By Tony Kukulich
Research completed between her junior and senior years of high school has netted Beaufort resident Isabelle Hipple statewide recognition, and next year she will represent South Carolina in a national science conference in Washington, D.C.
Completed over the course of six weeks at the University of South Carolina, Isabelle’s project was entitled “Sperm Precedence in Genetically Differentiated Populations of Drosophila Melanogaster.”
“I just worked with fruit flies over the summer, basically just doing evolutionary genetic research,” Isabelle said casually, giving the impression that evolutionary genetic research is something every high school student does.
A student at the prestigious South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics (GSSM), Isabelle explained that every student is required to complete a research project after their junior year. She started her research with a theory that sperm precedence is a factor in speciation, the development of new and distinct species.
If that last sentence left you wondering if you squandered your high school years, these next few aren’t going to make you feel any better.
“Sperm precedence is the idea that the sperm of one male is more likely to fertilize the egg of a female than the sperm of another for some reason,” Isabelle noted with the ease and confidence of someone very comfortable with complicated subject matter. “We see sperm precedence very clearly in different species of drosophila, but we weren’t sure what kind of role it played in genetically differentiated populations of a species. So we were looking at that.”
Isabelle presented her research results at the GSSM Annual Research Colloquium and to prospective students in her role as a GSSM ambassador. Toward the end of her senior year, the awards started to roll in.
She was selected to present at the annual South Carolina Junior Academy of Science (SCJAS) meeting where she won first place in the zoology category for her presentation and second place for her research paper. It was the first research paper she ever wrote. The SCJAS selected Isabelle to represent the state at the American Junior Academy of Science meeting in Washington, D.C. in March 2023.
Finally, Isabelle was the 2022 recipient of GSSM’s Dr. William C. Alexander Excellence in Research award.
“Izzy has always been very self-motivated and driven,” said Isabelle’s mother, Mary Anne Hipple. “Since the time that she was a little kid she was always interested in science, nature and animals. The Governor’s School was a good fit for her in that respect. I wish that I could say that it was something that I did, but she’s self-motivated, very driven.”
While Isabelle found great success with her research project, she admits that the effort did not go flawlessly.
“I did make a mistake a good way through, which kind of affected my research,” she said.
The research required that the flies be separated, but distinguishing a male fruit fly from a female fruit is, understandably, challenging.
“I accidentally sorted a male into a ton of vials that were supposed to be solely female,” Isabelle explained. “The next day I came in, and as soon as I looked at the vials, I saw a male in each one. I freaked out.”
In that difficult moment, Isabelle thought her academic career was over. Fortunately, all was not lost. Not all of the vials were contaminated, and she was able to salvage enough of a study population to complete the research as planned.
This week Isabelle heads to Atlanta to attend Emory University as a biology major on a pre-med track.
“I have wanted to be a neonatologist for a long time, so if I do end up going into the medical field, that’s what I want to do,” she said. “However, I’ve also thought about maybe doing research and being a professor. I think I’d like that, too.”
With a successful high school experience fading in the rear view mirror, Isabelle is ready to get started at Emory.
“She’s been packed for weeks,” Mary Anne said.
Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.