St. Olaf student receives Charles H. Turner Award, presents at international conference
St. Olaf College student Iya Abdulkarim ’22 received the Charles H. Turner Award from the Animal Behavior Society, and presented her research on the cricket song preferences of an acoustic parasitoid fly at the society’s virtual 58th Annual Conference.
Founded in 2002, the award works to increase diversity in the sciences and is named for Dr. Charles Turner, who was an unfairly disregarded African American pioneer in animal cognition research. The Turner Award provides funding for undergraduate students to present their research at the annual international conference of the Animal Behavior Society and to attend workshops, networking events, and to hear about current research in the field.
“It really opened my eyes to all the possibilities for scientific exploration as well as collaboration at a broader level,” Abdulkarim says. “It was delightful to see researchers from every corner of the world sharing enthusiasm and support about a common interest.”
It really opened my eyes to all the possibilities for scientific exploration as well as collaboration at a broader level. It was delightful to see researchers from every corner of the world sharing enthusiasm and support about a common interest.Iya Abdulkarim ’22
Students selected for the award had the opportunity to both hear about others’ research in many areas of animal behavior, and present their own work. Abdulkarim’s research as a member of St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Biology Norman Lee’s lab (the Lee Lab of Neural Systems and Behavior) looked into the behavior of an acoustic parasitoid fly, Ormia ochracea, in relation to the song of its host, the field cricket (see this St. Olaf Magazine story featuring this research). The fly is drawn toward the cricket based on its song, tending to prefer cricket song pulse rates of about 50 pulses per second. The song’s pulse rate changes at different temperatures, but there had been no previous research on whether the pulse rate preferences of the flies also varied based on temperature, which was the focus of Abdulkarim’s work in the Lee Lab.
“Our findings suggest that the preference function of O. ochracea changes with temperature, and that flies show an overall greater preference for higher pulse rates at higher temperatures,” Abdulkarim says. “At the highest temperature tested, selectivity toward pulse rate of calling songs decreased (i.e., the flies were less picky).”
Ormia ochracea has inspired the design of directional miniature microphones and directional hearing aids, which Abdulkarim says is what drew her to join the lab. Understanding the directional hearing abilities of O. ochracea could help scientists apply similar principles to human hearing aids and work to improve function in areas such as perceiving direction and relevant sounds in environments with background noise.
For Abdulkarim, being able to participate in research as an undergraduate was important in helping her design her future path. The St. Olaf Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program gave her the opportunity to collect data on her own research questions for the first time.
Engaging with the research community as an undergraduate has instilled in me a great appreciation for the spirit of scientific inquiry, and I anticipate carrying it with me moving forward.Iya Abdulkarim ’22
She also participated in the sciences at St. Olaf in a variety of other ways by helping lead the St. Olaf Minority Association of Pre-Medical Students, working on the St. Olaf IMPULSE Review Team reviewing manuscripts for the IMPULSE Undergraduate Neuroscience Journal, and participating in the Innovative Minds Partnering to Advance Curative Therapies (IMPACT) Symposium as a member of the St. Olaf student teams in 2019 and 2020. She has also worked to share her love of the sciences with younger students in the area.
“I enjoyed teaching science lessons at Northfield’s public elementary schools through Science Alliance. This organization allowed me to witness the same excitement that drew me into science and pay it forward to those who nourished my own interest,” she says.
As well as her involvement in the sciences, Abdulkarim helps lead Calligraphy Club on campus and is a part of the Muslim Student Association and Blue Key Honor Society.
After her time at St. Olaf, she hopes to continue work in the field of medicine, and is especially interested in research on healthcare innovation.
“Engaging with the research community as an undergraduate has instilled in me a great appreciation for the spirit of scientific inquiry, and I anticipate carrying it with me moving forward,” she says.
About Dr. Charles Turner
Dr. Charles H. Turner was the first African American to receive a graduate degree from the University of Cincinnati and likely the first to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1907. Prior to obtaining his Ph.D., he published more than 30 research articles, and was the first African American to publish in Science, the prestigious journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Despite this productivity, Turner faced racism and was unable to maintain a faculty position at a research institution. He was eventually appointed as a high school teacher at Sumner High School in St. Louis. Even in this position, which lacked the laboratory facilities and other resources he would have had access to at a research institution, Turner continued to make groundbreaking discoveries that went against prevailing ideas of the time. His work demonstrated that animals were capable of complex cognition and not just trial-by-error learning. He showed that bees were able to use visual and olfactory cues to find and learn of nectar sources. He was also the first to discover the ability of some insects to discriminate between sound frequencies (pitch).
By naming an award after him, the Animal Behavior Society Diversity Committee emphasizes its goal to increase the diversity of its membership by encouraging researchers of all ages, levels, and ethnic groups to participate in its annual meetings.