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William Ota Presents at Southern California Conference on Undergraduate Research

william ota

Seaver student, William Ota, at Southern California Conference on Undergraduate Research (SCCUR) on November 12, 2016 at the University of California, Riverside.


PR: You recently presented your research at SCCUR 2016, how did your research project come about?

William Ota: In 2016 I began working with Dr. Javier Monzon, one of the new biology faculty. He completed a paper on the genomics of Lone Star Ticks earlier that year and in the summer of 2016 I worked with him on a continuation of his previous study and participated in the SURF program through Pepperdine. During the summer we travelled to Oklahoma State University and while we were there I came up with a hypothesis based on Dr. Monzon's work and others previous work on Lone Star Ticks. That hypothesis was, "Can the Lone Star Tick Invade California?". I came up with this hypothesis for two reasons. First because in the last 40 years the Lone Star has rapidly expanded its traditional range north and west from the Gulf States as far as Maine, Michigan and Oklahoma. The second reason is from an anecdote Dr. Bruce Noden at Oklahoma State University told us about these ticks. He has found that you can have hot dry scrubland for miles without a single Lone Star Tick in western Oklahoma but if you find a gully with water and red cedar there can be thousands of ticks located there. These two facts led me to my current research project as current models for future Lone Star Tick expansion do not predict that California will be suitable for this species but I believe it is possible for Lone Star Ticks to survive and spread in California if they are introduced.

PR: Please tell us about your specific research project and scholarly process. What question(s) did you hope to address with your research?

William Ota: My hypothesis was "Can the Lone Star Tick invade California?". In order to answer this question we addressed several smaller questions one at a time. The first hypothesis we tested was "Can Lone Star Ticks survive in Southern California Microclimates". To test this hypothesis we decided to place adult female Lone Star Ticks at several different micro-climatic sites and monitor the daily high and low temperature, the daily high and low humidity and the ticks survival rate. We ended up testing four different field sites. Two sage scrub sites that were hot and dry, one riparian woodland site and one chaparral site which were cooler and moister. At the end of this experiment we were able to determine that the Lone Star Ticks are able to survive for a considerable time in a shaded and moist microclimate in Southern California.

The next question we tested was behavioral, "Does Temperature Affect Lone Star Tick Questing Behavior?". Ticks quest, climb on something and wave their front two legs in the air and attempt to grab onto prey, so we decided to test the effect of temperature on Lone Star Tick questing behavior. Questing plays an important role in disease transmittance and the ticks ability to feed. In a previous study on Deer Ticks it was found that a southern population quested at a lower height and had a lower risk of transmitting Lyme disease. We hoped to determine if temperature caused Lone Star Ticks to quest at different heights. That data is still being analyzed.

The final question that feeds into my overarching hypothesis is "What are the Climatic Limits of the Lone Star Tick?" This is the question I am currently working on. We hope to determine the lowest relative humidity and highest temperature at which Lone Star Ticks can survive for an extended period of time. In addition we will be testing the resistance of the Lone Star Tick's exoskeleton to water loss. Because this last question is being tested in a lab the conditions are static. But once we determine the Lone Star Tick's resistance to water loss by combining that information with our laboratory experiment we can simulate a day night cycle and predict the result of field experiments in a variety of microclimates. By answering these three questions I hope to answer my original hypothesis of "Can the Lone Star Tick Invade California?"

PR: Tell us about your larger research interests in general – where do your interest lie?

William Ota: My research interests are focused in ecology and evolutionary biology. I hope to go on and earn a PhD in that field. I love learning how biodiversity develops and the evolutionary processes that drive the development of new species. Ecology is the particular scientific lens I think helps us to understand our world at a very useful and practical level that I like. I hope to one-day study how populations spread east and west. We currently have no unifying theory that explain how a species suddenly is able to expand east and west and I think the question is fascinating. I would also like to study invasive species and how they can be transplanted and placed in a completely new environment and thrive when other species that are also transplanted die off. I think that as our world changes and humans grow to dominate our planet to an even greater extent, that understanding the natural world becomes more and more important as we attempt to strike a balance between what humanity needs and what the other residents of our planet require. If everything goes as planned I also hope to work with state and federal governments on environmental policy.

PR: How has your participation in this research project/presentations/etc. impacted you?

William Ota: I believe that by participating in research I have become a more thoughtful and logical person. Every time I fail in designing an experiment or disprove a hypothesis I learn about how I think as well as better understand how the world works. By empirically testing my ability to reason I build my ability to reason and predict how the world will work based on the evidence at hand. In addition to helping me become a better thinker by presenting my findings I have become a more confidant individual and a better communicator. I have become more cognizant of what is good communication through reading all the material that is required to complete a research project and presenting my findings. The scientific community has many great scientists and we need these great scientists to become great communicators in order to transmit the knowledge we have to the general public. I now have two goals for my future, to be a great scientist and a great communicator.