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Prize for school research project on butterfly wings

Why are morpho butterflies blue? That is what high school students Frederique Kerstens and Koen van Griensven investigated in their high school profile paper at the Leiden Institute for Research in Physics. In doing so, they won the KHMW Profielwerkstukprijs 2023. ‘We didn't expect it, but are of course very happy with the prize!’

The students from Atheneum College Hageveld are attending the pre-university college at Leiden University. ‘We were lucky that we could do our profile paper at the university because there are a lot more possibilities there compared to our school. Our supervisor Michiel de Dood was also very involved in the research and just as enthusiastic as we were!’

The nanostructure of wings

The students wanted a project at the interface of physics and biology. Morpho butterflies turned out to be the perfect subject. Kerstens explains: ‘We had seen a YouTube video about the morpho butterfly and we found it super interesting. It’s actually not the pigment that causes the colour but the structure of the wings.’ 

The students carried out measurements to see why the butterflies are blue. With those measurements, they verified a calculation from an article in the American Journal of Physics. ‘First, we looked at the structure of the butterfly under a scanning electron microscope and then we took measurements with lasers,’ the students explain. This is how they discovered that the calculation from the article was not quite correct.

Frederique Kerstens and Koen van Griensven during the prize ceremony

Doing research for the first time

‘I really enjoyed unfolding the butterflies,’ Kerstens says. ‘We had to move them without breaking them. Working with the electron microscope was also very cool, we had never done that before of course.’ Van Griensven adds: ‘It was fun to constantly test the theory with a new experiment. This led us to new discoveries each time.’

It was also an instructive project for supervisor De Dood. ‘Koen and Frederique are incredibly curious and do not accept half-truths. Besides, they don't yet know complex mathematical formulas, which forces me to find an explanation that is correct even without the formulas.’ The results might even contribute to current research according to De Dood. ‘Together with Frans Snik and Arie van der Meijden, research is being done on the colour and polarisation of beetles in the collection of Naturalis. I hope this profile paper will help to take those measurements in more detail.’

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