No, this isn’t a strange YouTube fascination. Bui teamed up with biology professor Elinor Sullivan this semester to research how the obesity of non-human primates affects their offspring.
“I never thought that it would be so mind blowing,” Bui said. “We can draw conclusions from what we find in the research and help people who are experiencing similar characteristics or maybe even developing healthier lifestyles. It’s so profound to think that you are able to conduct something, and transfer that knowledge to the bigger population to help people become healthier.”
Sullivan and Bui were among the recipients of the Spring 2015 Provost’s Initiative on Undergraduate Research awards. The provost selects faculty members to mentor and collaborate with an underclassman on a co-designed research project.
Bui spends three to four hours a week in the Romanaggi Hall computer lab, working her way through a series of 32 videos. The videos, 45 to 47 minutes each in length, focus on the offspring of an obese non-human primate.
The primate is alone in a cage for the first 10 minutes of the video. Then a researcher, normally Sullivan, walks into the room and sits without interacting with the primate. Eventually, Sullivan will get up close and personal with the primate, attempting to make eye contact.
Bui observes the primates’ behavior and takes detailed notes. Bui says that she has taken note of several social similarities between humans and the non-human primates.
“We found that monkeys who are more obese or have obese parents are less likely to make eye contact because they are afraid or more drawn back,” Bui said. “And you can think about that in our society as well. There hasn’t been a specific study done, but if someone is less confident about the way they look, they are not as likely to go out and interact or make eye contact.”
Sullivan and other researchers also experimented with trying to frighten the animal. Bui said the videos sometimes show Sullivan wearing a vampire mask or a cone head to see how the primate will react.
“One behavior I found in the primate when someone is wearing a vampire mask or a cone head was lip smacking,” Bui said. “It kind of correlates with anxiety, like grinding your teeth when you get nervous about something.”
The world of undergraduate research is new to Bui. She says she is grateful to Sullivan, who was her physiology professor last semester, for helping her gain experience.
“She cares that I’m interested in this, and she’s appreciative of my time and the effort that I’m putting in,” Bui said. “It’s just so nice to have her as a mentor.”
Sullivan has been working on this project with a team of researchers since 2008. She hopes to translate her results to human problems with obesity.
“We knew that obese mothers were more likely to have children that would grow up to be obese.” Sullivan said. “But we didn’t know if that was just genetic, or a result of a shared environment, or if something else is happening during development. That’s why we started investigating.”
The ultimate goal of Sullivan and Bui’s research is to help pregnant women who struggle with obesity find the best way to take proper care of their pregnancy and their child’s health.
Through her experiments, Sullivan has discovered that cutting out unhealthy food from the primate’s diet just during it’s pregnancy can seriously impact the physical and psychological state of the offspring.
She hopes this evidence will help obese pregnant women make healthy choices during their pregnancy.
“They may not be able to give up McDonald’s and eating ice cream forever,” Sullivan said. “But perhaps, just like you give up alcohol and smoking during pregnancy, they’d be willing to give up unhealthy food as well.”
Bui is working towards a career in dentistry and she hopes that this research will further her work.
“The choices you make correlate to your lifestyle and overall that’s something I want to do as a career,” Bui said. “I’m interested in oral health. I think this research will not only make me a better science student but it will make me a more knowledgeable dentist in the future.”
–Story from the Beacon