Wildlife sciences junior Hilary Rizk has been named an Undergraduate Research Fellow for fall 2013. The Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program (URFP) provides opportunities for qualified students from any major to conduct mentored research with Auburn University faculty. Rizk will work with biological sciences professor Geoffrey Hill to investigate a deadly bacterial pathogen called Mycoplasma gallisepticum in house finches. M.g., as it is called, jumped to the species from chickens, and causes conjunctivitis-like symptoms in the finches and is often fatal.
The project aims to determine the reliability of two methods of testing the disease that are currently in use but without any validated evidence of accuracy. Currently there are three testing methods, one of which is known to be accurate – but it is also fatal. That method tests tracheal tissue removed from dead birds for DNA from the pathogen.
A throat swab has been proven to effectively screen chickens, so Rizk says that people commonly use that test with finches as a non-fatal method. However, its accuracy has never been conclusively determined with finches. Likewise, screening a blood sample for antibodies. Rizk’s task will be to learn to perform all three tests, and compare results of the two non-fatal tests against the tracheal sample in a random sample of finches collected on campus.
Rizk was able to develop the project with Dr. Hill’s guidance in part because she was already working in his lab. She says that as a freshman, she knew she wanted to work with birds and sought him out to ask for the opportunity to learn more. She has been working in Dr. Hill’s lab since then, and she now is learning the testing procedures she will use during her research fellowship from one of his graduate students.
Rizk is one of only two students to receive the semester-long fellowship. As part of the reporting requirements for the award, she will present her research at Research Week 2014 and submit an article to the Auburn University Journal of Undergraduate Scholarship.