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Possible Projects

Dr. Jim Adelman

Dr. Adelman's lab seeks to understand the evolution, underlying mechanisms, and transmission consequences of variable immune and behavioral responses to infection. Currently, work in his lab is focused on disease tolerance, or maintaining fitness during infection despite high pathogen loads, in a wildlife disease system: house finches and their pathogen, Mycoplasma gallisepticum. Because these endeavors involve diverse skill sets, theoretical underpinnings, and research contexts, myriad possibilities exist for students to discover how to design experiments, conduct research, and disseminate their findings. Dr. Adelman and postdoctoral associate Dr. Amberleigh Henschen will mentor and supervise REU students, though REU students will also have frequent contact with other undergraduate and graduate students in the lab. Although numerous possibilities exist, two projects that blend animal behavior with ongoing work are: (1) Do sickness behaviors (lethargy and anorexia) differ in the same ways as pro-inflammatory cytokine signaling across house finch populations during M. gallisepticum infection? An REU student could analyze video collected during experimental infections to assess correlations among behavior, cytokine signaling, and disease severity across finch populations. (2) How does the severity of sickness behaviors relate to a bird's contact rates—either with other birds or with bird feeders—during M. gallisepticum infection? Here an REU student could use video of flock cages and experimental epidemics to determine how an infected bird's sickness behaviors alter its contact rates and the rate of M. gallisepticum transmission in a flock.

Dr. Adelman's website

Dr. Keith Bowers

Research in Dr. Bowers' lab focuses on the evolutionary and behavioral ecology of wild birds. Major areas of inquiry include the causes and consequences of intrafamilial strife, including sexual conflict, parent-offspring conflict, and sibling rivalry. As parents and offspring are close kin and their behavior prone to having an immediate effect on inclusive fitness, its study offers clearer understanding on how evolutionary conflicts may be reconciled, constraints on the evolution of parental care, and the evolutionary limits of selfishness. Utilizing tools from animal behavior, ecophysiology, molecular biology, and capture-mark-recapture methods, a major component of research in Dr. Bowers' lab involves studying drivers of between-individual variation in mating success and lifetime reproduction, always involving close observations of individuals in their natural habitat.
Potential projects include a wide range of topics at both ultimate and proximate levels tailored to suit a broad spectrum of students, including those attracted to topics associated with biomedical sciences (e.g., measuring immune response or hormone production). Potential topics for student projects include: (1) Parent-offspring conflict and sibling rivalry. Although parents have been selected to ensure the survival of at least some offspring, they should also be selected not to invest in a lost cause. How do parents choose who among their young should be fed, or even kept alive? What mediates the expression of offspring solicitations, or prompts them to express adaptive behavior? (2) Sexual selection and sexual conflict. Male fitness can often be maximized by pursuing additional mates instead of providing parental care for offspring, forcing females to provide more care than expected, given their genetic representation. Dr. Bowers' lab utilizes two study species that exhibit contrasting mating systems, each of which is ideally suited to studying sexual conflict and confluence. (3) Sex allocation. In 1973, Trivers suggested that species with chromosomal sex determination may be selected to manipulate the sex ratio of their progeny beyond what is expected under the random, Mendelian segregation of sex chromosomes. Dr. Bowers has demonstrated that, in some species, sons are more sensitive than daughters to environmental conditions early in life, and that selection favors changes to progeny sex ratios in relation to parental investment. However, many unexplored processes may also contribute to sex-ratio variation, including the role of heritable genetic variation in maternal care.

Dr. Bower's website

Dr. Shawn Brown

The Brown lab uses molecular and bioinformatic methods to investigate microbial community ecological patterns, microbial biodiversity, and ecological processes to understand the drivers of microbial community structure in nature. They utilize a cross-domain approach to query why and how microbes are structured across space and time, how environmental perturbations impact these communities, and how microbes impact ecosystem dynamics and recovery following perturbation events. Training and supervision of an REU participant will be hands-on. Dr. Brown would work directly with this student with graduate-student participation to develop their mentorship experience.
Experimental designs in the Brown lab include a combination of experiments in both the field and laboratory, and meld traditional ecological measures, physiochemistry, and sequencing-based approaches. REU participants will potentially be involved in several experiments, depending on student interest, and may include culture-based competition assays, molecular and morphological identification of fungi and other microbes, environmental sampling, and NGS library generation. Students will learn methods in fungal culture including sterile technique, single strain isolation, culture maintenance, sub-culturing, and spore inducement. Students will also learn molecular methods including DNA extraction, PCR, sequencing (Sanger and NGS), bioinformatics, and statistics.

Dr. Brown's website

Dr. Bernie Daigle

The Daigle lab, in collaboration with the research groups of Dr. Jennifer Mandel (Biological Sciences) and Dr. Vinhthuy Phan (Computer Science), has developed two software packages for analyzing organellar genome sequencing data. The first, icHET (Phan et al. 2019), enables identification and interactive visualization of heteroplasmy. The second, PolyMAP, allows inference of haplotypes from the output of icHET. Dr. Daigle will teach REU students practical computing skills and a conceptual understanding of bioinformatics and genomics, including how to handle large datasets and interpret the results of genomic analyses. The student will learn how to run both icHET and PolyMAP on existing genome sequence data. One potential student project will involve applying these tools to long-read data (e.g., single-molecule, real-time human sequence data) to establish benchmarks and create validation sets for icHET and PolyMAP. The resulting heteroplasmy predictions and inferred haplotypes can then be compared to the true haplotypes to assess the accuracy and reproducibility of icHET and PolyMAP. Such validation will be essential for refining and improving the performance of both packages and will verify the applicability of these tools to organellar sequence data. The student will be mentored by Dr. Daigle as well as near-peer mentored by fourth-year Biological Sciences PhD student Caroline Melton. Dr. Daigle will meet individually with the student on a weekly basis to discuss progress, while Ms. Melton will provide regular hands-on assistance with computing and data analysis tasks.

Dr. Daigle's website

Dr. Michael Ferkin

The Ferkin lab studies how information about conspecifics can be extracted from social cues. Such information can reflect features of the sender, including condition-dependent traits related to phenotype, genotype, and interactions with the environment or with other individuals (Danchin et al. 2004; Ferkin 2019a,b). For terrestrial mammals, scents from biological exudates and specialized sebaceous glands may serve as sources of information that honestly reflects the condition and phenotype or genotype of the sender (Ferkin et al, 2017). Meadow voles, Microtus pennsylvanicus, promiscuous, seasonally-breeding rodents, have a highly localized pattern of sources of scent on their bodies that they use to attract mates and deter same-sex rivals. Recent findings suggest that secretions from different parts of the body may encode different information. In addition, individuals may deposit scent marks from a variety of sources in any given area (Wyatt 2014). However, whether scent marks from the same anatomical source, but different individuals, convey similar or dissimilar information to conspecifics. This hypothesis can be easily tested in this study system. Whether scent marks from multiple sources on the same individual provide unique and overlapping information about the scent donor is another question perfectly suited to undergraduate research. The projects pursued in Dr. Ferkin's lab are well-suited for undergraduates to make novel contributions to the study of how individuals identify others. The undergraduates will be responsible for a specific set of project activities, which may include behavioral observations, assisting in providing hormone therapies, and ELISA hormone assays. Thus, undergraduates will gain hands-on experience and specific training, which will provide them the opportunity to develop professional relations with the other undergraduates, doctoral students, and Dr. Ferkin.

Dr. Ferkin's website

Dr. David Freeman

Research in the Freeman lab has two main foci. (1) The first is to characterize how climate change will impact photoperiodic organisms that use changes in day length to time seasonal transitions in physiology and behavior. A major goal is to identify the neuroendocrine mechanisms through which photoperiod alters physiology and behavior. For example, the lab is currently examining the mechanisms through which photoperiod alters immune function. Data indicate that this pathway includes seasonal changes in stress hormone secretion, which ultimately drives seasonal changes in immunity. Climate change has already resulted in a mismatch between particular day lengths and the ultimate factors they historically predicted (e.g., mismatches between the photoperiod-controlled arrival of migratory birds to their breeding grounds and the abundance of insect prey, which is also influenced by increasing temperature). Events like this are likely to impact stress responsiveness and alter the seasonal rhythm in immune function. This mismatch between ancient photoperiodic systems and the rapid climatic changes occurring now is likely to have a negative impact on biodiversity, particularly in temperate regions. (2) The second area of research in the Freeman lab includes identifying the neuroendocrine and behavioral mechanisms that establish and maintain eusociality in mammals. Though quite common among insect species, this is a rare mating system in mammals, currently documented for only two species of African mole-rat. Understanding eusocial mating systems may allow us to better understand the selective pressures that shape the diverse array of mammalian mating systems and behavior. Mentoring/training of undergraduates in the Freeman lab will include direct interaction with Dr. Freeman, and significant training with graduate students. All projects in the Freeman lab are appropriate for undergraduate participation. Students will learn basic laboratory animal husbandry, in addition to background and techniques in immunology, neuroendocrinology, and animal behavior.

Dr. Freeman's website

Dr. Jennifer Mandel

Research in the Mandel lab centers on understanding how genetic and genomic variation generate the patterns of plant biodiversity present in the world. A driving force of their work is to understand how changes in the environment, including the landscape and climate, affect species abundance and geographic distribution. Their research draws upon the disciplines of ecological genomics, quantitative and population genetics, phylogenetics, and conservation biology. The major areas of research investigated by the lab are the genomics of two plant families: sunflower (Asteraceae) and carrot (Apiaceae). REU students will be mentored and trained by Dr. Mandel and graduate students Paige Murin and Erika Moore. REU students will meet with the lab and Dr. Mandel weekly. If possible, REU students will be given an opportunity to attend the Botany Meeting (a joint meeting among six national and international plant societies) in the following year with the Mandel Lab to present their findings. Depending upon the interests and skill level of the student, potential summer projects include: (1) conservation and population genetics of local flora, especially those that could be sampled from MBS; (2) a phylogenomic study in the sunflower family comprising wet lab methods and data analyses; or (3) mitochondrial and plastid genome evolution in carrot or sunflower relatives. A central goal for REU students in the Mandel Lab is to gain insight into the scientific method along with the invaluable experience of biological research. Dr. Mandel previously hosted an REU student, Jorge Gomez, as a part of an NSF-funded project in the lab. Mr. Gomez was trained by Dr. Mandel and Research Associate Dr. Carolina Siniscalchi in next-generation sequencing methods and analyses for the sunflower family. He also presented his research at the Botany Meeting in Tucson, Arizona in July 2019.

Dr. Mandel's website

Dr. Duane McKenna

Dr. McKenna is an insect systematist and evolutionary biologist. His taxonomic specialty is beetles (order Coleoptera), particularly groups that feed on plants. Topics of study in the McKenna lab include beetle classification, phylogeny and evolution, timing and patterns of diversification, the genomic basis and evolution of specialized plant feeding, and geographic patterns of diversity and endemism. Focal areas of study in which students can develop independent projects include (1) Morphological studies of weevils and leaf and longhorned beetles, (2) reconstructing the phylogeny and evolution of various groups of beetles using phylogenomic data obtained via target enrichment, genomic meta-characters (near intron pairs, gene order), and data from genomes and transcriptomes. Given the extraordinary diversity of beetles (>400,000 described extant species) and the large amount of unpublished data the McKenna lab already has for the group, there is no shortage of potential student projects for REU students. A third potential research topic for REU students is the genomic basis and evolution of specialized plant-feeding in beetles (e.g., leaf-mining, wood-boring), and the ecological and evolutionary consequences of these innovations. These studies provide unique opportunities for students to develop independent projects that employ diverse kinds of genomic data (genomes, transcriptomes, target enrichment data). Students will be mentored for the duration of the REU program by Dr. McKenna and a postdoc (Dr. Seunggwan Shin) who works in the McKenna lab. If possible, REU students will be given an opportunity to attend the Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America with the McKenna Lab in the fall following their REU experience, to present their research findings.

Dr. McKenna's website

Dr. Cassandra Nuñez

The Nuñez lab seeks to understand (1) the effects of management practices on target species' behavior and physiology, and (2) how these patterns can better inform management and aid our understanding of the important linkages between animal behavior, physiology, and ecology. As human populations continue to grow, the management of wildlife species is becoming increasingly necessary. Dr. Nunez incorporates the natural history, behavioral ecology, and physiology of species to better understand these issues, to more effectively conserve and manage animal populations, and to better understand the basic biology of animals. The Nunez lab's work with feral horses living on Shackleford Banks, NC, has generated several research questions, any of which would be appropriate for REU students. Two questions that could generate several projects are: (1) Do individual-level effects of contraception have population-level consequences? Preliminary data (collected by an undergraduate student) suggest that contracepted females are more aggressive with other females in their group. In addition, Dr. Nunez and her former students have amassed long-term datasets on female interactions. With this information and additional fieldwork, REU students could compare the frequency of female aggression (a) for treated vs. untreated females and (b) before and after contraceptive use. Moreover, REU students could determine whether changes in aggression are associated with changes to female cortisol levels. (2) What effects do decreased female fidelity have on the foal population? Interestingly, increases in group turnover have been associated with increases in parasite load and cortisol levels in all group members. REU students could examine the activity budgets, parasite loads, and/or cortisol levels for foals experiencing different levels of group turnover. Using these metrics, students could determine the myriad ways in which contraception-induced changes induce population-level change, helping managers and conservationists better understand the effects of management practices on target species' behavior and physiology, and the linkages between animal behavior, physiology and ecology.

Dr. Nuñez's website

Dr. Matthew Parris

Infectious disease epidemics have always had a severe impact on human populations, and novel pathogens are continuously emerging. Relative to the vast body of knowledge on the epidemiology of human diseases, emerging wildlife diseases, such as those affecting amphibians, have received little attention. There are nearly 4000 extant species of amphibians, and despite their 250-million-year evolutionary history, amphibians are now experiencing unprecedented population declines and extinctions. Mass mortalities occur on all six continents in which they are found, a trend heralding the global deterioration of ecosystem health, negatively affecting both wildlife and human populations. Anthropogenic activities may be responsible for large-scale environmental change (e.g., increased ultraviolet radiation (UV-B), increased exposure to environmental contaminants) that proximally cause amphibian declines. At the same time, these environmental changes may facilitate the emergence and proliferation of pathogens indirectly, such as the fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). Indeed, pathogens are increasingly being recognized as causal agents in amphibian population declines worldwide.

REU students in the Parris research program will be directly mentored by Dr. Parris and will perform laboratory and field experiments aimed at testing hypotheses about amphibian susceptibility to Bd and examining how ecological complexity impacts host-pathogen interactions. The student research experience will be tailored to give exposure to the following tiers of experimental approaches: (1) Manipulation of Bd isolates—Students will test hypotheses about variation in pathogen isolate virulence and local adaptation in vitro and in vivo, learning microbiological techniques in a sterile laboratory setting. (2) Field collection of animals—Several species of frogs and salamanders are found at MBS. Students will learn amphibian collection and census techniques (e.g., seine, drift fence, mark-recapture) in efforts to quantify patterns of pathogen prevalence using qPCR. (3) Laboratory and mesocosm experiments—Students will investigate the relative importance of abiotic and biotic environmental cofactors on pathogen impact by performing laboratory and semi-natural experiments. Dr. Parris maintains a wet lab on campus and operates a facility of 80 mesocosms (1000 L) at MBS. Students will develop multifactorial experiments in both replicated laboratory containers and mesocosms.

Dr. Parris's website

Dr. Emily Puckett

The Puckett lab studies spatial genomic diversity in North American mammals. They use phylogeographic and population-genomic approaches to elucidate patterns of genetic diversity and differentiation in space and time. Current work in the lab focuses on the American black bear (Ursus americanus). Previous work by Dr. Puckett identified three lineages of black bears in the east, west, and coastal Alaska regions of the range (Puckett et al. 2015). This work revealed patterns of isolation-by-distance and population structure within each lineage. In addition to understanding this neutral diversity, they also studied the phylogeny and spatial distribution of mitochondrial haplotypes across the range. Black bears have three clades: B located on the Pacific coast, A-east in the eastern portion of the range, and A-west in the western portion of the range and Alaska. There is substantial mito-nuclear discordance between these genomes.

Summer Undergraduate Project: As the mitochondrial genome elucidates maternal lineages, the Y-chromosome provides information on male-specific patterns of demographic history. To date, work on bear Y-chromosomes has focused on marker development (Bidon et al. 2014). Using these recently developed markers, the lab will sequence male bears in the Puckett Lab collection (~650 individuals, of which half are male) and conduct a phylogeographic analysis. To provide a hands-on bioinformatics project to the student, the Puckett Lab will prepare genomic libraries and sequence samples prior to the REU student's arrival. The student will then map Illumina sequencing reads to the reference genome and call single nucleotide variants (SNVs), and estimate nucleotide variation, population structure, and divergence times between major Y-chromosome lineages.

Dr. Puckett's website

Dr. Jaime Sabel

Dr. Sabel is a biology education researcher and studies the effective use of various classroom scaffolds (or learning tools meant specifically to support undergraduate students in learning biology). This work informs the design of undergraduate and graduate biology courses to integrate scaffolds that will support students as well as the design of scaffolds that will best support students in efforts to reach complex biological understanding.

The Sabel lab currently has three ongoing projects to which undergraduate researchers could contribute: 1) The Majors Metacognition project is a longitudinal study tracking biology majors as they progress through the major and investigating how they develop metacognition (the ability to think about and gauge one's own understanding). An undergraduate student could look specifically at how students are thinking and learning biodiversity concepts and could be involved in developing and testing new scaffolds to support students in that endeavor. 2) The Nonmajors Reflection project investigates how students in a non-majors biology course think about biology and see it as relevant to their own lives. As a part of the course, students engage in Real-World Scenarios that help them to see how the science they are learning applies to situations they may encounter in real life. An undergraduate researcher could be involved in analyzing students' ideas regarding biodiversity-related topics discussed in the course and could work to develop and test a biodiversity-themed Real-World Scenario. 3) PhD student, Kate Parsley, has the lead on a Plant Blindness Project that has many opportunities for undergraduate researchers to investigate how students think about biodiversity. Plant blindness is the inability to notice plants in an environment, which can lead to the naïve point of view that plants are not important (Wandersee & Schussler, 2001). Ms. Parsley has created two instruments to measure students' plant blindness (the Plant Blindness Index, PBI) and botanical Literacy (the Botanical Literacy Instrument, BLI). She is also working on developing classroom interventions to address students' plant blindness by focusing on hot topics students may have encountered, specifically biofuels and genetically modified organisms. An undergraduate student could be involved in analyzing aspects of these scaffolds or in developing and testing new scaffolds related to plant blindness and biodiversity. All undergraduate students would work closely with Dr. Sabel and PhD student Kate Parsley. They would also join an existing group of undergraduate students working on these various projects in the Sabel lab.

Dr. Sabel's website