Sunday, April 14, 2024

Vertebrate Biology in the 21st century involves some time in the makerspace

Makerspace Student Engineers (standing, from left) John Garst ’21 and Jacob Brotman-Krass ’22 Guide Ekaterina Mashanova and Billy Storm in their search for digitized snake anatomy. (WYDaily/Courtesy Joseph McClain)
Makerspace Student Engineers (standing, from left) John Garst ’21 and Jacob Brotman-Krass ’22 Guide Ekaterina Mashanova and Billy Storm in their search for digitized snake anatomy. (WYDaily/Courtesy Joseph McClain)

Election Day, 2018. Bill Storm and Ekaterina Mashanova were looking at computer screens, considering the available options.

They glanced at each other and exchanged wry looks. How to choose among so many snakes?

Storm and Mashanova, both William & Mary class of 2020, were looking at candidates representing the suborder Serpentes — snakes. Literal snakes.

The two, along with teammate Ian Wilenzik ’20, were beginning to pursue a deep understanding of a snake scale. The team aimed to probe the form and function of the scale, then manufacture their own scale or set of scales using the tools and expertise in William & Mary’s makerspace facilities in Swem Library and Small Hall.

The snake team was just one group in professor Laurie Sanderson’s Vertebrate Biology class.

The makerspace-based projects are an enhancement of the lab component of the class. The traditional vertebrate bio lab is based on examination of preserved specimens and bones.

“But now, available biological specimens are more diverse,” she said. “The entire field is more interdisciplinary.”

Sanderson’s students still do traditional dissections in lab — for example fish, often specimens obtained from the sampling work at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science — and go on field trips, but the expansion of the makerspace environment on campus opens a wider range of possibilities to Sanderson’s students.

The Round Table

Each Vertebrate Biology team received the benefit of makerspace guidance from MSEs — Makerspace Student Engineers.

“I’m pretty sure I’m empowered to grant knighthoods,” deadpanned Jonathan Frey in introducing MSEs John Garst ’21 and Jacob Brotman-Krass ’22, “so these guys are both Sirs.”

Frey is well into his first year as director of William & Mary’s makerspace environment in Small Hall. Sir John and Sir Jacob are just two of the members of the MSE Round Table that Frey has assembled, a fellowship devoted to offering aid to the questing pilgrims who come seeking arcane lore such as how to reverse-engineer a snake scale.

“The role of the makerspace is to facilitate student-to-student learning, intra-community learning,” Frey explained.

Jessica Fleury ’20 wants to help design a better prosthetic. (WYDaily/Courtesy W&M News)
Jessica Fleury ’20 wants to help design a better prosthetic. (WYDaily/Courtesy W&M News)

On Election Day, Garst and Brotman-Krass were on the clock, listening to Storm and Mashanova explaining their snake scale project.

“Snake scales are different,” Storm said. “Ventral and dorsal scales are different. And they’re different among snake species, too”

Another team was working in the Small Hall Makerspace on Election Day — Team Turtle. Their plan was to test the design of three kinds of turtle shells for resistance to being cracked when dropped by predatory birds.

“No turtles will be harmed in the pursuit of this project,” intoned Angie Pak ’20, as she checked out turtle shell scans available online. Her teammate Cameron Staubs ’20 said that the idea was to replicate the shells in a 3D printer and drop them from a drone.

Dropping turtle shells and making snake scales

By late November, the projects were in advanced stages. The snake-scale team showed off a pair of scales, a product of the 3D printer in the Swem Library makerspace. The renderings of the scales were based on anatomical scans of a Mexican pit viper.

“We now know how to make a network of scales — and how to analyze it,” Mashanova said. “A lot of studies view snake scales in the context of movement, but now we can also analyze them in the context of armor.”

The turtle group ended up with three turticular species for their drop test and lined them up for inspection.

The team predicted the box turtle shell would be most resistant to being dropped by a bird, as box turtles are more likely than the other two species to be the object of bird predation. “The leopard tortoise is very big,” Broennimann explained. “And the sea turtle is … in the ocean!”

Their hypothesis was proved correct. “You can look at the box turtle shell and you can see it doesn’t have any fractures to the shell, ” Staubs said.

ChiChi Ugochukwu ’20 studied the surprisingly complex mechanics of horseshoes. (WYDaily/Courtesy W&M News)
ChiChi Ugochukwu ’20 studied the surprisingly complex mechanics of horseshoes. (WYDaily/Courtesy W&M News)

Locomotion specialists

In addition to the snake scale and turtle shell teams there was a third group of individual projects involving locomotion. For example, ChiChi Ugochukwu ’20 did a deep dive into horseshoes.

“My original idea, which was a bit ambitious, was to look at how different styles of horseshoes affect the way in which horses move,” she said. “It’s hard to do a project like that without actual, live horses at my disposal. ”

Ugochukwu was horseless but not recourseless, as she figured out a way to adapt her project to available resources. Many projects were similarly revised. For instance, the turtle team abandoned their drone plan in favor of dropping their printed shells in the high bay laboratory in Small Hall.

Ugochukwu embarked on a study of the anatomy of the equine leg and hoof. She found that there’s an enormous artisanal quality to the shoeing of a horse.

“One of the things I’ve run into is that when a farrier shoes a horse, there’s not any established guidelines,” she said. “It seems more like an art that he’s perfected over time: “When you look at different horses each of them will have shoes to fit their need,” she said.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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