Much like bees and ants find their way home after traveling long distances, scorpions possess a homing ability. Dr. Doug Gaffin is intrigued by one question: How do these animals find their way home?
Gaffin first interacted with scorpions in about 1986, studying the animal while in graduate school at Oregon State. In 1995, Gaffin brought this research to the University of Oklahoma.
At OU, undergraduate students can be involved with research as early as their freshman year. Some students participate through organizations like the First-Year Research Experience (FYRE) or the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), while others work directly with professors in their labs. At any given time, two to five undergraduate students are usually part of Gaffin’s lab.
Scorpions make burrows in the sand, go out and hunt, and somehow get back to their burrows. This may seem simple, but it’s an animal that has a small brain equipped with incredible technology that allows it to return home, Gaffin said.
On the bottom of scorpions, there are organs called pectines, which Gaffin explained as little combs that the animals drag along the sand as they walk. Research suggests that the scorpions might be memorizing everything they come across, which improves their homing ability. In his lab, Gaffin and the students who work with him look at all different parts of this problem, from behavior to neural biology.
While examining this question, Gaffin also has an eye toward maybe making robots someday that are able to use some of the technology found in the scorpions to guide their movements back to a central spot.
“At some schools, research might just be so impersonal or so large and intimidating,” Gaffin said. “But I think that undergrads really have a tremendous opportunity at OU." - Doug Gaffin
Instead of plugging students into ongoing projects, Gaffin encourages them to develop their own hypotheses and experimental designs. Students present their work at OU’s Undergraduate Research Day, and some often go to conferences and present too. Gaffin added that about 20 of his undergraduate students have been authors on published papers, almost all of them as first authors.
“That’s just amazing because these are peer reviewed journals, so the people who review them probably assume that they are professors or grad students, but they are actually undergrads at OU,” Gaffin shared.
Although most students who work in Gaffin’s lab are biology majors, there have also been students from other interests as well. Alby Musaelian, a May 2020 OU graduate, joined the lab as a mathematician. Musaelian, who is now attending graduate school at Harvard, developed a computer simulation on how scorpions navigate.
Currently, Jacob Sims, a physics sophomore from Boston, is researching why scorpions fluoresce under black lights, shining a bright blue green color. It is unknown what purpose that fluorescence serves in terms of an evolutionary adaptation, and very few people have researched this area of scorpions, Sims explained.
His experiment examines scorpions in three different environments: in their natural conditions with natural light, under thick glass that blocks some of the UV light, or under a thicker glass that blocks more of the light. Sims tracks the scorpions to see if the different levels of light affect their behavior, which may then tell something about why they fluoresce.
Sims’ dad attended OU for both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and took Gaffin’s introductory zoology class. Growing up, Sims, who was born in Oklahoma City and lived there until he was 7 years old, always heard about the leading scorpion expert at OU from his dad. This prompted him to attend an Honors College lecture given by Gaffin about his research. In August, Sims spent a week in New Mexico doing research with Gaffin, who spent the semester on sabbatical studying scorpions there.
Sims said he has been “pleasantly surprised” by both how much opportunity for research there is at OU and also how excited professors are about getting students involved, Gaffin included.
“He’s just been great, and I have very much enjoyed working with him,” Sims shared. “He’s been very kind and gracious, and I’m grateful for him giving me the opportunity to work with him.”
Safra Shakir, a biology, pre-med junior from Oklahoma City, also joined Gaffin’s lab as a freshman. Her project looks at the chemical basis of navigation in scorpions, trying to determine if they do indeed use those pectines to get back to their burrows. Shakir said through her project, they have identified an “a cell” and a “b cell” in the scorpions’ sensory cells, and it appears that the “b cells” prevent the “a cells” from becoming overstimulated and thus unable to pick up its own trail.
For future OU students interested in research, Gaffin encourages them to treat faculty members “like a shopping center” by exploring the faculty pages in areas that might be of interest. Then, he suggests reaching out to the faculty members via a simple, well-crafted introductory email to express interest in their work, ask about the chances for undergraduate research in their labs, and set up a meeting to chat more.
“At some schools, research might just be so impersonal or so large and intimidating,” Gaffin said. “But I think that undergrads really have a tremendous opportunity at OU.”