Most teens, let alone adults, wouldn’t think to research the bacteria that lives in horses’ nasal passages — but that’s exactly what home-schooled sisters Emma and Elizabeth Carlson, ages 13 and 15, have worked on for months.
Their research recently earned them second place at the Montana State Science Fair and the chance to go to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix in May.
John Miller, a neuroscience professor at Montana State University who has worked with the girls, says the girls’ research is at the same level as a first- or second-year graduate student.
“They’re really smart women,” Miller said Tuesday, adding that it’s the sisters’ creativity and problem-solving skills that set them apart.
For the research project, the girls swabbed the noses of seven different horses, including their 30-year-old retired barrel racer, Annie, who Elizabeth said is “basically geriatric,” and then they analyzed the bacteria and fungi they found.
“Our hypothesis was that older horses would have a weaker immune system, thus older horses should have a higher bacteria count than younger horses,” Emma said Monday afternoon.
They actually found out that, generally speaking, the bacteria levels in horses’ nostrils don’t change as the animals age, but it took a lot of hard work for the sisters to reach that conclusion.
To get there, they examined three adult horses, three senior horses and a foal, each of which they assigned a subject number from zero to seven.
After jamming oversized cotton swabs up each of the horses’ noses, they put the swabs in test tubes filled with a special saline solution, which has “a pH of about 7,” said Elizabeth, who has already taken several classes at Carroll College.
Then they smeared the swabs on special plates called ager plates. Using tools called inoculating sticks, they spread the bacteria and fungi around on the ager plates in specific patterns and then analyzed the material they had collected.
While out in the field, Elizabeth and Emma documented the horses’ vital signs, general health, environment, diet and any medication the animals might have been on.
At first, Elizabeth explained, they didn’t want to bother with taking the horses’ temperatures, which is done using a rectal thermometer.
But Deidre Loendorf, a veterinarian with Total Dynamic Balance Veterinary Hospital, who helped the girls with the project, told them taking the horses’ temperature was a critical part of the process.
“She was kind enough to bring her own thermometer instead of using ours,” Elizabeth said.
“They’re great girls; extremely intelligent and organized, especially for people their age,” Loendorf said Tuesday, adding that the sisters are “really pleasant to be around.”
The sisters, who live in the North Valley, even went so far as to document the distance between their test subjects.
“All the subjects were within 0.25 miles, a quarter mile, except the foal, who was 2.3 miles out. We made him an outlier in the study because he was so far away and because he was previously on antibiotics, but we kept him in just to see how it turned out,” Emma said.
Elizabeth said the results of their research were a little surprising at first, but that they makes sense because horses’ nasal passages are so open to the environment that age doesn’t impact the amount of microbes living there.
“So that’s why we found varying amounts of fungus,” Emma added. “The horses that were fed on the ground had a lot more fungus than our horse, which is fed in a feed bin, so different things like that factored in.”
But just to be sure of their findings — they repeated every step of the process again.
For their hard work, the girls won $600 at the state science fair. They’ve split the money and put it into their college funds.
Both girls said they loved working on the project and that they plan to pursue careers in research.
“We love doing it. I think research is really fascinating,” Elizabeth said. “It was just super cool, I think, and this project has been really amazing.”
They originally did the project as part of a science program for teens called Bioscience Montana, which is a partnership between Montana State University and Montana 4-H, which both Emma and Elizabeth are very involved in.
The girls are still involved with Bioscience Montana, which includes three three-month modules that partner science professors and grad students with kids from around the state as they work on various research projects.
As part of the program, both girls have spent time doing research work at Montana State University, but most of their work they’ve done from home. To stay in touch with their mentors, they use social media site Google+.
“I’m just letting them do what they’re interested in, so they keep me really busy,” Emma and Elizabeth’s mother, Katrina, said Monday. “I really like it. It’s great. Everybody is the community has been so supportive of the girls, and they’ve made friends for life at MSU.”
For the last module of Bioscience Montana, the girls are working in a field called metabolomics and have been studying what role omega three and omega six fatty acids play in healthy diet.
For that project, they recently finished a six-and-a-half minute long animated video that explains the differences between the two fatty acids and why one is healthier than the other.
The video, which features a women talking about the fatty acids to a very dense co-worker in an office setting, is “six and a half minutes of pure sarcasm,” Elizabeth said.
Reporter Eddie Gregg: 447-4081 or email@example.com. Follow Eddie Gregg on Twitter @IR_EddieGregg