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Undergraduate Program: Research Opportunities: REU Program

Collaborative Projects

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.

  1. Firefly Ecology
    (S. Lewis)
    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).

  2. How does a caterpillar "feel"? Sensory signaling in softbodied locomotion
    (Barry Trimmer)
    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!

  3. Transcription and trinucleotide repeat instability in budding yeast
    (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 research question.

  4. DNA Damage Tolerance Mechanisms in Drosophila
    (M. McVey)
    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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Stress responses in wild birds
    (L.M. Romero)
    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).

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. Functional consequences of protein repeat variation in budding yeast
    (Stephen Fuchs)
    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.

  12. Biomechanics of swimming in turbulent flows
    (E. Tytell)
    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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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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