Wasp's waist made her a winner

MERCED -- A study on the wrinkles on a wasp's waist began with the slap of a textbook.

And it turned into a first-place award for a University of California at Merced bioengineering graduate student.

Merced native Emily Reed, 22, received the award in November at the Sigma Xi Student Research Conference. She worked on the project, titled Microstructure, Nanostructure and Properties of the Wasp Petiole, with UC Merced engineering Professor Christopher Viney.

They found that the structure of a wasp's waist has similarities to cardboard. Cardboard is layered, with a wavy corrugation in between. The wasp's waist has a spiral corrugation, "like springs," Reed said. "Cardboard flops if you fold it in one direction; spirals can bend in multiple directions. It would be great to make new packaging with spirals."

Viney already had studied such subjects as the uses of hippopotamus sweat, spider silk and giraffe saliva. "Nature rarely does things for one purpose only," he explained. "A student once described nature as a resource of solutions running around looking for problems to solve."

The scientist, who hails from England, came to UC Merced as one of its founding professors. He recalled teaching a physics class in fall 2005. "The school had just opened," he said. "The bees were droning, the teacher was droning ... and I heard this 'bang!' "

It came from a student smacking a wasp with his physics book. He brought the wasp to Viney and said, "We heard you study strange things."

Viney noticed the wasp's long, straight waist. It can be over 5 millimeters long (about the size of a pea) and have a diameter of a half-millimeter, similar to a long tube, Reed said.

Inside that tube were the wasp's nervous, digestive and circulatory systems.

"It's a bit like taking my house and having the sewage line, gas main and phone line all going through one point," Viney said.

He decided to study the waist of this mud dauber wasp and asked Reed's help. She already was working for him as an intern while completing her bachelor's degree.

"Just the oddity drew me in," she recalled. "But, of course, I liked bugs. I was a biology major."

Using a poster illustrating the project, Reed explained the experiments she and Viney completed over six months. "In this one we extracted the waist and glued the tip of it into a piece of pinewood," she said. "To the other end we attached a string and tied some weights on the string to see how much (the waist) bends under a given load. From that, we were able to calculate the stiffness of the waist."

When compared with other engineering materials, they found the waist was similar in its bending efficiency to aluminum and glass fiber reinforced polymer, used in aircraft production.

Reed was invited to present their findings in November at the 2007 Sigma Xi Student Research Conference in Orlando, Fla. She was one of 26 first-place award winners for outstanding scientific research presentations.

This wasn't the only attention focused on the wasp's waist project. Viney presented it at the 2006 fall meeting of the Materials Research Society in Boston. It was then chosen as one of four out of 5,000 projects to be included in an April article for Chemical and Engineering News.

Reed also presented it in April at UC Merced's research day. She won the undergraduate poster award (because she started the project as an undergraduate).

So even though it's only about 5 millimeters long, a wasp's waist has gotten a lot of mileage.