AgCenter mentor helps student win accolades with innovative catfish experiment

(03/26/24) BATON ROUGE, La. — Under the watchful eye of her mentor, Lily May carefully measured catfish fillets, powdered gelatin and water. May was preparing an experiment to test the effects of coatings on the omega-3 fatty acids in refrigerated catfish.

May’s mentor, Evelyn Watts, a seafood extension specialist with the LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant, has supervised graduate and undergraduate students conducting research in her lab, but May, a junior at St. Joseph’s Academy, was the first high school student Watts has worked with. Watts partnered with May to help her through her science fair project.

“I see the importance of sharing my knowledge and helping them. If they are interested, and if they want to learn, I'm willing to teach them,” Watts said.

The year-and-a-half-long project started in September 2022 and culminated with May winning first place in the chemistry division of her school’s science and engineering fair on Jan. 11, and third place in regionals on March 8. Along the way, May learned scientific method and lab protocols and techniques — experiences some students don’t get until they enter graduate school.

“I didn't have a particular interest in seafood at the beginning, but I was interested in the nutritional part of it. I got a lot out of it, and it was really interesting,” May said.

For her project, May coated catfish fillets in three different solutions — a gelatin, an essential oil, and a combination of gelatin and essential oil — and kept one with no coating for control. She refrigerated the fillets, and on Day 0, 8, 12 and 20, she vacuum packed the fillets and had a lab analyze the fatty acid profile of the fillets.

Watts has been working on the antimicrobial effects of gelatin and essential oils on catfish to see if they can delay deterioration of the fillets but hadn’t researched the coatings’ nutritional benefits.

“She wanted to find something that can improve the nutritional property. So, I thought that was a good fit, and it complements the research that I am already doing,” Watts said.

May’s project showed that a gelatin coating, and a gelatin and essential oil combination coating on the catfish can improve the omega-3 fatty acids in the fillets at Day 12 when compared to Day 0.

“Omega-3s are very beneficial for your heart and your eyes,” May said.

“This is a good thing because you can keep a fish for longer and still get the benefits in the stability of the nutrients in the fish in addition to the microbial stability,” Watts said.

May said she is interested in pursuing a career in psychology, and she appreciates the research background this experience has given her. Watts was thrilled with how well May did with the research and with competing in the science and engineering fairs.

“I'm very proud of her; she did an amazing job,” Watts said. “You can see how in-depth she did research.”

With May’s project complete, Watts is working with two high school students on new projects for their science fair. She said this was the start of welcoming curious students into her lab.

“It creates awareness for our programs in nutrition and food sciences,” Watts said. “It also helps the students when they go to college because they already have some research experience.”

Watts and May Measuring.

Evelyn Watts, left, watches as Lily May measures gelatin powder for an experiment. Watts, LSU AgCenter and Louisiana Sea Grant seafood extension specialist, mentored May, a high school junior, with May’s science and engineering fair project. Photo by Tobie Blanchard/LSU AgCenter

May IS Coating Fillets.

Lily May moves catfish fillets coated with gelatin powder onto drying racks. May was conducting research on how gelatin and essential oil coatings affect the omega-3 fatty acid properties of the fillets. Photo by Tobie Blanchard/LSU AgCenter

Lily May Project.

Lily May, a junior at St. Joseph’s Academy, stands with her science fair project. May placed first in the chemistry division at the science and engineering fair at her school and third in the regional competition. Photo provided by St. Joseph’s Academy

3/26/2024 2:51:35 PM
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