This fall, be on the lookout for possibly USC College's youngest researcher.
He is David Dominguez, a 16-year-old student at Animo Film and Theatre Arts Charter School. The senior at the south Los Angeles high school is conducting important scientific research on campus.
A novice filmmaker, Dominguez learned he could also excel in the sciences after participating in the 2009 USC Young Researchers Summer Program. The new program provides high school juniors the opportunity to conduct research in the College’s earth sciences and marine environmental biology laboratories.
This past summer, Dominguez worked in the lab of Doug Capone, professor of biological sciences, under the mentorship of Laila Barada, a third-year Ph.D. student in oceanography.
He did so well, he’s asked to independently return to Capone’s lab and continue working on his research project this fall.
During the six-week summer program, each of the eight participants was paired with a graduate student to gain hands-on lab experience. Dominguez found that science wasn’t as intimidating as he had imagined.
“Before, I used to think that you couldn’t touch anything in a lab because you might contaminate something,” Dominguez said. “Now, I know how much fun it can be working in a lab.”
His project involves analyzing Trichodesmium, known as sawdust of the sea, which is a genus of filamentous cyanobacteria — a primitive photosynthetic organism found in nutrient poor tropical or subtropical ocean waters.
It’s called sea sawdust because aggregates of it look like small wood chips. Large blooms of it have been mistaken as sandbars by ship crews, including Captain Cook, one of the first to document such blooms 200 years ago.
As a photosynthetic nitrogen-fixing bacterium, Trichodesmium can take nitrogen gas and carbon dioxide dissolved in the sea and change it to organic forms that can be used for food by marine organisms. Thus, Trichodesmium is an important part of the base of the food webs of ecosystems of the tropical ocean.
Under the guidance of Barada, Dominguez is examining how Trichodesmium obtains some of the other scarce nutrients, such as phosphorus, that it needs to grow in the open ocean. They hope to discover how it is so successful in these “deserts” of the open ocean.
Barada said the program has helped her to hone her own lab skills.
“The process of teaching someone else has made me have to really understand exactly what I’m doing and why I’m doing it,” she said. “In order to explain a concept to someone else, you absolutely have to know your subject thoroughly.”
Dominguez has been a quick study, Barada said. When he presented his research project to professors at the program’s duration, he was confronted with difficult questions, she recalled.
One asked: “Since this organism grows with an associated bacterial community, why not take this organism alone and grow it without the other bacteria?”
Dominquez didn’t miss a beat.
“Since the organism Trichodesmium is fairly large, trying to separate just the Trichodesmium from its associated bacterial community would be nearly impossible,” he replied. “Not only does it grow better with the associated bacteria, but it also grows at a really slow rate if left by itself.”
During a visit to Capone’s lab, Dominguez donned a white lab coat and eagerly began examining samples of Trichodesmium strains growing in glass serum bottles kept in a refrigerator.
“We’ll do nutrient testing to see what’s still left of our data samples,” he said closely eyeing the tiny brown specks floating in the liquid. “We’ll also study the associated bacterium that surrounds the Trichodesmium, and its DNA samples.”
So compared to filmmaking, lab work never gets tedious or repetitive?
“Never,” he said, “because each time you repeat an experiment you discover that something is changing. You discover something new.”