Tiffany Perron ‘20 (Biology)

Spidery Research in the Dominican Republic Helps Scientists Worldwide

July 10, 2019
By: Guest Contributor

Biology major Tiffany Perron ‘20 spent some of her summer working in a basement full of daddy longlegs.

Perron received an Aisiku Undergraduate Summer Research Fellowship, which allowed her to continue working with Biology Professor Sebastian Velez, Ph.D., at the National Museum of Natural History of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Here, she developed protocols for the digitization of the museum’s biological collections, specifically, their collection of Opiliones, more commonly known as daddy longlegs.

After taking an entomology class with Velez, Perron realized how much she loved the subject. 

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do with biology,” Perron says. “I figured I should just follow the things that I was enjoying.”

Perron asked Velez if there were any opportunities that would allow her to continue research in this field of study. He suggested this project, and having been to the Dominican Republic twice before on class trips, Perron was eager to return.

Perron spent her time in the basement of the natural history museum, taking pictures of Opiliones. However, because the Opiliones are so small, getting a clear image of them proves difficult. The research grant allowed the purchase of a robotic arm capable of focus-stacking photography. The arm makes slight movements to collect images, and the images are then composited to create a single, detailed image.

Because Perron would not have enough time to photograph all the specimens, she trained museum personnel on using the robotic arm, allowing them to continue photographing the collection even after Perron returned to Massachusetts. While staff at the museum are still working their way through the specimens, Perron is hoping to have a presentation of her research by the end of the summer, under the continued direction of Velez.

These images of the Opiliones will create a digital collection for the museum. The collection will be freely available to anyone over the internet, allowing researchers from other institutions to help their Dominican counterparts to identify specimens without having to ship the specimens.

“I think it’s super important for people to be able to get the information they need,” Perron says. “That’s how you move science forward. If the information isn’t accessible or if it’s behind paywalls, it’s the most frustrating thing and it halts our progress.”

Perron says that undergraduates can have a difficult time being taken seriously and hopes that making information accessible will help add legitimacy to undergrad research. She also stresses the significance of independent research.

“If you’re an undergrad trying to do research, just start talking to people,” Perron says. “Just go to your professor’s office and ask them if there’s anything. They are not just going to come up and be like, ‘Hey, I have this amazing research opportunity. Do you want it?’ You have to go out and find them. Don’t be afraid of your professors; they want to help you.”

Each semester, Worcester State students take advantage of independent research opportunities, furthering their interests and gaining skills and knowledge beneficial to their field of study. 

Perron plans to attend grad school and continue studying entomology. With these goals, she knows the significance this project in the Dominican Republic has had.

“I don’t think anything really prepares you for having to go out and do your own research. Leaving the country, finding the equipment, learning the equipment, and teaching it to other people is all stuff that’s new, and I feel you can only learn by having to do it,” Perron says. “It’s been an amazing opportunity. I feel like everyone should try to do independent research.” 

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