Notes from the lab: April 2019

I’m back! But this time writing from the concrete jungle.

Nina in Prof. Jess Rothman's Primate Nutritional Ecology Lab

The past three months I have been working in Dr. Jessica Rothman’s primate nutrition lab at Hunter College analyzing my plant samples collected in Madagascar. It has been exciting to finally start working with the samples after they were stuck in Madagascar for so long (shout out to Andrea for literally flying there for 2 days to bring them back!). We also have lots of nutrition-related projects in the works waiting for my results, including characterizing the nutritional composition of the diet and how this varies between individuals, across seasons etc., as well as how nutritional quality of the diet interacts with and/or impacts foraging behaviors, reproductive strategies, and the microbiome.

Varecia food items after being milled in the lab -- now ready for analysis!

After spending a week feeling like I was working in a tea-leaf factory, grinding exotic teas for Pukka, I successfully milled all of the samples into 1mm particles (see left). I have since been sequentially analyzing them for their macronutrient contents; testing for fat, fibers, dry matter, ash, crude protein and non-structural carbohydrates. A lot of the assays feel much more like industrial chemistry than other biology lab work I’ve done before, but it was fun to be back in the full lab coat-gloves-goggles-facemask get up –a little different to my usual field pants and binoculars look. During the last two weeks I have also had the opportunity to run a new type of analysis to calculate available nitrogen in the samples. This works by simulating the processes which occur during primate digestion and so provides a better estimate of the protein available to digest, rather than simply all proteins present in the plant material (as much nitrogen is bound to other structures within the plant cell and cannot be digested). Each assay takes five days to run and involves making vast quantities of three different reagents, all of which must be carefully balanced to pH 7.1 and then incubated at 37°C for 24-48 hours. Technical and a little time consuming, but cool stuff! It has been a fascinating learning curve, both training in the lab and living in New York City. There have been many rites of passage these past few months from running assays unsupervised to getting my own key to the lab to crying on the subway (unrelated to lab work but I like to think I’m officially a New Yorker as a result).

Stay tuned for more updates as I hope to head back to Madagascar this summer with Amanda to study forest structure change and its impacts ruffed lemur habitats and populations. AND, I am thrilled to announce that this month I was accepted into the CUNY Physical Anthropology PhD program, as part of NYCEP, with Andrea as my advisor (The Dream) –so, I look forward to many more years of notes in both the field and lab!

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