Research Experience for Undergraduates






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Field Trips 2008

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Each summer, 8 faculty members will become mentors for the group of REU students. The diversity of faculty mentor research interests in behavioral and conservation science has allowed us to match the interests and experience of our students with particular research laboratories with considerable success. In all cases, our goal will be to provide each student with the best experience possible.

Gery Allan studies the application of molecular methods to problems in plant ecology and systematics.  Methods employed include the generation of fragment (e.g., AFLP and Microsatellite) and nucleotide sequencing data.  These data are used in population genetic and phylogenetic studies, especially those that seek to understand the evolutionary ecology of angiosperms.

Tina J. Ayers studies the evolution and adaptive radiation of plants in extreme environments.  She reconstructs species level phylogenies using molecular sequence data from chloroplast or nuclear genomes, as well as macro- and micromorphological data in genera endemic to tropical alpine tundra and desert environments. She also studies endangered plants endemic to the southern Colorado Plateau using genetic “fingerprints” of individuals to gage genetic diversity within relic populations and to document hybridization of endangered species with widespread Rocky Mountain relatives.

Russell P. Balda (Biological Sciences) has concentrated his research on cognitive processes in seed caching birds of the family Corvidae. Controlling for phylogeny, Balda has focused on the evolution of two types of intelligence, spatial cognition and social cognition, especially as they relate to solving problems of life in social groups and withstanding severe winter conditions. His studies are carried out in the state of the art, Avian Cognition Laboratory on the NAU campus and in the natural habitats of these species in the varied environments surrounding Flagstaff. He has assembled background information on these species for the past 32 years.

Lee C. Drickamer (Biological Sciences) studies free female and male mate choice in house mice and in confused flour beetles, focusing on reproductive output and offspring viability and performance. The results have significance for understanding processes of sexual selection. Females or males are given a choice between two members of the opposite sex; they are then mated either with the preferred (PFE) or non-preferred (NFP) mate. The consequences of these matings are assessed in terms of litters produced and litter characteristics, and with respect to several performance tests of progeny

Alice Gibb (Biological Sciences) studies the physiological and morphological basis of fish behaviors critical to individual fitness, especially prey capture and locomotion. Although she is broadly interested in functional morphology and comparative physiology, her research focuses on (1) biomechanics, the physical constraints that intrinsic and extrinsic factors place on behaviors, (2) evolutionary physiology, the evolution of behaviors and their associated physiological systems, and (3) environmental functional morphology, the relationship between animal performance and survival in the wild.  

Cheryl A. Dyer studies the estrogenic activity of uranium recently discovered in her laboratory. Uranium exposure in drinking water at levels below the U.S. EPA safe drinking water standard of 30 ug/L causes female mouse reproductive organs to respond as if they have been exposed to estrogen. Uranium also accelerates cultured human breast cancer cells growth.  Future studies will investigate if in utero uranium exposure causes permanent changes in reproductive organs that contribute to increased risk for chronic diseases in adult life, particularly in the Four Corners region where uranium contamination is widespread.

Bruce Hungate studies element cycling in land ecosystems. His work has shown that different ecosystems respond in broadly similar ways to global environmental changes, like climate warming and altered precipitation patterns. He has also demonstrated how ecosystem responses to global change depend on element interactions. Rising atmospheric CO2, can alter soil carbon and nitrogen cycling through its influence on the water cycle, and can reduce the growth and activity of nitrogen-fixing plants. Through teaching, outreach, and participation in various organizations, he seeks to raise awareness of global environmental change.

Jane C. Marks studies conservation and restoration of freshwater ecosystems.  Her research focuses on understanding how water extraction and invasive species affect native species and their food web webs. Marks works closely with resource managers in the southwestern U.S. and in Cuatro Cienegas, a protected area in northern Mexico. REU students will gain experience working on basic and applied issues learning techniques such stable isotope analysis of food web structure, manipulative experiments, and conducting biological and physical surveys of streams and springs. 

Catherine Propper (Biological Sciences) and her colleagues investigate the effects of environmental endocrine disruptors on reproductive development, function, and behavior. Using three model systems, Propper studies (a) the effects of these compounds on gonadal development in frogs, (b) the effects of pesticides on secondary sex characteristic development and behavior in mosquitofish, and (c) the effects of pesticides on reproductive behavior in salamanders. Her recent findings suggest that very low doses of pesticides have long-term consequences on reproduction in these aquatic vertebrates. Propper also explores molecular mechanisms involved in the process of sexual development and seasonal reproduction.

Stephen M. Shuster (Biological Sciences) studies the genetics and behavior of isopod crustaceans, specifically the inheritance of male mating strategies and sex ratio in the marine isopod, Paracerceis sculpta. Males in this species mature as one of three distinct morphs (a-, b-, and g-). Adult male morphology is determined by a single genetic locus (Ams), which interacts with chromosomal sex factors and an autosomal factor to bias family sex ratio. In recent studies involving REU students, Shuster has investigated the inheritance of sex-limited characters, genetic population structure in natural isopod populations, and genetic influences on gestation duration in females.

Constantine N. Slobodchikoff (Biological Sciences) addresses cognitive, behavioral, and neural factors involved in the formation of alarm calls by Gunnison’s prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are exposed to stimuli that elicit alarm-calling behavior, and vocalizations are recorded and analyzed in the laboratory for their vocal structure. Playbacks of vocalizations are conducted in the field and in the laboratory, and the responses of the prairie dogs are analyzed on videotape and compared with responses to natural predators. The research goal is to determine if prairie dogs can incorporate referential information into their alarm vocalizations, and can perceive and correctly interpret encoded information. This work provides a model system for assessing how information is coded and processed in the mammalian brain system.

Tad Theimer studies how the role of seed-caching rodents potentially changes from mutualistic to antagonistic under the influence of other strong abiotic and biotic interactors such as fire, mycorrhiza and plant herbivores.  He also studies genetic variation within populations and subspecies and how this research can aid management efforts to maintain the integrity of populations and the natural pattern of genetic diversity within species. His interests in vertebrate ecology and conservation include the conservation and ecology of endangered southwestern Willow Flycatchers. 

Maribeth Watwood studies how microbial activity influences the fate of contaminants in water and soil, and how to detect and quantify specific microbial activities in the environment. Watwood and her students combine molecular and functional approaches to generate information regarding contaminant biodegradation in the field. She has also begun to examine how environmental bacteriophage attack and lyse bacterial cells and what consequences this process can have on relevant environmental processes, including contaminant breakdown.

Thomas G. Whitham has been continuously funded since 1979 by NSF, USDA, DOE and a 5 year FIBR grant to study cottonwood riparian communities and pinyon-juniper woodlands. These studies emphasize plant-herbivore interactions and a community-level understanding of the consequences of plant and community genetics, as well as environmental stress on keystone species. These studies have been very collaborative and are based upon the combined efforts of many colleagues and students, including a large number of undergraduates.