The NICE group. Photo courtesy of Katie Sottilare, Summer 2018.

We recently caught up with Dr. Shannon Olsson, PI at the Naturalist Inspired Chemical Ecology (NICE) group within the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), who shared the exciting news that the contributions of two MIT-India alumni have been featured in an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS). Featured on the cover of PNAS’ 25 August issue, the article highlights the work of the NICE group, which focused on the impact of India’s urban air pollution on wild pollinators. The full article can be found here.

MIT students Susan Mullen (Biology ‘18) and Katie Sottilare (Chemistry and Biology ‘21) interned with Dr. Olsson’s group through MISTI’s MIT-India program, where they conducted experiments to correlate honey bee health with pollution levels in the natural environment.

“Susan and Katie were integral to this study. We analyzed several parameters from over 1,800 bees, which was a huge task requiring a team effort,” Dr. Olsson explained. “Both Susan and Katie participated in observing and collecting bees from the different sites, performing survival, heart rate and other analyses on each individual, and also standardizing the methodology we used.”

“I helped adapt protocols written for other insects to work on giant honey bees, including doing the associated research and standardization of the protocol,” said Katie Sottilare, detailing her experience. “My postdoc and I worked together to add new experiments to the project and further investigate how pollution impacts the giant honey bee.

“I independently dissected the honey bees, recorded videos of their heartbeat, and counted the beats by hand. I used statistical analysis tools to consolidate my findings on the effect of pollution on honey bee physiology,” said Susan Mullen. “I learned about the importance of ecology as a scientific field and how central the giant honey bee is to our ecosystem.”

“Physiological and molecular information like we gathered is essential to understand what specific impacts air pollution has on wild systems, and what air quality standards would be needed to ensure their well being,” Dr. Olsson continued. “More research is needed on other systems to fully understand how air pollution is impacting our plants and animals. We hope that this study will inspire other researchers in India and across the world to tackle this vital problem that impacts our lands, our livelihoods, and our very own food security.”

In addition to contributing to research, the MIT-India interns developed vital professional skills that they have carried with them through their studies at MIT and post-graduation.

“There was a lot of learning [in terms of] where I fit in that environment,” explained Katie Sottilare, whose internship at NCBS was also her first time working full-time in a research lab. “What I learned about working in a lab was really useful and continues to be useful. Whatever area I work in I can ask myself, ‘Where do I fit in the team? What is good for the organization and company?’”

As we celebrate the work of Dr. Olsson’s group, we look forward to learning more about the impact of the work of MIT-India’s interns on their host organizations in the future.

  • India
  • Internship
  • Bio/Chem