West Islip grad’s research appears in science news magazine
Research by West Islip High School Class of 2018 graduate Luke Harris was recently featured in an article in the Science News for Students magazine.

Photo courtesy of the West Islip School District

West Islip grad’s research appears in science news magazine


WEST ISLIP—Research by Luke Harris, a West Islip High School graduate (Class of 2018), was recently featured in an article for the Science News for Students magazine and website.

Harris conducted his research, entitled “Extracting DNA from Killer Whale Mucus as a Non-Invasive Alternative 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 said that when this publication spoke to him shortly before graduation, his 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 explained. “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.” 

The West Islip graduate also learned that scientists currently use biopsy darts to collect DNA samples from whales. “Unfortunately, these darts can actually harm the whales,” he added. “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.”

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. 

The West Islip grad’s research was ultimately used to probe whether there are more than one species of killer whale, or orca (Orcinus orca), the world’s largest dolphin. Different traits among killer whales, including coloration and diet, have led scientists to believe there might be more than one orca species, according to the piece Harris is featured in. 

Mucus was taken, via drones, from 22 of the orcas at SeaWorld’s parks in Florida, Texas and California, according to Sid Perkins’s article. The orcas came from different pods, groups that travel together, most of them throughout their life. 

“The teen’s study was the first to extract DNA from the mucus of orcas,” Perkins wrote, adding that a particular gene, which produces energy in a cell and is passed down to offspring only by females, was the same in every whale that was studied. “Based on these data, it would seem that all orca pods represent the same species,” he added. “However, [Harris adds] looking at other orca genes might turn up genetic differences between pods.”

During his senior year, Harris was chosen as a semifinalist and won first place at the Long Island Science and Engineering Fair in the Animal Science category, earning him a spot competing in the Intel Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh. 

This summer, Harris attended camp at SeaWorld San Antonio and worked as an educator at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead. He is also attending the University of Delaware as a marine science major with a focus in marine biology.