Two years of research were thrown out in a few days – by an 11-year-old.
Gabriel Leal, a sixth-grader at Willet Elementary School in Davis, needed to create a science project for Willet’s Open House and Science Fair/Family Science Night in April. Gabriel’s father, Walter Leal, a UC Davis professor of entomology, suggested that Gabriel study mosquitoes. Gabriel, however, decided to study the navel orangeworm, an agricultural pest, and its preference for nuts. Prior to Gabriel’s experiment, Professor Leal’s research was based on a paper published in California Agriculture stating that the NOW moth preferred almonds to other types of nuts.
Based on his own preference, Gabriel hypothesized that NOW preferred pistachios.
“I liked them,” Gabriel said.
Professor Leal did not tell Gabriel that his hypothesis contradicted established research.
Gabriel, under the guidance of Zainulabeuddin Syed, a post-doctoral scholar in entomology, set up an experiment to test his hypothesis in a Briggs Hall research lab. He placed 50 grams of crushed nuts in four different containers and set the containers in a cage with NOW moths. He then recorded the amount of eggs laid on each container.
The eggs on the pistachio container indicated a clear preference.
“We all learned something new,” Professor Leal said. The foundation that researchers had assumed was proven wrong.
“The results are so remarkable,” he said. “I do not think we will have to repeat [the trial].“
“[These findings are] exciting, coming from a kid,” Syed said.
Gabriel said from the experiment he learned about the scientific process, including how to form a hypothesis and graph data.
He also has received a certain level of fame.
At their Court of Honor, his Boy Scout leader asked him to explain his discovery. He explained that Leslie Whiteford, a science teacher at Willet, had cited his project as an example that kids can make a difference.
“I was excited about Gabriel’s findings, mostly because he was undaunted about challenging previous science,” Whiteford said in an e-mail interview. “If scientists were unwilling to question research that had come before them, we’d still believe the sun revolved around the earth! It is the enthusiasm with which these young students learn that inspires me most.“
The influence that Gabriel’s discovery will have on agricultural revenue has yet to be determined.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture website, the NOW is a pest for almonds, walnuts and pistachios – a $3 billion market. Theoretically, if NOW prefers pistachios instead of almonds, pistachios could replace almonds in NOW traps in almond fields. This could reduce competition between the almonds in the traps and the almond crops if their attraction to pistachios is stronger.
However, Joel P. Siegel, a research entomologist at the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center in Parlier, Calif., is skeptical of the impact of these results, and does not foresee any fiscal impact.
“In the field we cannot discern a preference for pistachios over almonds,” Siegel said in an e-mail interview.
For UC Davis researchers like Professor Leal, however, Gabriel’s discovery is significant.
“We would not have found these results by ourselves,” Professor Leal said. This is because Gabriel’s hypothesis, unknown to him, went against established research.
“In science, we have to be open [to new ideas],” Professor Leal said.
The next step, he said, is to determine why NOW prefers pistachios.
As for Gabriel, his interests lie elsewhere.
Gabriel said he doesn’t think he will continue the research beyond this project, expressing an interest in marine biology.
SARA JOHNSON can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.