Undergraduate Program: Research Opportunities:
Students applying to our REU program will no doubt have divergent
interests and backgrounds. Therefore, we have identified exciting collaborative
project areas that fall under the umbrella heading of recognition system
research and will be available for two students each.
This project list is subject to change.
Why does a firefly flash?
Because it wants to be seen. Over the last century, the slow spread of
urbanization has introduced artificial light into over 80% of nocturnal
habitats. Light pollution is habitat disruption on a massive scale, and we know
remarkably little about how it will impact the light-based communication system
of these charismatic bioluminescent beetles. This REU project will use
manipulative field and laboratory experiments to compare the courtship success
of two local firefly species under varying types of artificial illumination.
Students will learn modern methods in the fields of animal behavior and visual
ecology, as well as how to obtain and manipulate data in R, LabChart, and
ImageJ. Students must have access to a vehicle, and be comfortable staying out
in forests and fields past sunset (until 11:00pm on average).
How does a caterpillar "feel"?
Sensory signaling in softbodied locomotion
In contrast to animals with stiff skeletons, soft-bodied animals have no easily
defined joints. They can move in any plane by crumpling, rotating and bending.
These movements are partly coordinated by central pattern generators but must
also use information about body position (proprioception) and interactions with
the environment (exteroception). It is not known how such sensory signaling is
collected and incorporated into the control body of soft-bodied locomotion. This
project will build on previous results from kinematic studies of the tobacco
hornworm, Manduca sexta, to identify how they use sensory information
during movement. The results of these studies are expected to contribute to our
understanding of animal movements and to the construction of soft climbing and
burrowing robots under development in the Tufts Neuromechanics and Biomimetic
Devices Laboratory. This project is interdisciplinary with biologist and
engineers working alongside one-another. Students will learn to be comfortable
using both sophisticated equipment and custom-made devices built from plastic,
glue and duct tape!
Transcription and trinucleotide repeat instability in
(C. Freudenreich and E. Polleys)
Maintaining genome stability is critical for every cell. Several fatal genetic
diseases originate from an expansion in a trinucleotide repeat (TNR), such as
the CAG repeat. TNRs can assume unusual structures, and are therefore difficult
to replicate and repair. This can lead to repeat instability (expansions and/or
contractions). The Freudenreich lab explores instability of CAG repeats in a
budding yeast model system, using an expanded CAG repeat from a human patient
contained on a yeast chromosome. This REU project will investigate how repeat
instability occurs during DNA repair processes. Students involved in this
research project will use genetic and molecular techniques to address this
DNA Damage Tolerance Mechanisms in Drosophila
Removal of damaged DNA bases is routine in most replicating cells. However,
sometimes cells don't have time to repair damage before they begin copying their
DNA. In these instances, they must bypass the damaged bases in order to continue
replication and avoid the formation of more serious DNA lesions, such as
double-strand breaks. Several bypass strategies exist in cells; these are
collectively known as damage tolerance mechanisms. The goals of this REU project
are to investigate the relative usage of various damage tolerance pathways in
the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, to identify key proteins involved
in these pathways, and to understand how pathway choice affects genome stability
and organismal health. Undergraduates working on this project will work in teams
with other students in the lab to develop and test hypotheses using a
combination of genetic, molecular, cell biology, and bioinformatic techniques.
The world of the wool-carder bee
(P. Starks & K. Graham)
The wool-carder bee, Anthidium manicatum, has a polygynous mating system
featuring territorial defense by males. These males spend most of their time
hovering over floral territories, waiting for females to visit in search of
flowers, and violently confronting potential usurpers; beyond this, however,
little is known about the behavior of this invasive bee species. This project
will explore a variety of topics related to the behavioral ecology of A.
manicatum, from male mating strategies to kin recognition. As such, students
will have the opportunity to make significant contributions to our understanding
of a largely unknown insect species. This REU project features a strong hands-on
component, as students will assist with field work and observational studies.
The project may also include day trips around New England to gather samples from
a variety of populations (access to a car is preferable but not required).
Students will work with animal behaviorists to master basic techniques/theories
of behavioral research with expansions into conservation and invasion ecology.
Changing patterns of aggression over
the colony cycle of the European paper wasp
(P. Starks & J. Pilowsky)
Paper wasps are able to distinguish nestmates from non-nestmates by sight and
scent, and typically respond with more aggression toward non-nestmates. However,
no recognition system is perfect, and animals can gain a fitness advantage by
adjusting their aggressive responses to social recognition cues based on the
costs of making a mistake. We predict that because the costs of accidentally
letting in an intruder to the nest change over the course of the paper wasps'
colony cycle, the intensity of their aggressive behavior will change as well.
This project involves capturing paper wasps from the wild and quantifying their
aggression toward nestmates and non-nestmates in captive behavioral studies.
Students will learn how to survey and capture wasps in the field, to safely
handle the animals, and to plan and conduct ethological studies.
Geophagia in honey bees?
(P. Starks & R. Bonoan)
While honey bees are important pollinators, there is currently little known
concerning mineral preferences and requirements. Minerals known to be
physiologically important in other insects (such as sodium and calcium) are
found in a honey bee's diet in both nectar and pollen sources. However, honey
bees reared during a pollen shortage obtain similar quantities of most minerals
when compared with those reared in more favorable conditions. This implies that
honey bees acquire micronutrients from sources other than pollen and nectar.
Historically, the ingestion of soil—geophagia—is known to function as a mineral
supplement in various mammalian herbivores. Is it possible that honey bees also
partake in this activity? This field project will investigate whether or not
honey bees prefer water sources based on mineral content, therefore utilizing
water (or soil) as a source for micronutrients. The preparation of mineral
solutions will require some lab work however, the majority of the project will
be done via observational studies in the field. Aside from acquiring field
skills, students will aid in experimental design and management of honey bee
colonies. Data collected will lend insight to honey bee health and nutrition as
well as the evolution of diet and foraging preferences.
Stress responses in wild birds
We know that stress can have a multitude of bad effects, but we also know that
in certain circumstances stress is beneficial, especially in relation to wild,
free-living animals. This research will aim to increase our understanding of how
the endocrine and physiological mechanisms underlying stress help wild animals
survive stressful stimuli such as predators, storms, or anthropogenic changes.
In order to explore this further, students will work with an endocrinologist, a
physiologist, and an ecologist to design experiments to assess how wild birds
respond to various stressful stimuli. Undergraduates will take an integrative
approach to stress, focusing on neuroscience, endocrinology, and ecology. Focus
will be on hypothesis testing, experimental design, and laboratory techniques
(including standard endocrinological techniques including taking blood samples,
hormone and receptor assays, and statistical analyses).
Genetics of Ecological Speciation
(E. Dopman & C. Wadsworth)
According to the biological species concept, species arise from the evolution of
barriers to gene exchange between diverging lineages. Ecological barriers, the
result of ecologically-based natural selection, consist of habitat and temporal
differences that limit gene exchange. The nature of ecological barriers, their
genetic basis, and their impact on patterns of reproductive isolation and gene
flow are largely unknown. This project will build on previous results from
genetic studies of the European corn borer, Ostrinia nubilalis, to
identify the molecular basis of temporal isolation. Because ecological barriers
are regarded by some as among the most important forms of reproductive isolation
in plants and animals, the results of these studies are expected to contribute
to our fundamental understanding of the origin and maintenance of Earth's
biodiversity. Students involved in these studies will work with a geneticist and
will use modern physiological, computational, or molecular biology methods.
Climate Impacts on Agriculture
(C. Orians & Tim Griffin)
Climate change is impacting both the growth and chemistry of plants. We are
doing leveraging a 10-year precipitation experiment at the Boston Area Climate
Experiment to explore the consequences of long-term changes in water
availability on soil traits and the growth and nutritional chemistry of several
plants, including important food crops. Access to a car is preferable.
Functional consequences of protein repeat
variation in budding yeast
The Fuchs lab studies repetitive amino acid sequence, and in particular,
changes in repeat copy number between individuals. In humans, this
phenomenon seems to be related to a number of behavioral characteristics (from
day/night preference to ADHD). This REU project will use the budding
yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae to study the role of repeat variation in
cell-cell recognition as well as the genetic mechanisms that underlie this
variation. Students involved in this project will work closely with grad
students and postdocs in the Fuchs lab and gain exposure to a wide range of
molecular, genetic and cell biology techniques.
Biomechanics of swimming in turbulent flows
My laboratory studies the fluid dynamics, muscle mechanics, and neural control
of swimming in fishes. Each of these aspects of swimming are linked to each
other, and our work is aimed at understanding how the linkages allow fish to
swim stably and effectively through a complex and unpredictable environment.
This project will build on some of our previous work to examine the energetics,
mechanics, and neural control patterns for fish as they interact with vortices
in the water around them. This is a highly interdisciplinary project in which
the student will work with members of the laboratory to develop a device to
generate vortices in a controlled manner, then quantify the flow patterns using
flow visualization techniques. Then, the bulk of the study will be spent filming
fish swimming in various types of vortex flows and measuring muscle activity.
Mechanical engineering experience is helpful but not required, and students
should have some experience or interests in animal physiology.
Climate change and the ecology of checkerspot butterflies
(E. Crone and L. Brown)
Changes in the timing, or phenology, of major life cycle events (e.g., first emergence,
flowering, migration, breeding) have been documented across taxa in recent decades.
Phenological shifts are often attributed to climate change, but the ultimate consequences
of observed patterns are still unclear. For instance, how will phenological shifts affect
species' overall ability to persist? This project will focus on phenological shifts
in the charismatic Baltimore checkerspot butterfly, and the species with which it
interacts at higher and lower trophic levels (e.g., nectar and host plants, and
predators and parasitoids). The Baltimore checkerspot is declining in more southern
parts of its range, including Maryland where it is the state insect, but is
considered to be stable or even increasing in more northern parts of its range.
The student on this project will help contribute to our understanding of the
nature of these discordant population changes, and the role of geographic differences
in phenology and host plant use in checkerspot butterfly population viability.
Students working on this project will learn about butterfly biology, develop
critical skills in experimental design and plant identification, and learn methods
for collection and analysis of data critical to assessing population status and
threats to population persistence.
What makes a successful marine invader?
(J. Pechenik and C. Choi)
The sedentary marine gastropod Crepidula
fornicata is native to New England but has, over the several previous
decades, become an impressively successful invasive species along many parts of
the European and Scandinavian coastlines. As many as 9,000 individuals per
square meter have been reported from parts of the northern French coast. And
yet, no related species have become so successful as invaders. This REU project
will consider the physiological and reproductive characteristics that make this
species such a relatively successful invader. Studies will include field work
and lab work, and aspects of physiology, reproductive ecology, and behavior.
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