1. The Inspiration
As a child, Abigail “Abbey” Vipperman ’21 MS loved insects. “I was always turning over rocks, armed with a bug kit,” she says.
As a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in Biology at Villanova, Vipperman chose to focus on the maritime earwig (Anisolabis maritima), a feisty little creature that lives by the sea, often clustering under pieces of driftwood on the beach. Vipperman had been fascinated by the work of Vikram Iyengar, PhD, professor of Biology, who had spent years studying the earwigs’ social networks and group dynamics.
Male and female earwigs differ in both appearance and temperament. Males tend to be more laid-back, congregating with other males and using their curved, non-lethal pinchers to squeeze the abdomens of other earwigs during disputes. Females, however, must guard their eggs from other cannibalistic earwigs; consequently, they’re more aggressive and unwilling to live together, and they use their straight, deadly pinchers to defend their territory.
2. The Proposal
Vipperman wanted to study how these social networks changed over time and what would happen if she altered the male-female ratios of social groups.
A few of the questions she considered as she embarked on her research: Would the groups with more females become less dense, with individuals physically moving away from each other? Would groups with more males become more crowded, with more interactions between individuals? Her work would have broader implications for understanding the social networks of other species, which can be critical for conservation efforts.
Vipperman’s proposal won a College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Graduate Studies Summer Research Fellowship. She also received a graduate summer research fellowship at Friday Harbor Laboratories, a University of Washington field marine research station (and well-known earwig hangout) on San Juan Island, in the Salish Sea between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia.
3. The Pivot
And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “I couldn’t go to Friday Harbor, but, fortunately, the earwigs are hardy enough to travel,” she says. By July, 500 earwigs had been mailed to Dr. Iyengar’s lab. After attaching a tiny, numbered tag to each earwig with super glue, Vipperman got to work, setting up earwig habitats in plastic bins of sand.
“Abbey was able to pivot right away, making lemonade out of lemons,” Dr. Iyengar says. “She has the perseverance and dedication that is so critical to being a successful scientist.”
4. The Future
Vipperman is now deep in the data analysis phase of her research and is on track to publish her thesis in May 2021. She’s also hoping to have the opportunity to present her findings at the annual conference of the Animal Behavior Society in August 2021.
“I really enjoy talking about what I do and explaining the implications of my work for understanding ecology and conservation,” she says. “Plus, I still really like bugs.”
Each issue, Villanova Magazine will give readers a glimpse of a culminating project for a Villanova student or group of students. In these experiences, students get to apply what they know, pursue what they love and present what they discover.