Young scientists
Nicolette Nigro and Shannon Lafferty worked together on a project they presented at the symposium.

Photos provided West Islip School District

Young scientists


While doing his research, Luke Harris got to interact with some of the whales up close.


WEST ISLIP—Three West Islip High School seniors (Luke Harris in biology, Shannon Lafferty and Nicolette Nigro in environmental science) were recently invited to present their research findings at the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium’s 2018 Long Island regional semifinals at York College in Queens.

Harris conducted his research, titled “Extracting DNA from Killer Whale Mucus as a Non-Invasive Alternate to the Use of Biopsy Darts,” in the West Islip High School laboratory under the advisement of Dr. Judy St. Leger, the vice president of research and science for SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment. 

Harris’ love for killer whales sparked his interest in biology. “Initially, when I was reading through research articles on killer whales, I found one about a drone nicknamed the ‘snotbot,’” he said. “With this drone, scientists are collecting mucus samples from whales in the ocean by hovering the drone above a whale when it exhales, releasing a cloud of mist (which is filled with mucus). In addition, I had read in other scientific journals that scientists currently use biopsy darts to collect DNA samples from whales. Unfortunately, these darts can actually harm the whales. In order to form an alternative method for scientists to collect DNA samples from whales without harming them, I got the idea of trying to find a way to extract DNA from the mucus samples.”

 Luke Harris in the school lab working on his project.


Harris began by typing his research idea into the Q&A section of SeaWorld’s website. After reaching out to various people within the company and being put in touch with the vice president of research and science, he spent three months reading scientific journals and writing his research proposal. “After I completed my experiment, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interact with some of the whales up close, as well as speak with top SeaWorld animal behaviorists and veterinarians,” he said. 

Harris’ work won first place in the biology category. He then moved on to present at the JSHS regional finals, also held at York College. Harris also won a Grand Award – first place in Animal Science at the Long Island Science and Engineering Fair. This qualified him to be an Intel International Science and Engineering finalist, which will allow him to present his research at the international science fair this weekend in Pittsburg, Pa. 

Harris will be attending camp at SeaWorld San Antonio and working as an educator at the Long Island Aquarium this summer. He will then attend the University of Delaware as a marine science major with a focus in marine biology. “I really hope I can continue my research with SeaWorld in the future as well. My mentor, Dr. St. Leger at SeaWorld, mentioned she met the inventor of the ‘snotbot’ drone used for mucus collection from whales in the wild, so I’m hoping I can contact him,” he said, adding that he hopes to have a career working with marine mammals. 

Lafferty and Nigro conducted their research, titled “Microbiome Analysis of Water with Different Salinities on the South Shore of Long Island,” in the West Islip High School laboratory as well, under the mentorship of scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center, as part of the National Microbiome Initiative

Both grew up on the South Shore of Long Island and were exposed to a variety of ecosystems from an early age. Lafferty and Nigro think it’s important to know and have a good understanding of the organisms that live close to us. “Each year, we interact with some of these organisms during the summer if we find a hermit crab or jellyfish, but not many people think about their roles in an ecosystem and what could happen if they are threatened,” said the West Islip seniors. “The bay is becoming more and more polluted each year due to chemicals from fertilizers and other runoff, which can negatively impact all different kinds of organisms.” 

 Nigro and Lafferty are focused on the environment. Both hope to pursue a career in medicine.


Lafferty and Nigro, therefore, wanted to explore the different aspects of the bay and figure out what is still living there and how they affect the environment as a whole. “We love presenting our research to experts in their fields who are able to give us useful criticism and help us continue experimenting,” they said. “This year we worked with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s DNA Learning Center under the supervision of Dr. Bruce Nash and Dr. Sharon Pepenella. They helped us to get our DNA sequenced and showed us how to manage our data analysis tool, Jupyter Notebook. During a Saturday session, we went through all the steps to help us get a better understanding of the computer programming tool and how to use it to analyze our data.”

Lafferty has been accepted to Tulane University as a spring scholar. Her first semester will be spent abroad taking classes at the American University of Paris. “Once I return home, I will continue the rest of my undergraduate education at Tulane,” Lafferty said, adding that she will be majoring in chemistry before attending graduate school for medicine. 

Nigro will be attending Stony Brook University in the fall, where she will major in biology on the pre-medicine track. “I plan on getting very involved with this school, including their abundant research opportunities and study abroad programs,” said Nigro. “Hopefully, I will be accepted into their medical school and be able to continue my education.”