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Program Highlight: Biology - Research at its Finest

UL Grad School -- 07/07/2016

Meet the graduate students whose biology research projects are gaining national and international attention. All of our biology graduate students establish connections with a specific faculty member before they start their research at UL Lafayette, ensuring that their research interests and ideas align. From there, our faculty members mentor their students, guiding them and preparing them for the next phase in their careers.

These three featured graduate students came to UL Lafayette to work with leading researchers in their fields. Doing so has allowed them each to craft meaningful research projects that build upon the prior work and expertise of their faculty advisors, all while using UL Lafayette’s location along the Gulf Coast with its swamps, marshlands, and diverse wildlife. For these students, UL Lafayette’s location is a perk of working alongside their expert faculty advisors.

Malaria transmission in Louisiana passerine birds

Meet Eric Tobin, a UL Lafayette graduate student who is working on his PhD in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology. After acquiring two bachelor’s degrees at Virginia Tech, he moved to Louisiana and graduated from UL Lafayette with his master’s in biology. He traveled across the globe for three years, and he is now pursuing his fourth degree and is set to graduate in 2018. His biology research project is funded through a Louisiana Board of Regents fellowship. Biology Research Projects at UL Lafayette

What is your research about?
I’m studying population structures of resident passerines and looking at malaria prevalence, transmission, and ecological evolutionary dynamics in both the birds and the mosquito vectors; so my advisor and I have been trapping a lot of birds and mosquitos.

We work with the Audubon Society and one of their “daughter-groups,” the Louisiana Bird Observatory (LABO). They have volunteer bird-banding activities two to three times a month to Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center in Baton Rouge and Palmetto Island State Park. We put up nets in the forest and we catch what ever song birds happen to fly into them, and then we take in as much data as we can to assess age, breeding condition, and growth. We take tail feathers to do isotope analysis. We took blood for a while to do heavy-metal analysis on certain species, and we get all sorts of body metrics like how old the bird is, its weight--with recaptures we can see how fast they are growing--and we give them each individual bands so we can tell them apart when we capture them again.

We are going to be using molecular techniques to diagnose malaria. We are also going to use molecular techniques to sex certain birds (when you can’t tell the males and females apart). I’ll also be trapping mosquitoes to see what kind of malaria they have throughout the year, and when they are transmitting it to and from the birds.

Why study at UL Lafayette?
The Department of Biology has such diverse students and faculty in their interests and talents. When I was finishing my master’s, Dr. Scott Duke-Sylvester was arriving and we stayed in touch over the next few years. He helped get me into a project that was funded by a grant, and it aligned very much with my interests. I decided I did want to get on board with the project, which is my current PhD dissertation work.

I think I’ve felt very enriched personally and professionally by becoming colleagues with everyone in my department. I’ve learned a lot more about science and how to conduct yourself as a scientist, as well as a lot more about topics that, before coming into the department, I had little or no interest in but that now fascinate me. I’ve been able to weave other people’s ideas and expertise into my own work. It’s just a very rich pool of experience and resources that I can draw from within this department.

I’ve had so many more opportunities open up for me. I actually went to a conference with the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals (NOGLSTP), which had a joint meeting with Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, Incorporated (oSTEM). I was awarded Best Grad Student Poster there, so hopefully I’m representing the University well and doing it proud. It was an interesting experience and I’m glad I had the opportunity to go and to see the LGBTQIA community with everyone included. It’s nice to see that there’s a professional organization for that and getting recognition in such a positive “out-and-proud” way. It was very rewarding and enriching to be able to do this and receive recognition from this body, as something not only in my personal life, but also in my professional life.

What’s next for you?
I really loved working with vertebrates and I love working with parasites, so I plan to continue toward my dream job to go work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the field capturing vectors of zoonoses, like infectious diseases. It’s sort of my dream job, combined with my passion.

It would be great to do anything that affords me the freedom to work hands-on with vertebrate outdoors, but still also challenging me on the intellectual side—which is a main reason I came back to grad school. I was very happy as a field technician, but I love being able to handle all the birds and mammals I come across for science and contribute toward the collection of a body of research. I just needed to find something more fulfilling for me, which means being the one who is leading those projects, and that’s why I came back for my PhD.

Protecting wildlife on the Louisiana coast

Meet Katrina Hucks, a biology master’s student studying Brown Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, and Mottled Ducks on Louisiana’s coastline. She is set to graduate in 2017, and she is funded by a research assistantship through her advisor’s grants.

What is your research about?
Coastal systems are facing many challenges including climate change, sea level rise, storm surge, and erosion, all of which contribute to land loss. Coastal wetlands that provide habitat for wildlife are vulnerable to degradation and loss. The Louisiana Master Plan was developed to create a working and sustainable coast, and the wildlife portion of this plan is supported by Habitat Suitability Index models that are used to predict wildlife responses. These have had limited success.

The goal of my research is to use a different modeling approach with the program Maxent to predict wildlife distributions. I plan to compare the efficacy of each modeling approach. The environmental conditions that will eventually go into the models include vegetation, salinity, and sea level. Preliminary models, including only vegetation, show that water is an important variable for all three species modeled. As iconic wetland species, we would expect this.

Southern cattail (Typha domingensis) was also important in all three models. It is important to note that cattails are generally found in freshwater habitats, where mottled ducks and roseate spoonbills are likely to occur. Brown pelicans spend most of their time directly on the coast, using beaches and barrier islands. The importance of cattail in the Brown Pelican model suggests they are actively avoiding areas with cattail.

Biology Research UL Lafayette Roseate SpoonbillThe roseate spoonbill model showed that submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) was important. Roseate spoonbills do not actively feed on SAV; however, SAV is critical for fish that make up a large component of the roseate spoonbills’ diet. The distribution for the three species modeled matches their current ranges in Louisiana.

My favorite part is about my research is that I’m always outside looking for birds. I have been able to explore more of southern Louisiana than many of my fellow graduate students. I love that I'm always surrounded by wildlife.

Why is your research important?
Louisiana faces a lot of pressures from natural and anthropogenic sources. Many agencies and organizations are working to mitigate the effects of these processes on Louisiana’s wetlands. As wetlands are extremely important habitat for wildlife, predicting how various organisms may respond to management and restoration can be a useful tool for preserving critical wildlife habitat.

Why study at UL Lafayette?
My decision to pursue my Master of Science in Biology at UL Lafayette was largely due to my major advisor, Dr. Paul Leberg, and his lab. I liked how his lab’s research projects were diverse and how they were all supportive of each other. Additionally, I liked the atmosphere of UL Lafayette. I liked the huge live oaks and the swamp on campus. I've enjoyed being around charismatic species like roseate spoonbills and American alligators.

How king snakes eat their prey

Meet David Penning, a UL Lafayette student earning a PhD in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology who studies kingsnakes and is funded by a Louisiana Board of Regents fellowship. His paper on snakes’ striking speed was recently published in “Biology Letters,” and it’s already drawn millions of hits and prompted additional coverage by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic News, the BBC, and Smithsonian Magazine. David is preparing to defend his dissertation and is on target to graduate this year.

Meet David Penning, a UL Lafayette student earning a PhD in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology who studies kingsnakes and is funded by a Louisiana Board of Regents fellowship. His paper on snakes’ striking speed was recently published in “Biology Letters,” and it’s already drawn millions of hits and prompted additional coverage by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic News, the BBC, and Smithsonian Magazine. David is preparing to defend his dissertation and is on target to graduate this year.

What is your research about?
The attention that my research has gotten recently is from studies of how snakes strike, but that’s not actually my dissertation work. My dissertation work is studying how one kingsnake eats another snake. We have kingsnakes here in Louisiana. They are immune to venom and, weirdly, a kingsnake can eat another snake that is larger than itself. So not only does it squeeze it to death, it then fits the whole animal inside its stomach, even though that whole animal is bigger than it entirely. So it would be like you eating another human who is 20 percent larger than yourself. That’s very confusing—and sounds like it shouldn’t work.

What is more confusing is that kingsnakes wrestle and they constrict other constrictors to death. So now we’re talking about one pro-wrestler fighting another pro-wrestler, and defeating him even though the defeated one is notably bigger. It’s a biomechanical nightmare that one can be a constrictor, and also bigger, and still lose. So that’s specifically what I do, try to understand how this one snake does its job so well.David Penning UL Lafayette research

I study how hard they squeeze and what effect that has on different types of prey. For the longest time we thought—and you still might hear this in documentaries—that as the snake tightens, the prey exhales and it can’t inhale anymore. Snakes don’t even kill that way most of the time. They actually can apply so much pressure that they stop the heart from pumping blood, so it causes almost immediate circulatory arrest. It’s weird but it’s the kind of stuff I study: how constriction works, the types of forces and pressure on prey, and how those affect their ability to eat things—on top of all the strike stuff that everyone is loving right now.

Why study at UL Lafayette?
I chose to study at UL Lafayette specifically to learn from my advisor, Brad Moon. Of the people who study snakes the way our lab does, on the planet, we’re probably talking only a dozen labs; in North America, I could probably count them on one hand. So there are very few people who do this kind of work. I knew that I needed to find somebody who studied constriction that so that I could continue research on it that I started with a master’s project where there was no PhD program.

One of the best things about studying here is the diversity of the animals and wildlife that I can have access to, just for being here in the state.

I also enjoy the freedom, which might be more particular with my advisor. He’s far more along the lines of, “Go ask a question and try a project to figure it out. If it fails, then let’s try something else.” I know I can show up every day and ask a question that otherwise has not be asked before, and that’s pretty cool.

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Austin O'Connor contributed to this blog.