry and ecology among them – gathered in Seewiessen, and the two Connecticut students even made a presentation to the conference.

The students’ research centered on migratory birds that were subjected to the stresses connected with migrating across the Alps. The European starlings “flew,” for as long as eight hours a day, inside a wind tunnel, or wind canal, as it is called there. They typically fly at night since they navigate by the stars and need the daylight hours to search for food. The SHU research team measured the metabolism and expenditure of energy required for this flight with the birds’ diet varying in different fats and antioxidants. As Dr. Pierce noted, these birds cross an ecological barrier, since they migrate over the Alps, and so their food sources vary a great deal. This is complicated by the loss of their natural habitats due to development or pollution. The consequences for the birds are obvious, but the implications for human nutrition and health are also significant.

Rigoli and Peregrim quickly adapted to the regimen of the Planck Institute, sometimes arriving in the lab as early as 5 A.M. and staying until late in the evening. They loved every minute of the experience. As Peregrim explained, “Often, it seems the point of undergraduate research is to find the answer to a problem that is already known. Here, we were doing original research with enormous implications for many other fields.” In addition to the intellectual satisfactions that came with those investigations, the SHU Pioneers were plunged into the very heart of the scientific method trying to produce results that could be tested and verified. “We worked at set times, with set procedures and learned how to function in a professional scientific environment.”

The junior investigators admit that the experience was made sweeter by being in the heart of Europe, and they took full advantage of the opportunities available by traveling to neighboring countries. “But the best part for me,” said David Peregrim, was feeling like a full participant in this important work and being welcomed as a colleague by these incredible scientists. And performing up to expectation.”

Ever the teacher, Dr. Pierce quickly corrected him: “Far better than expected!”