During her inaugural summer up north at the University of Michigan
Biological Station, Amy-Charlotte Devitz worked with Ben Dantzer, assistant
professor in the University of Michigan Departments of Psychology and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. “I used stable isotope analysis to examine differences in the diet and behavior of Peromyscus mice across
Michigan. I am expanding upon this research this semester and plan to present it at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology conference in January. Dantzer is Devitz’s advisor for her master's thesis.
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Stable isotope analysis essentially shows the ratios of carbon and nitrogen within a sample, such as an animal's’ hair, which can provide insight into what the animal has been eating. A high carbon ratio suggests a plant-based diet while a high nitrogen ratio suggests a protein-rich one, Devitz explained.
“I am from the tiny town of Fredericksburg, Pa. and have always been interested in science, particularly animal behavior,” Devitz said. She
completed her bachelor’s in biology with an animal behavior concentration at Millersville University in May 2017. During her undergraduate career, she conducted research on behavioral syndromes in hermit crabs; her manuscript is in progress. “Behavioral syndromes are animal personalities - they encompass consistent behaviors across time and situations within an individual,” she said. “Essentially, a ‘bold’ animal that is aggressive with other animals may also take more risks and have higher activity levels, while a more ‘shy’ animal may be subordinate, take few risks and have lower activity levels.”
She learned of the Frontiers Master’s Program after looking into the EEB Ph.D. program at U-M. Her major area of research/interest is in behavioral syndromes and animal cognition/learning.
“I have a complex genetic disorder that has had major impacts on my life and career as a scientist but love the opportunity that Frontier's has given me to advocate for people with disabilities in STEM. Because of my disability I have had to drastically change the scope for my research because a lot of field work tends to be inaccessible, but I have had a great experience so far in the Frontiers program in finding ways to work around my physical limitations and make research and science more accessible.”
In her free time, Devitz enjoys reading and blogging about and advocating for rare disease and the intersection of disability and being a student. “You'll almost always see me with my service dog, Fish, who is quickly becoming a BSB celebrity.” BSB stands for the Biological Sciences Building.
“Living at UMBS for the summer was a really great opportunity for improving accessibility in STEM – in 100 plus years of operation they had never had a student in a wheelchair or with a service dog stay there. It was definitely challenging in some aspects of navigating camp, but while I was there I had the chance to help improve things for the future.” Working with EEB Professor Knute Nadelhoffer, UMBS director, Karie Slavik, UMBS associate director, her summer professors and the maintenance staff, ramps were installed to make a classroom, the lab facility and a recreational space accessible. Together, they figured out ways to provide access to field work.
“I have a lot of ideas for making it more accessible to not only students with mobility impairments, but to those with other disabilities as well, and I hope to pursue them in the future. Field work and living at a field station can be intimidating because the world is inherently inaccessible, but we made it work and it was a rewarding experience.
“In the future, I am hoping to continue pursuing research and teaching. I also want to develop programs for students with disabilities to become involved and better represented in STEM and to make science more accessible. I believe that people with disabilities can offer a valuable perspective to STEM and there are a still a lot of barriers to access.”
“I've always been fascinated with sciences – the sci-fi stories I used to write as a child are proof of that,” said Briana Sealey, a University of Michigan Frontiers Master’s graduate student in ecology and evolutionary biology. She wasn’t sure what to specialize in so she shadowed a few professions and decided that ecology and evolutionary biology was her favorite area of study. She’s been pursuing a career in EEB ever since.
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Frontiers students begin the program with a summer up north at the U-M Biological Station. Sealey’s UMBS research project was to determine if the west and east branches of the Maple River would be suitable habitat for the reintroduction of grayling fish. During her time there, they determined that grayling could possibly be reintroduced into the west branch of the Maple River but not the east branch, which is too warm. However, she said that more research would need to be done to solidify their results.
Sealey’s current research focuses on determining if the death feigning behavior of hognose snakes is attributed to their diet of toxic toads. Her advisor is Professor Alison Davis Rabosky. Sealey said that one study showed that if hognose snakes death feign too frequently, they actually die. “This suggests that there is some evolutionary single-trait trade-off between reduced predation and stress-induced mortality. There is a standing assumption that their toxic toad diet (known as bufophagous) contributes to their ability to death feign, but no studies have actually tested this hypothesis. I want to determine if a toxic diet (eating toads) increases death feigning through mediation of hormones by feeding hognose snakes toxic and nontoxic diets (frogs) and observing death feigning behavior and physiological responses.”
A first generation college student from Cleveland, Ohio, Sealey was already an aspiring ecologist when she heard about the Frontiers Master's Program from her mentor, Professor Michael Benard at Case Western Reserve University. Benard was previously a lecturer and an advising coordinator for the U-M Program in Biology.
“What I like most about the Frontiers program is my ability to lead my own project,” she said. Rather than being assigned a project, she was given a few possible subjects and selected which questions to explore. She thinks that giving students the ability and autonomy to ask their own questions and devise methods of study is an important component of any research project.
“I am genuinely interested in the natural world and understanding how it works,” Sealey said. She particularly enjoys studies that focus on mammals and herptofauna. The tiger (Panthera tigris) is her favorite mammal and she hasn’t yet discovered her favorite herptofauna, as the field is still new to her. “I hope to apply what I learn from my master's to a Ph.D. program focused on animal conservation.”
Sealey draws comics, writes stories, sings, dances, plays the viola, and fishes with her puppy, an American Staffordshire Terrier, named Zuberi, Swahili for '”strong.” Their favorite fishing hole is around the Cleveland Metroparks, “but anywhere with good water and plenty of fish will do.”
Frontiers Master’s students in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology begin their adventure with a summer research project at University of Michigan Biological Station. Kenzo Esquivel’s research at UMBS last summer compared two methods of collecting pollinator network data. He simultaneously collected data (on which pollinators were visiting which flowers with what frequency) using two different methods that were used in past collections of network data on pollination systems.
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“The motivation for this was that there were two groups of researchers looking at a similar Great Lake dune systems that found slightly different results from their pollinator networks, but they used two different methods,” Esquivel explained. “So, by performing both methods at the same time, in the same place, I wanted to see if the difference in the original research was because of the different methods, or because of some other factor. I found that there wasn't a difference in the methods and thus there must be environmental or some other differences between the two previously studied dune ecosystems that drive the difference in the pollinator networks. My research also confirmed the importance of the endemic, and federally threatened pitcher's thistle plant in the pollinator network. The plant plays an important role as a pollen resource for a large number of different insect species. This finding emphasizes the importance of continuing to monitor and protect the thistle, and to prioritize management of invasives that could interfere with the success of the thistle on the dune ecosystem.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Esquivel stayed local at the University of Chicago for undergrad. So, his move to Ann Arbor for Frontiers was the first time he left the Windy City for an extended period of time.
“While it is my first time outside of Chicago for an extended period of time, in the grand scheme of things, Chicago is pretty close,” he said. Even though Ann Arbor isn’t as vast as Chicago, he said there’s lots going on, including in Kerrytown where he lives, with all its shops and amenities. “More than that though, I think meeting the great people both in and outside of the department has made the transition pretty smooth.”
He learned of Frontiers as a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduate (NSF-REU) student at the Biological Station the previous summer when he met the new cohort as they were beginning their Frontiers journey.
“That summer was my first time doing scientific research and I really loved it, but when it came around to thinking about what I wanted to do post-graduation, I was unclear on what direction I wanted to head. I recalled the flexibility of the Frontiers program in terms of choosing an advisor and so I got in touch with the second year cohort members I had met, and they encouraged me to apply.” (Students don’t need to choose an advisor until their second semester in the program).
Plans with his advisor, Professor Jake Allgeier, are still developing, but the hope is that Esquivel will build a model to help answer broad ecological questions about the artificial reef (AR) structures that Allgeier has been researching for over eight years. “There's still much to learn about how exactly ARs function in coastal marine ecosystems,” Esquivel said.
The big picture questions the model might shed light on include: are ARs able to increase biomass (i.e., fish) in a system? If so, what are the ecological forces and factors that are most important in the process of increasing biomass? From a policy standpoint, what is the optimal number and spatial arrangement of ARs? Is there a sustainable rate of fishing that can occur at ARs that maintains ecological stability? They hope the model under development can be built upon to answer increasingly complex questions about the marine system.
The multi-talented Esquivel loves to cook and bake. He worked at a bakery as an assistant pastry chef during his undergrad and also worked at a bakery in high school. He plays violin and performs with the U-M Campus Symphony Orchestra. Outdoors, he loves hiking, exploring nature, biking and running.
He’s interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in ecology and evolution, and applying that to science policy, especially around issues of conservation and the environment through advocacy with a non-governmental organization or through a local or federal government agency.
Stephanie Alcala is investigating the genetic diversity of the cultivated coffee variety Geisha in collaboration with the Hacienda La Esmeralda Coffee Farm in Boquete, Panama. This study has broad conservation implications. It serves as a preliminary study to determine the next steps for conserving coffee plants in the face of climate change and pathogens.
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During her first summer in the Frontiers Master’s Program at the University of Michigan Biological Station, Stephanie Alcala researched the feeding preference and larval development of the introduced biological control agent, Larinus planus (a weevil), on a rare non-target native host, Cirsium pitcheri, Pitcher’s thistle.
Currently, Alcala is investigating the genetic diversity of the cultivated coffee variety Geisha in collaboration with the Hacienda La Esmeralda Coffee Farm in Boquete, Panama. “The results will allow the farm and the surrounding coffee farms within the region to know whether their crops have been self-pollinating or if there is variation within their plants,” explained Alcala. “If there is genetic variation, it is important for the farmers of Boquete to know whether it is due to slight variations within the genome or hybridization. This study has broad conservation implications. It serves as a preliminary study to determine the next steps for conserving coffee plants in the face of climate change and pathogens. If all of these coffee plants are clones due to self-pollination, farmers should know in order to implement mitigation strategies at the farm management level.” Her advisor is Professor Christopher Dick, curator and associate chair for museum collections, U-M Herbarium and U-M Museum of Zoology.
Alcala is from Hacienda Heights, Calif., a town within Los Angeles County. A first generation college student, she is also the first one in her family to pursue a master’s degree. She attended Whittier College, a small liberal arts school, where she majored in environmental science. She learned about the Frontiers Master’s Program from her advisor at Whittier College who believed she would be a good fit for the program.
Alcala hopes to pursue a career within the specialty coffee industry, working towards ensuring the sustainability of the specialty coffee industry. She’d like to create a more transparent coffee supply chain, which would hopefully improve the socioeconomic standards of individuals who work with coffee.
“Outside of academia I enjoy hiking, cycling, bicycle touring, and camping. I also enjoy traveling and eating different cuisines.”
Teal Harrison’s summer research project explored the enhanced mutualism hypothesis and whether invasive Typha, or cattail, species acquires the ability to perform better relative to the native and exotic cattail species because of greater associations with mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi form a symbiotic association with the roots of plants.
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“Contrary to expectation, I found that the native species, rather than the invasive species, had more mycorrhizal colonization than the invasive species,” Harrison said. “This result suggests that invasive cattails are not invasive because of increased association with fungal mutualists and that other mechanisms of invasiveness in this species should be explored.” Frontiers students first summer with the program is spent at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, Mich.
Harrison hails from Columbus, Ohio. She played goalie and was voted rookie of the year in Division 1 lacrosse at American University where she was an international relations major her freshman year. She transferred to Johns Hopkins University where she earned a bachelor’s degree in behavioral biology.
Her first real exposure to ecology was through a marine ecology study abroad program in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. After studying abroad and during her senior year, she realized she wanted to pursue ecology as a career.
“I became interested in Frontiers because it opened its doors to students like me who may not have studied ecology or evolutionary biology all four years of undergrad but had a passion to bridge the gap and pursue ecology as their professional field of study.” She is advised by EEB Professor and Chair Diarmaid Ó
Outside of academia, Harrison appreciates going to arts performances, such as spoken word poetry, dance and theater, that center on social justice themes. When she has the time and opportunity, she also has fun hiking, practicing yoga, snorkeling, and scuba diving.
Future career goals are still being developed, but she’s thinking she would like to research and work on the conservation of coastal ecosystems. Further, she’d like to educate and develop practical solutions for coastal communities, especially coastal communities of color who are currently and will continue to disproportionally experience the detriments of global climate change.
When Xorla Ocloo visited Ghana as a child, her mother would tell her, “Don’t walk in ponds, cover your skin when you go out, and never eat anything off the ground.” Ocloo, a Frontiers Master’s student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, recalled that when she grew up, she realized her mother’s instructions were to avoid contact with parasites commonly found in tropical areas.
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Ocloo gravitated towards disease ecology to understand the modes of transmission between parasites and their hosts, and to share that knowledge with those impacted by disease-causing parasites. Ocloo is interested in zoonotic diseases, particularly in Africa and Latin America. Zoonotic diseases are those that normally exist in animals but can be transmitted to humans.
Frontiers students spend their first summer in the program in northern Michigan at the University of Michigan Biological Station. Ocloo investigated zoonotic parasite prevalence in raccoons.
“Urbanization decreases wildlife habitats and forces species to adapt in areas with high human activity or become extinct. Animals that are able to adapt in urban areas, like raccoons, can expose humans to rabies and the roundworm, Baylisascaris procyonis, which also causes abnormal behaviors” Her goal was to uncover hotspots for parasite richness at UMBS. Preliminary data showed that parasite richness and prevalence was greater near residences than remote areas. Parasites found near homes have a higher chance of infecting humans and causing diseases.
Ocloo’s current research is looking at what parasites are found in the howler monkeys in Latin America. Specifically, she’s investigating how the prevalence, composition, and diversity of parasites changes across different geographical locations. Ocloo is also interested in uncovering parasites unique to howler monkeys and parasites that are also found in humans. “Howler monkeys could potentially play an important role in the movement of zoonotic parasites between different populations due to their close proximity to humans.” She is working with Professor Liliana Cortés -Ortiz.
Born and raised in the city of Chicago, Ocloo is a first generation college student. She earned her undergraduate degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She began as a molecular and cell biology major with plans to attend dental school. “I was obsessed with teeth and wanted to become an orthodontist.”
About halfway through her bachelor’s program, she changed her major to integrative biology. She found she was more interested in the bigger picture than the micro level. She fell in love with her first ecology course because they went outside often, a new experience for her during class that she likens to taking field trips.
“I was never into nature growing up in the city but something about being in the middle of a river in waders with fish felt so relaxing. That’s when I truly fell in love with science.”
She became involved with a population community ecology lab and was fortunate to go to the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America where she met many graduate students and professors doing groundbreaking research. While at ESA, she passed by the U-M booth and heard briefly about the graduate programs. Later that week, she received an email from the EEB graduate program recruiter that fully explained the Frontiers Master’s Program and encouraged her to apply.
When she has some free time, Ocloo loves playing and watching rugby, which she says stuns most people. She also loves writing creative fiction and nonfiction, singing and dancing and learning about different cultures. “One day I hope to create a book of short stories.”
As for her academic future, “there’s a lot I want to accomplish,” she said. She wants to earn a Ph.D. and become an educator, continue researching in Latin American and African countries and collaborate with people in these countries to develop plans to further the understanding of diseases and to get others involved in science.
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“I set out traps at night, checked them in the morning, and collected fecal samples,” Russell said. She did flotations with the samples and identified any parasites under a microscope “I didn't find a significant difference in parasite diversity or prevalence between the two sites, but both were higher in a more open site (recently burned), where I expected to find less of both. Some of the parasites I found are zoonotic, which have the potential to infect humans.”
Russell is currently working on chytridiomycosis in Peruvian frogs from the lowland Amazon. Chytridiomycosis is an infectious disease affecting amphibians worldwide. Russell is interested in developing project ideas on the chytrid fungus and modeling the spread of this disease and how it's affecting amphibians. “It's still very new, but I'm really excited to keep learning more and developing my thesis.” She is co-advised by Professors Timothy James and Alison Davis Rabosky.
Russel hails from Sacramento, Calif. She attended Mills College, a small women’s liberal arts school in Oakland, Calif., which gave her the opportunity for close interactions with her professors and advisors. While applying to graduate schools, she decided to look into the University of Michigan and emailed Professor Nyeema Harris about her work in the department because it looked so interesting. Harris suggested that she look into the Frontiers program. “So I did, I applied, and now I'm here!”
Although neither of Russell’s parents graduated from college, her grandfather is a retired ichthyologist, “who really instilled my love for nature and conservation at a young age. My whole family is extremely supportive and encouraging of my decision to pursue higher education in this field!”
Her career goals involve working in an applied science field, with a governmental agency or non-governmental organization, for example, developing management plans for endangered species. “After some time in that field, I would like to become a professor at a small liberal arts college, to be able to help and encourage students to pursue their dreams of working in ecology, and provide both the applied and academic side of ecological research.”
In her spare time, Russell likes knitting, hiking, and trail running. Her favorite places to hike and trail run are in California. “There are so many great places, but my favorites are Big Basin Redwoods and all the East Bay Regional Parks.”
“I recently finished knitting a scarf – my first knitted piece for myself. I'm also a boba aficionado!” (For the uninitiated, boba is bubble tea).
One might say that a series of fortunate events led Susanna Campbell to the Frontiers Master’s Program in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. When she was a junior at the University of Maryland, her undergraduate research advisor told her about the program and after reading online about it, she became “really interested.”
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Then, while interning at the Smithsonian National Zoo, she met one of Professor Liliana Cortés Ortiz’s previous students, Audra Huffmeyer, who raved about the Frontiers program. Cortés Ortiz is her current advisor. From that point on, she knew she wanted to attend the University of Michigan.
During her first summer in the Frontiers program in northern Michigan at the U-M Biological Station, Campbell investigated competition between a native and invasive crayfish to explore reasons why the invasive crayfish is spreading so prolifically. She learned a great deal about conducting behavioral research trials and about crayfish ecology – both were new topics for her. Frontiers students begin the program at the universally loved UMBS.
Campbell’s master’s thesis explores genetic variation in two functional genes, oxytocin and the oxytocin receptor. They are exploring correlations of the genes with known variation in behavior in howler monkeys. Howler monkeys are unique because behavior varies greatly between howler species in comparison to other primate groups. “This makes howlers a great system to study the genetics of behavior.”
Campbell grew up in Baltimore, Md. and until moving to Ann Arbor, she hadn’t lived outside the Baltimore area. “There weren’t many opportunities to get interested in ecology and evolution when I was young. But, once I started working on my undergraduate program on the evolution of birds, I was hooked.”
Since arriving at the University of Michigan, she began volunteering in the U-M Museum of Zoology Bird Division, learning how to prepare specimens for the museum collections.
As for future career ambitions, Campbell has a number of exciting ideas. She’d like to work as a museum curator, performing research and overseeing collections. She hopes to open a hands-on natural history museum in Baltimore, which lacks such a resource. “The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History was always fascinating to me as a kid.”
She’s also interested in opening an after-school program in Baltimore where young students can gain exposure to and engage with science through a wide array of experiments and activities.
However, her primary career goal is to continue researching topics of interest, such as behavior, bioinformatics and genetics. At this point, she’s unsure if that means a career in academia, private industry, or at a museum or zoo.
Outside of academia, Campbell loves bird watching and is a “huge Beyoncé fan.” For relaxation, Campbell can be found playing open world role-playing video games and binge watching Netflix. She’s currently watching “Gossip Girl” for the third time and watches lots of anime.
“I took notice of the Frontiers Master's Program at U-M because of its emphasis on supporting minority students,” said Chau Ho, who is now a Frontiers master’s student. “When I did more research into the program, I was impressed by the size of the department and the presence of the Ruthven Museums.”
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Ho notes that Professor Tom Duda was very encouraging when she first contacted him for more information about the application. “Naturally, I was also interested because there are a few professors here conducting research in the tropics,” an area of special interest. “I've been happy here, so I think it was a good decision.”
During her first summer at the U-M Biological Station as part of the Frontiers program, Ho measured the production of reproductive tissue of a federally listed plant (Pitcher's thistle,Cirsium pitcheri) in response to herbivory by a weevil (Larinus planus) that specifically targets reproductive tissue. She worked with Claudia Jolls, a professor from East Carolina University. “She was wonderful to work with, and I think it was so special to have an opportunity to work with professors from outside U-M at UMBS,” Ho said. “It widened my scientific network, and I learned a lot about designing research projects and about reframing my scientific story!”
She found that there are differences in how plants allocate their reproductive resources when they are attacked by the weevil, but the pattern is complicated. In the future, Ho would like to reframe the project into a study of phenotypic plasticity in plants, rather than resource allocation. Ho presented a poster titled “Seed predation changes reproductive investment in Cirsium pitcheri” at the annual meeting for the Association of Southeastern Biologists in April 2016.
Back on campus, Ho’s advisor is Professor John Vandermeer. “I want to start exploring research problems in the tropics,” she said. “One concrete direction is studying the spread of coffee leaf rust disease in Mexico. I'm trying to see if shade trees can provide an ecosystem service of disease control by physically blocking the spread of this wind-dispersed pathogen.” She’ll spend three months doing field work in Chiapas, Mexico on an organic coffee farm called Finca Irlanda this summer. “I think agriculture is an important research area to tackle in the tropics, because there seems to be so much conflict between biodiversity conservation and land use in these areas. How do we maintain healthy ecosystems while maintaining an agricultural economy that supports so many people in these tropical countries?”
Ho studied ecology and evolution as part of her undergraduate biology degree, and worked on a number of research projects outside of her courses. “I was fortunate to have many different research experiences, which helped me narrow the types of problems I want to focus on.” For example, she completed two major research projects during her summers, first on mammalian extinction and then on nutrient flows in wetlands. “My quarter abroad studying biology in the Australian tropics made me realize that I loved working in the tropics most of all.” Now, she is very motivated to find opportunities in tropical ecology as she continues on her scientific path.
She’s also traveling to Vietnam for a few weeks in May 2016 to get back in touch with her Vietnamese heritage. She plans to learn more about the tropical ecology of Vietnam and current research by talking with local biologists. “I haven't been back since my family immigrated in 1999, and I hope this exploration will become part of my academic interest.”
When she’s not doing field work, Ho stays physically active with endeavors such as weight training. She had fun exploring the gyms when she arrived in Ann Arbor. More recently, she’s begun running, and hopes to run in a marathon someday. For added motivation, she logged her hours on the indoor track at the central campus gym with U-M's Active U program.
As for future plans, Ho has begun looking for doctoral programs and applying to NSF fellowships later this year. “My goal is to become a research scientist focused on tropical ecology who can also contribute to our understanding of sustainable practices and environmental conservation.”
Chau Ho and SNRE students Hailey Schurr and Austin Martin measure birch and larch trees in the E.S. George Reserve's Cassandra Bog.
“This first year of the Frontiers program has easily been one of the most eye-opening years of my life,” said Nicholas Medina. “I feel that I have grown as an ecologist more than I ever imagined."
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“This first year of the Frontiers program has easily been one of the most eye-opening years of my life,” said Nicholas Medina. “I feel that I have grown as an ecologist more than I ever imagined. I have truly loved diving into the fundamental principles of ecosystem and community ecology, and learning the experimental and analytical techniques used to prove both fundamental and applied questions.”
Medina feels that the departmental seminars helped him to appreciate how the questions that drive faculty research relate across study systems, for example, how microbial evolutionary and assembly processes affect rates and patterns of soil nutrient cycles. He notes how often these overlaps can lead to important and interesting collaborative projects.
“My current research stems from last summer’s project to ask where the CO2 rising from temperate forest soils comes from, which requires analyzing how soil organic matter quality has changed. These changes in soil take years: hence the utility of a long-term study in this case. My thesis focuses specifically on conditions of doubled annual litter fall, under which soil organic matter has been shown to respond in a more complicated way: instead of accumulating soil organic matter, more litter (a source of soil organic matter) induces faster decomposition of soil organic matter.”
To figure out whether stable or labile soil organic matter decomposes faster, he divides soil organic matter into pools of different characteristics and residence times. He models the movement of soil organic carbon from plant source to CO2. This work improves society’s understanding of the long-term stability of forest soil organic matter, which is likely to influence the global terrestrial carbon cycle over the coming decades, especially under changing litter-production regimes.
“I became interested in UM’s Frontiers Master’s Program after deciding that I was ready for a research-based graduate program that would tie together my liberal arts background in biology and environmental studies,” Medina said. Early on, he committed his life to science and – after several life-changing months studying and interning abroad in Panama and Costa Rica – to environmental sustainability. These personal and research experiences tied together his existing awareness of past and ongoing global environmental issues, and solidified his whole-hearted devotion to those issues. While his research in marsh habitat restoration, developmental neurobiology, tropical forestry and tropical plant ecology were valuable to his preparation for academic ecology, he said he needed to develop a much narrower research track before seeking a doctoral program. “After research online, it became very clear that the Frontiers program was the best fit for me given my adventure to ecology and the program's structure and mission. I feel fortunate to have been admitted.”
Frontiers students spend their first summer with the program in northern Michigan at the University of Michigan Biological Station. “I evaluated the decadal trends in the contributions of plant litter (fallen leaves, wood and roots in soil) decomposition to total soil respiration (CO2evolution out of soil) across a series of plots whose litter has been manipulated for the past decade as part of an international network of long-term litter manipulation experiments called DIRT (Detritus Input and Removal Treatments).
Medina’s sense of adventure is satisfied through his love of travel to explore new places. He continues to hone his musical skills on bass, guitar and percussion. He plays casually with friends and formally with the Michigan Pops orchestra. He also likes dancing and many recreational sports. “When it is too cold for sports, I like to engage with science and environmentalism more broadly by watching interesting TED talks, Netflix documentaries, Nature podcasts, or when time allows, attending rallies,” he said. “I feel it can help me think more creatively and always with purpose.”
His current plans are to apply to doctoral programs that progress his research in plant-mediated controls on soil organic matter quality and dynamics. He would eventually like to help direct the research programs of a conservation NGO (non-governmental organization).
Read an article “Forests alone can’t stop climate change,” authored by Medina in gotscience.org.
“My goal is to conduct research that contributes to solving major threats to biodiversity, ecosystem services and community development,” said Ivan Monagan.
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“During my first summer as an undergrad at Virginia State University, I began exploring the field of ecology as a research assistant in Southeastern Arizona. Under my research advisor, Dr. Christian d’Orgeix, VSU, I spent the following three years assisting with projects on the population and behavioral ecology of Slevin’s Bunchgrass lizard,Sceloporus slevini, and Mexican Garter snake,Thamnophis eques.
“During my 2013 spring semester, I participated in a study abroad program in Thailand where I explored conservation biology and rural agriculture. This experience not only kindled my interest in wildlife conservation, but also heightened my awareness of the challenges faced by subsistence farmers in the tropics and developing world. The following summer, I continued working with herpetofauna as a research assistant in South America, where I became further infatuated with tropical wildlife and ecosystems
“Together, these experiences heightened my interest in the large-scale impacts of anthropogenic disturbance on wildlife diversity, and the complementary dependence we have on functioning ecosystems. My goal is to conduct research that contributes to solving major threats to biodiversity, ecosystem services and community development.”
Monagan was encouraged to apply for the Frontier’s Master’s program during his stay at the Southwestern Research Station in Pellston, Arizona. Despite severe apprehensions about entering a graduate program directly out of undergrad, he accepted an invitation to participate in a weekend visit to Ann Arbor.
“During my stay, I experienced John Vandermeer and Ivette Perfecto’s Field Ecology course, and it soon become clear to me that the University of Michigan would be an ideal place for me to transition into the next stage of my academic career.”
During his first summer at the U-M Biological Station, Monagan worked on a project called “Aquatic macroinvertebrate diversity along a successional gradient in three interdunal swales at Sturgeon Bay, Emmet County, Mich., which he summarizes as follows:
Freshwater fauna are integral to the proper functioning of wetland ecosystems, but our understandings of the environmental factors that control their dynamics are poorly defined. To determine whether patterns in diversity among freshwater fauna exist as a function of regional landscape succession, I used aquatic macroinvertebrates (animals that have no backbone and can be seen with the naked eye) to assess the relative influence of local abiotic and biotic environmental variables on species spatial and temporal diversity in a coastal dune ecosystem.
I used coastal swales (interdunal wetlands) to test the hypothesis that swale age and size (surface area) are primary drivers of species diversity and abundance. The results of this study indicate that surface area is an independent physical component of wetland swales correlated with heightened aquatic macroinvertebrate diversity, and decreasing pH as the most strongly associated component of age in succession.
Despite the commonality of coastal dune ecosystems, very few studies address factors influencing faunal diversity. Future comparative studies may include the relative influences of seasonality and ephemerality on biodiversity in coastal swale systems.
“I have always been fueled by my passion to explore,” Monagan said. “Beyond academia, I maintain a love for art, language and travel, and I enjoy community activities that promote awareness and youth outreach.” Monagan’s advisors are Drs. John Vandermeer and Alison Davis Rabosky.
“At first, I was a bit hesitant because it was far away from home and my family, but I wanted to take the risk and try something new,” Sergio Redondo recalled how he felt when he was considering the Frontiers Master’s Program.
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“At first, I was a bit hesitant because it was far away from home and my family, but I wanted to take the risk and try something new,” Sergio Redondo recalled how he felt when he was considering the Frontiers Master’s Program in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan. Yet, he knew the challenge would help him improve as a student. “I was also nervous about jumping directly into the Ph.D. program, so Frontiers offered the best option for me at the time.”
Redondo met a Frontiers recruiter at a conference he attended as an undergraduate McNair Scholar. “The program aligned really well with my interests,” Redondo said. “I found U-M had great faculty with a broad range of fields, which was perfect for what I was looking for as a student interested in conservation, but wanting to have a strong background in ecology and evolution.
He loved the field ever since his high school freshman biology class. “That class sparked my interests tremendously and was the driver in me getting my bachelor's in biology from the University of Arizona, Tucson.” The most amazing experience he said he had as an undergraduate was working in a conservation genetics laboratory.
While at the U-M Biological Station, where Frontiers students spend their first summer in the program, he had the opportunity to test another possible field of interest, behavioral ecology.
“My research was focused on determining a possible function of the Macromia illinoiensis(dragonfly larvae) horn/protuberance. I was interested in knowing whether it served as some sort of communication pathway. Redondo determined the dragonfly larvae distribution in Douglas Lake and compared that to their distribution in the lab. He painted over the larvae horn to effectively block its functionality to see what effect, if any, it had on their distribution and again determined the distribution of these larvae (both natural and in-lab distributions acted as controls for comparison). “We found that these larvae always demonstrated a random distribution and surprisingly did not find that blocking the horn had an effect on the distribution pattern. Future work on the physiology and biomechanics of this protuberance will greatly improve our understanding of this insect's communication and receptor pathways,” he said.
“Understanding more about these native insects is important now more than ever given the negative impact invasive species are having on these ecosystems. In particular, zebra mussels are increasingly found attached to these dragonfly larvae, largely limiting their movement and feeding. A clumping distribution for these larvae would make them easier targets for the zebra mussels that require a substrate/surface to attach to. The long-term effect of this is unknown, but would likely impact the population dynamics of these important dragonfly predators.”
Redondo is currently working on a phylogenetic/biogeographic study of howler monkeys in Peru that brings him back to his interest in conservation and genetics. “Bush meat hunting and deforestation have largely devastated several monkey populations, including the howlers. Current knowledge of Peruvian howler monkeys is only based on some observational studies and one howler monkey morphological study in Brazil, but no genetic studies are found in the literature for this group from Peru, making it difficult to have a true understanding of the populations. It is imperative that we are able to identify these monkey taxa, determine their distribution and estimate their genetic diversity, so we can promote the implementation of effective conservation policies.”
To begin answering these questions, he collected samples across the Peruvian landscape including Piura, Tumbes, Pucacuro, Huanuco, and Puerto Maldonado this summer for two-and-a-half months. Additionally, Redondo sampled museum specimens from throughout the country for a well-rounded experiment. His advisor is Professor Liliana Cortés-Ortiz.
Redondo enjoys hiking and outdoor explorations. Although he hasn’t had much time for that recently, he camped most of the time in Peru and since it was his first time in the Amazon, he was definitely excited to explore!
Bryan Juarez initially dismissed the Frontiers Master's Program – for fear of venturing outside of California – until two colleagues encouraged him to embrace an unknown (to him) geographical landscape.
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Bryan Juarez initially dismissed what he now knows is a great program (Frontiers) – for fear of leaving California. Dr. Celia Churchill (EEB Ph. D. 2012) and Dr. Todd Oakley (UCSB) encouraged him to pursue what Juarez calls a higher state of being by venturing forth into an unknown (to him) geographical landscape.
During his interview, he met his advisors and came to see “U-M as a great, albeit frigid, place to study the ecomorphological aspects of vertebrate evolution. Before I knew it, I was making a cross-country road trip exactly four days after my graduation from the University of California Santa Barbara to the U-M Biological Station,” he recalled. He earned his Bachelor’s of Science in zoology and another B.S. in paleobiology.
Juarez’s current research interests involve understanding taxonomy (the naming of species), and the natural mechanisms and patterns that create morphological diversity.
He is co-advised by Professors Lauren Sallan and Dan Rabosky. “For my master's thesis, I will be testing the ‘general vertebrate model’ of morphological evolution using lobe-finned (sarcopterygiian) fish fossils. The ‘general vertebrate model’ attempts to describe the mechanism underlying extant species’ morphological diversity by stating that throughout evolution, changes in post-cranial skeletal morphology precede changes in skull/jaw morphology. At a basic level, the reasoning is that an organism must first be able to come into close proximity with its food (post-cranial skeleton) before evolving better food collecting and capturing mechanisms (cranial skeleton). However, Sallan and Friedman (2011) found that the opposite pattern most likely explains morphological evolution in ray-finned (actinopterygiian) fish. Therefore, I will be providing one of the first few empirical tests of this model (first for sarcopterygiians) through the use of morphometrics and model-fitting cladistics.
“I am collaborating with Drs. Daniel Speiser and Todd Oakley (UCSB) on my second project which involves the ecomorphology of deep-sea ostracod (bivalved crustacean) eyes and the influence that evolution in different light environments (depths) have on the size of the eyes. I have compiled the first morphological dataset for cylindroleberidid ostracods (about 230 species), for analyzing the hypothesis that eye and body size evolution is limited by energy abundance in the deep sea.
“My third project is a species description of a new ostracod (a class of Crustacea, sometimes called seed shrimp), from Panama, Euphilomedes asinatante, for which Alexander Zaharoff (currently a graduate student at Emory University), Oakley, and I show the repeated evolution of eye-loss and eye-gain. To show this, we used phylogenetic ancestral state reconstruction of the ancestral ostracod characters using both nuclear and mitochondrial genes from several of the new species' sister groups.”
Juarez said that as a result of taking Dr. Sam Sweet's well-known Vertebrate Evolutionary Morphology and Herpetology class at the UCSB, he “succumbed to ‘cold-blooded’ biology.” Likewise, Drs. Susannah Porter and Andy Wyss of UCSB started his obsession with paleontology. “I knew I wanted to study the ecological evolution of form through geologic time.
"Being a sheltered native Californian with absolutely great Mexican parents, I was in a tough situation when applying to master's programs. My original plan was to stay in California, where great master's funding is hard to come by, and possibly never leave except for the oh-so-important ostracod collecting trips to Puerto Rico or the Florida Keys, among other international conferences."
Now, Juarez is happily at the University of Michigan.
“During my free time, I find myself casually conversing about the origins of unicellular life, fantasizing about my parent's cooking skills, meditating on grumpy cat and 'doge' memes, and most importantly, being a not-so-secret herpetologist.”
“During my summer at the Biological Station, I studied the effects of ultraviolet exposure on the coloration, morphology, and chemical composition of pitcher plants,” said Lizette Ramirez.
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“During my summer at the Biological Station, I studied the effects of ultraviolet exposure on the coloration, morphology, and chemical composition of pitcher plants,” said Lizette Ramirez. She conducted research at a bog and an interdunal swale. She found a definite trend between the coloration and morphology of the pitcher plants relative to their level of ultraviolet exposure.
She is currently conducting research at the E.S. George Reserve, studying the spatial distribution among colonies of various species of ant in order to better understand their competitive dynamics. “This research can help us better understand interspecies competition and how many different species can share a similar niche space without one out-competing the other,” Ramirez explained. Her advisor is Professor John Vandermeer.
Originally from Detroit, Ramirez is of Mexican descent. She has also lived in Dearborn and the downriver region of Michigan. Ramirez was an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan in the EEB program. When she took classes at the Biological Station, she met incoming Frontiers students, which is how she learned of the Frontiers Master’s Program.
Ramirez enjoys many outdoor activities such as biking, hiking, and urban exploration. Her other hobbies include painting, woodwork, and reading. She used to volunteer at the U-M Spectrum Center front desk and doing other clerical tasks there. She is currently a volunteer at the Leslie Nature Center, primarily working on cleaning raptor and other critter enclosures, in addition to helping with various annual events.
“They’re so fun to work with. I’m really enjoying the experience.”
Clarisse Betancourt Román
Clarisse Betancourt Román grew up in Puerto Rico and studied Environmental Science at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus.
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Clarisse Betancourt Román and her two brothers, Christian and Roberto, are the first generation in her family to attend college. She describes her emotions as a mixture of excitement about being away at school and homesickness for Puerto Rico, where she grew up and studied Environmental Science at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. She’s the only one of her siblings attending graduate school.
Even though she’s a long way from home, she knows she’s not alone. “Other students are in the same position that I’m in and we can understand each other,” she said. Another Frontiers student, Beatriz Otero Jimenez, told her about EEB’s Frontiers Master’s Program. They met while in the bachelor’s degree program at the University of Puerto Rico.
When she visited the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus to find out more about Frontiers, "It was like a big family, the department was really cool," she said. "Everyone wants us to succeed, everyone is willing to help, they really want us to finish and do things right during our time here."
Betancourt's current research interests are the application of remote sensing and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to resource management, land use changes, restoration and conservation. She is also interested in the effects of natural and anthropogenic changes and other disturbances on biodiversity, loss of species and habitats.
Over the summer at the University of Michigan Biological Station, Betancourt compared the flow of nitrogen from soils to hyphae of fungi to roots and foliage of oak trees as part of the Forest and Accelerated Succession ExperimenT (FASET) project. Samples from 2010 and 2011 were collected following an introduction of a tracer isotope of nitrogen (15N enriched ammonium chloride) in 2010.
Previous research during Betancourt's undergraduate studies included internships at two centers of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) and Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). In summer 2010, she interned in MSFC researching the impacts of land cover, land use, and climate change on hydrologic processes in shallow aquatic systems. During spring 2011, she worked at GSFC in a project involving resource monitoring in and around two national parks in the Upper Delaware River Basin. In addition, she had experience as a laboratory assistant in the Tropical Limnology Lab and the Herbarium at UPR-RP.
Betancourt worked as a volunteer during the Latin American Special Olympic Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2010. She assisted with a recycle activity of the Sierra Club and volunteered as a forest guide for children as part of "More Kids to the Woods", a federal program designed to give elementary school students a direct experience in the forest.
She was inspired by her experience with the Latin American Special Olympics, "especially by the amazing accomplishments achieved by these athletes, regardless of the struggles they face, and I was motivated to overcome the hurdles obstructing my own goals."
Alexandria Moore, who is interested in conservation ecology and biodiversity, researched the fitness impacts that certain herbivores have on the common milkweed.
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For her summer research project at the University of Michigan Biological Station, Alexandria Moore researched the fitness impacts that certain herbivores have on the common milkweed. "I measured the impacts of aphids, stem-boring weevils, and leaf-mining flies on milkweed fitness," Moore said. Moore, who is interested in conservation ecology and biodiversity, demonstrated that these insect herbivores can impose fitness costs on their hosts. Specifically, milkweed insects can cause reductions in fruit set in milkweed plants.
“Currently, my research is focused on identifying a presumed new species of freshwater snail that has a very limited range in Eastern Oregon,” said Moore. Last semester, I did genetic work on this species and discovered that it has a very distinct genetic makeup. My pending work will be on describing the physical characteristics of this species and doing a survey of its natural habitat. This work ties in very closely to my interests in conservation biology because of the narrow range that this species inhabits. Identification is the first step towards protection.”
Moore grew up primarily in Ann Arbor (since fifth grade) and studied ecology and evolutionary biology as an undergraduate at U-M. “I was interested in the Frontiers Program because it's exactly the type of content I worked towards learning in my undergraduate career, but also because it's provided an opportunity for me to learn new things, expand upon what I already knew, and apply that knowledge to real-life systems.”
In her spare time outside of school, she loves to write and draw, as well as read (time permitting). “I also have tremendous respect for things that are artistic and creative, so I spend much of my free time exploring movies, music, and live performances.”
Serge Fariñas discovered ecology as a career through an undergraduate program funded by the Ecological Society of America.
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Like many drawn to ecology, Serge Fariñas spent his childhood outdoors. As far back as he can remember he’s always had a great passion and respect for nature. He discovered ecology as career through an undergraduate program funded by the Ecological Society of America called SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology, Education, Diversity and Sustainability). “The opportunities and research experience I gained through their support were unparalleled" he said. "It was at an ESA meeting I met one of my advisors, Knute Nadelhoffer, who introduced me the Frontiers program.
The Frontiers program has been beyond amazing in furthering my development as a scientist.”
Fariñas’ current research fits within the context of global change and the response of alpine plant communities to shifting climate variables. “The network of sites I am using in the Norwegian alpine allows a unique opportunity to look at the independent and interacting effects of temperature and precipitation on plant and soil chemistry. The motivation is to better understand how those variables influence nutrient cycling and thus ecosystem change.”
In addition to his academic interests, the young ecologist is passionate about social and environmental activism. He nurtures his creative side as an active musician who plays the guitar.
Senay Yitbarek's research has focused on the formation of patterns in real ecosystems, but this time through the lens of ants.
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What attributes are commonly found among soap bubbles, beehives, sand piles, clouds, and tree branches? The answer lies in the formation of patterns. Their striking beauty exemplified through their symmetrical regularity across space has long fascinated scientists in their quest of uncovering how nature works.
Following in this tradition, Senay Yitbarek's research has focused on the formation of patterns in real ecosystems, but this time through the lens of ants. Together with graduate student Dave Allen, Yitbarek spent the summer of 2009 at the University of Michigan's E.S. George Reserve studying how ant communities form spatial patterns in a forested ecosystem.
Their research has been exploring whether the emergent pattern formation that occurs at the level of tree species can also be observed at the level of ant species. Based on their results, they believe that dominant ants form patches in the same way that tree species form patches. The researchers believe that the associated pattern between the trees and ants are likely to be the result of available resources, such as flowering nectaries, which maintain the mosaic structure. In a theoretical realm, Yitbarek and his advisor, Professor John Vandermeer, are currently exploring multi-species coexistence.
Yitbarek's family is originally from Eritrea, a country long involved in a war with neighboring Ethiopia. This 30-year war forced his family to flee to the Netherlands where he grew up in an immigrant working class neighborhood. As a child, Yitbarek was exposed to many different cultures that included people from Morocco, Turkey, Suriname, and Indonesia. He writes, "I grew up in a lively working-class community where family and friends would visit our apartment on the weekends and debate important topics of the day. Despite having acquired little formal education, I consider them leading world-class intellectuals that shaped my own thinking about the world."
Yitbarek eventually moved to the United States and developed a keen interest in the environmental sciences, especially ecology, as a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Yet, pursuing a career in the sciences never seemed an option because he convinced himself that he didn't fit the mold of a traditional scientist. A turning point came when he participated in undergraduate research programs such as the McNair & Miller Scholars Program where he pursued summer research projects with the assistance of a graduate student mentor and faculty member. Suddenly, he realized that exploring fascinating questions as to how nature works could turn into a life-long adventure.
This adventure brought him all the way to the University of Michigan, where he is a student in Vandermeer's lab. Yitbarek writes, "John's mentoring style is very reminiscent of the folks that spent countless hours debating in our living room. His intuitive insights that range from the mathematical to the biological and even into the philosophical arena encourages you to think outside of the box. Furthermore, his dedication to defending the rights of women and minorities to gain equal access to careers in the sciences shows you that being both a good scientist and having a political conscience does not need to be an oxymoron."
Yitbarek enjoys living in Ann Arbor where you can occasionally watch him play Capoeira and the Berimbau in a multi-cultural cooperative house, where he spends time cooking for six housemates. He can also be found discussing interesting topics with friends in many of Ann Arbor's breweries.
Not surprisingly, Kristel Sanchez loves being outside and immersed in nature. “I love the complexity of ecology and how the interactions between organisms can shape communities.”
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“So far I have not seen any other department with so much support and interest for their students,” Kristel Sanchez said about the Frontiers Master’s Program at the University of Michigan. “It almost feels like a family.” She went on to say that working with world renowned scientists at a top institution is invaluable in terms of the knowledge and experience she is gaining.
Currently, she is working on her master’s thesis research with her advisors, Professors Mark Hunter and Meg Duffy. “I want to investigate the fitness trade-offs of consuming toxic versus nutritious algae in parasitized Daphnia. It is a pretty exciting project because a lot of work has been done in parasite-host interactions using Daphnia and many of its parasites and how these interactions are affected by what they consume, but nothing is known about how toxic algae might affect Daphnia disease dynamics.”
She said the project opens up additional questions, such as how harmful algal blooms might influence host-parasite relations and what effects this can have to upper levels of the food chain sinceDaphnia are an important basal food for juvenile fishes and other small consumers.
During her first summer in the Frontiers program in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, she investigated the appearance of a recent benthic algal bloom in northern Michigan’s Torch Lake with Dr. Rex Lowe and Dr. Pat Kociolek, who teach at the U-M Biological Station during the summer. Residents and board members of the Three Lake Association, an organization that monitors environmental concerns of Torch Lake, contacted UMBS about algal blooms that appeared about three years ago in parts of the lake. Residents were concerned about the nature of the bloom and its impact on tourism, fishing and the ecosystem in the area. The researchers performed a manipulation experiment to identify the algae and what is promoting its growth.
“Preliminary results revealed that an influx of phosphorous is promoting this bloom, however none of the species of algae found are of human health concern since none are known to be toxic,” Sanchez said. “However, little is known about the ecological implications this bloom can have to the ecosystem and other ways that phosphorous might be influencing the lake such as promoting E.coli bacteria. We are hoping to investigate these blooms and their implications for the ecosystem next summer.”
Not surprisingly, Sanchez loves being outside and immersed in nature. “I love the complexity of ecology and how the interactions between organisms can shape communities.” One of her favorite subjects is chemistry. “I never really envisioned a career in which I can incorporate both of my passions until I came across a subspecialty of ecology called chemical ecology by reading papers through a journal club at my undergrad university. It was sort of serendipity, but once I found out such a subject existed -- I was in!”
She began volunteering in a community ecology lab and a biochemistry lab. This gave her “the best of both worlds” and the experience she needed for her graduate studies.
Sanchez has traveled to seven countries, many as part of her academic activities, which is another reason she loves her career. Her favorite hobbies are biking and snorkeling and her favorite places to be are the tropics because of her fondness for beaches. “I am also a beer fanatic so I am pretty excited for Michigan and the tons of beer this state has!”
Sanchez plans to obtain her doctorate degree after her master’s with the intent to go into academics. She gets very excited when someone is interested in talking about science and that further motivates her toward her future plan to teach.
The nutrient diffusion assays were placed 10 meters off the shore of Torch Lake.
“I’m in love with ecology. I love every single thing about it,” said Johanna Nifosi, a second-year Frontiers Master’s student. “I am amused by nature and want to learn everything about it.”
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“I’m in love with ecology. I love every single thing about it,” said Johanna Nifosi, a second-year Frontiers Master’s student. “I am amused by nature and want to learn everything about it.”
Her interest and passion lie in conservation and applied research. “I have more fire inside me when working on a conservation problem.”
Born and raised in Argentina, Nifosi also lived in Puerto Rico for eight years. She has a broad and diverse science background including her Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Universidad Metropolitana, Puerto Rico. During her undergraduate years, she worked in a research lab on pollination, phenology and dragonfly and damselfly species richness in a nature preserve.
Nifosi was also a volunteer in a coral reef restoration project where she spent time snorkeling and diving. She also worked as a research assistant, as part of a wetland mangrove forest conservation project. They were assessing how nutrient enrichment affects mangrove forests, one of most important ecosystems in the world.
The young scientist spent several summers researching and learning more about her field during three NSF-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) experiences at: University of Colorado at Boulder, University of Idaho, and the University of Virginia - Blandy Experimental Farm. There she studied ichthyology, conservation, biocontrol and amphibian disease.
“Every summer changed my life,” Nifosi said. The experiences helped her hone her English language skills and adapt to the U.S. culture.
Nifosi heard of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Frontiers Master’s Program at the University of Michigan from a previous Frontiers student while they were at Universidad Metropolitana together. Additionally, her biology and ecology teacher recommended the program and after reading about Frontiers on the EEB website, she thought it would be a perfect fit. “I wanted to come here and keep moving my career forward.”
All Frontiers students spend their first EEB summer in northern Michigan at the U-M Biological Station. During the summer of 2014, Nifosi studied whether an herbivore induced plant response in early summer would affect the aphid abundance later in the summer.
Nifosi’s current research involves climate change and disease using the monarch butterfly, a butterfly parasite and milkweed plants as her study system. One effect of the butterfly parasite,ophryocistis elektocirha, a microscopic protozoan, is that it decreases the life span of adult butterflies and ability of the butterflies to reproduce and feed.
Another lab found that the monarchs infected with the parasite lay eggs on particular plants that have substance called cardenolide that fights the infection. Larvae that hatch on these plants have a better chance to survive. The more cardenolides, the better their chance of survival.
Her experiment will assess whether increased temperature will impact the host-parasite interaction and the self-medication of the caterpillars against the parasite. Because the parasite is related to the malaria and toxoplasmosis parasite, this research could have broader future applications. Nifosi works with her advisor, Professor Mark Hunter.
As for her future ambitions, Nifosi is weighing several options: pursuing her Ph.D. in conservation or wildlife conservation; pursuing another master’s in wildlife; or beginning a career in conservation before returning to a Ph.D. program.
“I feel very happy in this department,” Nifosi said. “All the people here are very intellectual and challenge students to keep on learning and doing their best. I really feel I can succeed.”
In her spare time, Nifosi likes to hike, explore new places, and go on adventures such as zip lining, kayaking or caving. Her favorite hobbies are snorkeling and diving. “Right now, I’m taking figure ice skating classes, a dream come true.”
“I took a herpetology class that was amazing, sparking an interest in snakes – in particular, the venomous types. I find them to be fascinating creatures,” said Peter Cerda.
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“I took a herpetology class that was amazing, sparking an interest in snakes – in particular, the venomous types. I find them to be fascinating creatures,” said Peter Cerda. As a result, his current research explores venom – its evolution and differences between isolated populations of snakes. His advisor is Professor Tom Duda.
Cerda spent his first summer as part of the Frontiers Master’s Program at the U-M Biological Station working with Professor Phil Myers, who has now earned emeritus status. Cerda compared populations of mice between forests burned in 1980, 1998, and 1911. He found no demographic differences (gender, age, weight, reproductive stage). However, there were significant differences between capture success and age of forest (1911 > 1980, 1998). His project may lead to survey of small mammals in the UMBS burn plots.
Cerda was born in Idaho, where he lived for 10 years before moving to Texas in 2000. He attended Schreiner University freshman year and transferred to University of Texas – Pan American where he graduated in 2012. Initially, he was an exercise science major at SU, with a goal of becoming a physical therapist. However, after taking the introductory biology course, he became interested in the biodiversity, zoology and history of life and changed his major to biology.
Cerda attended a summer research program in 2012 at the University of Arizona that encouraged students to attend graduate school, which influenced his future plans. He took a year off after graduation to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as an invasive species technician. He became interested in the Frontiers Master’s Program at U-M when his advisor from UA sent him an email about the program. In making his choice to attend U-M, Cerda cited “the chance to work with the great faculty here at U-M, the prestige of the university, working at the BioStation, and the opportunities to advance in the field.”
He’s a sports fan, especially of soccer from the U.S., England, and Spain; college football; and Formula 1 auto racing. His future goal is to attend a Ph.D. program to continue his research on venoms and reptiles and ultimately, to become a faculty member at a university.
In 2013, Audra Huffmeyer backpacked through Europe and parts of Asia, visiting over 20 countries. “Before attending Michigan, I lived in Nepal for five months.
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In 2013, Audra Huffmeyer backpacked through Europe and parts of Asia, visiting over 20 countries. “Before attending Michigan, I lived in Nepal for five months. Next winter, I am planning a backpacking trip through South America and I could not be more excited. I love to travel!”
Huffmeyer completed her undergraduate studies at University of Minnesota in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology. As an undergraduate, she took many field courses that cultivated her love for wildlife, conservation and research. One of her graduate student instructors, John Berini, was in the first cohort of the University of Michigan EEB Frontiers Master’s Program and he encouraged her to check it out. On top of that, her department head and mentor, a Michigan native, Dr. Francie Cuthbert, encouraged her further.
During her first Frontiers summer at the U-M Biological Station, she worked with Dr. Amy Shrank and completed the first survey of vernal pools at UMBS. Vernal pools are temporary pools of water that provide habitat for distinctive plants and animals. “My data is a starting point for monitoring vernal pools for better understanding of amphibian conservation, nutrient cycling, and how the percentage of carbon influences hydroperiod.” (Hydroperiod is the period in which a soil area is waterlogged.)
Currently, Huffmeyer is working with her faculty adviser, Dr. Liliana Cortes Ortiz, and researcher Dr. Warren Johnson at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute to complete a comparative genomic analysis of two clouded leopard species. “The goal is to better understand evolutionary relationships and how carnivores have evolved very specific olfactory sub genomes to adapt to their specific environments,” Huffmeyer explained.
James Kupihea was a film student making a nature documentary on trees, and while he was always interested in science, he found that he was extremely interested in the physiology and ecology of the trees.
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James Kupihea was a film student making a nature documentary on trees, and while he was always interested in science, he found that he was extremely interested in the physiology and ecology of the trees. “So much so, that I went back to school and got my B.S. in botany and ecology at the Evergreen State College in 2011. He also earned his bachelor of arts degree in non-fiction film from Evergreen in 2009.
From there, he worked on a sustainable shellfish farm, crafting predator exclusion cages from PVC pipe and mesh, and continued working as a filmmaker.
“In 2012, I obtained an incredible internship working for Archbold Biological Station in Central Florida, under the mentorship of Dr. Eric Menges. While at Archbold, I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Deborah Goldberg speak, and set my sights on U of M.” He phoned Professor Tom Duda asking if he qualified for the Frontiers Master’s Program, and things escalated from there. “Everything just came together,” Kupihea said. As it turns out, his current master's advisor, Professor Knute Nadelhoffer, was in the graduating class of his former mentor, Menges.
Kupihea’s summer research project at the U-M Biological Station involved looking at the 15N (nitrogen) isotope ratio of non-nitrogen fixing plants growing concurrently with nitrogen fixing plants to determine if the N-fixing plants were sharing nutrients with the non-fixing. He also attempted to correlate the ratio of 15N isotope in blueberry plants (vaccinium angustifolium) with the abundance and size of their blueberries, “a very delicious project,” he said. “Blueberry fruit abundance had a strong correlation with the 15N isotope concentration of the blueberry plants. However, nothing else in the study was significant or correlated. I wasn't able to detect 15N concentrations in other plants with any significance. It did however get me thinking about why there is little-to-no nitrogen at the rim of the gorge which eventually transformed into my slightly-related thesis.
Kupihea’s thesis topic is "How do speckled alder influence riparian stream chemistry?" “Going back to my summer research, I was interested in how nitrogen might be transferred from plant to plant. Doing more research, I discovered that some trees that make nitrogen and grow next to streams are responsible for overloading streams with nitrogen and depleting all the phosphorous (in some cases neighboring plants take some of that N as well). However, no one study has integrated estimating an alder N-budget while estimating the rate and total export of nitrogen from an alder stand into an adjacent riparian stream, and ultimately, what the fate of that nitrogen is.
“The topic focuses on the nitrogen fixing mechanism provided by the bacteria Frankia, and its host tree Alnus incana and how they influence the ecology of a riparian system. Ultimately, I hope to show how these trees are key species in driving the N-cycle in the riparian environments they inhabit.”
Outside of academia, he writes wilderness survival short stories on napkins, paints and draws plants, makes music including playing the ukulele. Kupihea’s sense of humor is evident in his goal to eventually draw and write the first comedic field guide on plants that look like famous people. He also builds bicycles, and is an avid collector of cacti.
Below: James Kupihea involved in a prescribed burn project.
During his first summer as a Frontiers student in 2012, Naim Edwards surveyed two distinct forest stands: Forest Accelerated Succession Experiment (FASET) and AmeriFlux at the U-M Biological Station in northern Michigan.
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During his first summer as a Frontiers student in 2012, Naim Edwards surveyed two distinct forest stands: Forest Accelerated Succession Experiment (FASET) and AmeriFlux at the U-M Biological Station in northern Michigan.
“Specifically, I was investigating how closely related ant population distributions are with the presence of coarse woody debris on the forest floor,” Edwards said. “I counted the number of ants captured in randomly distributed pit traps and saw if that number correlated with the volume of downed wood.
"At least in the FASET, the data supported that there was a positive correlation. This study served to help better understand forest ecosystem dynamics and potentially determine how much certain ant species depend on wood.”
Edwards received his bachelor’s degree in biology at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. His advisor completed both his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertations at the University of Michigan and encouraged Edwards to apply to the maize and blue for graduate opportunities in ecology and environmental science.
“I had the privilege of visiting the University of Michigan and participated in the field ecology course, which left a lasting impression on me,” Edwards said of his participation in EEB’s Fall Recruitment Partnership weekend in 2008.
“Upon finishing undergraduate studies, I enrolled in the Peace Corps and lived in Ecuador for two years volunteering as a natural resource conservation volunteer. In my last year, I began to think about my next endeavors in life.” He remembered his experience at U-M and applied to the Frontiers Master’s Program. “Fortunately, I was accepted.”
In his free time, Edwards enjoys reading mainly nonfiction such as historical accounts and autobiographies. When time permits he likes the P90X workouts, plays tennis or ultimate Frisbee, and adds that he likes nearly all sports. In the musical realm, he said, “I love singing, joking around rapping with friends, and I play saxophone and a little guitar.”
Beatriz Otero Jimenez
During Beatriz Otero Jimenez’s first summer with the Frontiers program, she worked at the Forest Accelerated Succession ExperimenT (FASET) and Ameriflux sites at the University of Michigan Biological Station.
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During Beatriz Otero Jimenez’s first summer with the Frontiers program, she worked at the Forest Accelerated Succession ExperimenT (FASET) and Ameriflux sites at the University of Michigan Biological Station. She worked on a project called “Effects of accelerated succession on the saproxylic beetle community” with her mentor Professor Brian Scholtens of Charleston College. “I compared diversity of saproxylic beetles (beetles that depend on wood or woody debris for some part of their life cycle) from 2009 samples to samples I collected during the summer to see the effects of the accelerated succession. As more dead wood becomes available, we were expecting to see an increase in diversity of beetles."
"Our results showed an increase in the abundance of saproxylic beetles in an accelerated succession area between the two sampled years. Our results suggest a close relationship between plant and animal succession. A generalized understanding of the succession process that includes information from many groups could become a very helpful tool for ecosystem management and monitoring."
For her master's thesis, Otero Jimenez is working in Chiapas, Mexico with Professor John Vandermeer's lab. "I will be looking at the affect matrix composition has on dispersal and connectivity of forest animals. I will be working specifically with Heteromys desmarestianus, mice that live in moist tropical forests. I will be collecting tissue samples in forest patches surrounded by coffee farms for two months. When I return to Ann Arbor, I will do DNA extraction and genetic analysis to determine if populations from different forest patches are distinct and how connected they are." "I learned about the Frontiers program from Professor Ivette Perfecto and also through SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability). I was looking for a master's program that would prepare me for a Ph.D." When she graduated with her undergraduate degree, she knew she wanted to continue in ecology but didn't feel ready to go into a doctoral program. She said she could not afford a master's program and that funding is limited for master's students. "So, I was really happy to hear that a program like Frontiers existed! I have been telling my friends to apply."
Otero Jimenez is interested in community outreach and education. "For me being active and engaged in the community is really important. I think that people can be empowered by having access to knowledge especially scientific and ecological information, and I think that science communication (targeted to the general public) is a great way to activate that. It is our duty as scientists to inform the community."
Together with the SEEDS chapter on U-M's campus, Otero Jimenez is coordinating a BioBlitz in the Nichols Arboretum on April 20, 2012. "We are going to bring in a group of ninth graders from Detroit's Western International High School to expose the kids to ecology and data collection and show them what a career in the sciences could be like." SEEDS is a division of the Ecological Society of America targeting undergraduates and trying to increase diversity in the ecology field.
Marcella Baiz investigated the relationship between substrate size and antlion larvae who don’t “clean their plate,” known as partial prey consumption, for her summer research project at the U-M Biological Station.
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Marcella Baiz investigated the relationship between substrate size (coarse versus fine sand) and antlion larvae who don’t “clean their plate,” known as partial prey consumption, for her summer research project at the U-M Biological Station.
Predators don't always fully consume their prey. It is known that prey capture rate affects partial prey consumption behavior since predators can't catch more food while they are eating, she explained. It is optimal for a predator to discard their meal before it has finished when prey are abundant, because they can easily catch another one. Antlions (Myrmeleon immaculatus) are sit-and-wait predators that make pitfall traps in the sand and wait for small, unsuspecting arthropods (their primary prey is ants) to fall in.
A previous study suggested that substrate size would alter prey consumption behavior since ants can escape more easily from pits built in coarse sand. The idea was to induce expected lower than normal prey capture rates in coarse sand and normal capture rates in finer sand and examine percentage consumed from ants at a constant feeding rate (one ant per day).
A previous study was able to induce expected prey capture rates that were different from actual prey capture rates for antlions in two different sizes of substrate and found that partial prey consumption behavior differed between substrates. "I did not find the previously described relationship between substrate size and partial prey consumption, but rather found that prey size was the best predictor of percent prey consumption," Baiz said.
She previously attended Grand Valley State University where she graduated with her bachelor's degree in biology (concentration in animal biology) and a minor in environmental studies.
Baiz's undergraduate research at GVSU involved parental nest defense behavior in tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) under the supervision of her mentor Professor Michael P. Lombardo. Her mentor suggested she attend EEB's Graduate Preview Day at the University of Michigan. The event was for students interested in graduate studies in ecology and evolution at U-M and that's where Baiz learned of the Frontiers program.
"I enjoy teaching discussion for Introduction to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and building my teaching skills at GSI training sessions," Baiz said. "I'm working hard in the field ecology course and I am excited to have started my lab rotation working with Liliana Cortés-Ortiz."
Theresa Ong worked with Professor Francesca Cuthbert at the U-M Biological Station during the summer of 2009 testing the anti-predator behavior of captive-reared endangered Piping Plovers of the Great Lakes region.
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Theresa Ong worked with Professor Francesca Cuthbert at the U-M Biological Station during the summer of 2009 testing the anti-predator behavior of captive-reared endangered Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) of the Great Lakes region.
"In an effort to conserve this population, eggs found abandoned on the shoreline nesting sites of the Piping Plover have been regularly rescued and reared in captivity at the UMBS," said Ong. "The chicks are released at the end of each season and carefully observed for signs of migration. Captive-reared chicks have limited reproductive success, producing equal numbers of eggs but failing to hatch or rear them to fledgling status. In order to understand this fitness disadvantage, I ran a series of behavioral tests on captive-reared chicks at the UMBS to gauge their responses to auditory and visual cues of predators. Unexpectedly, they did appear to possess innate anti-predator behaviors despite a lack of parental care. However, captive-reared chicks had significantly reduced feeding rates than wild chicks post release. Regular feeding times in captivity may hinder natural inclinations for the chicks to feed post release.
"I am currently working with Professor John Vandermeer on a coffee agroecosystem in Chiapas, Mexico looking at the interactions between natural enemies in a multi-exploiter system, and how these interactions lead to coexistence of the entire system. Multi-exploiter systems are systems where one prey/host is attacked by multiple predators, pathogens, or parasitoids. The prey of my system is the green coffee scale, Coccus viridis, a pest of coffee in some parts of the world. The scales are attacked by a predatory beetle, Azya orbigera, and a fungal pathogen Lecanicllium lecanii. I study how predation by the beetle affects the spread of the fungal pathogen. This is all in an effort to understand how coexistence occurs in complex systems such as the shade-grown coffee farm in which we work. I am interested in combining field work and theory to understand the dynamics of complex systems, especially in relation to biological control.
"The Frontiers program was an excellent opportunity for me to refine my interests in ecology and decide whether I wanted to continue on to a PhD. I was attracted to the freedom of the curriculum, excellent support, and geographical range of study sites to choose from." Ong graduated from Williams College in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in biology and Chinese.
In her spare time, Ong enjoys foosball, ballroom dancing, rock climbing and ice skating – "none of which I claim to be great at," she said.
John Berini spent his first summer in the Frontiers program working with Professor Phil Myers in the northernmost extremities of the Lower Peninsula.
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John Berini spent his first summer in the Frontiers program working with Professor Phil Myers in the northern most extremities of the Lower Peninsula. They were trying to create a predictive model for finding remnant populations of Peromyscus maniculatus gracilis (woodland deer mouse). Myers is in the process of publishing a paper that examines the effects of climate change on woodland deer mouse distribution in northern Michigan. In short, Myers found that mouse abundance was directly related to the thaw dates of local bodies of water. As a result, they found that the woodland deer mouse was dramatically decreasing in abundance over the entire northern half of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.
"My project over the summer was an effort to take the most recent occurrence data for P.m. gracilis and use the habitat data from these sites to predict where potential remnant populations of this species might still exist," Berini writes. "More specifically, I used soil type, bedrock geology, ecological region (a combination of topography, soil texture, and drainage characteristics), land cover type, and glacial land system (a combination of soil texture and surface formations) within GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to create a predictive optimal habitat model. We then took the results of the model I created and compared that to more traditional predictive methods." (Based primarily on Myer's knowledge of the species and local habitat of the northern most extremities of the Lower Peninsula).
We trapped in 11 different locations (seven predicted by Myers and four predicted by Berini's model) for a total of 2215 trap nights. They captured a grand total of zero P. m. gracilis. This was an exceptionally bad mouse year (as confirmed by capturing only 44 white footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus), less than a three percent capture rate as compared to the normal 20 percent catch rate), however, these results do help to validate the idea that the woodland deer mouse is nearing extirpation in northern Michigan, presumably due the local climate change.
Berini's true research interests are geared more toward how human-induced (either direct or indirect) landscape change impacts vertebrate behavior (specifically predator-prey behavior) both inter- and intra-specifically. He's currently looking at the possibility of using stable isotopes to map the mammalian food web of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Berini is married and has a two-year-old son. His wife is a second year neurology resident at the U-M Hospitals. He grew up in an economically disadvantaged household, the middle of seven children. Berini was accepted into the music program at Ohio State University out of high school but decided not to go for financial reasons. He joined the United States Air Force two years after graduating high school and spent six years as a USAF linguist to save money for college. He majored in conservation biology from the University of Minnesota and graduated with Latin Honors (Cum Laude). He was a stay at home dad the year before graduate school.
Hessler is interested in induced dispersal in response to seed predation. Her research design addresses the question, "Can heavy seed predation induce phenotypic plasticity in dispersal traits of a plant?"
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All of us are living in the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars.– Oscar Wilde
"Why is this quote relevant to research in evolutionary ecology? It means that if everyone is looking in one direction then a good researcher is obligated to look in the opposite direction." Rachel Hessler cites the research on the behavior of animals as compared to plants. "When an animal is threatened, there are two primary directions for response: fight or flight. However, in plant behavior when a plant is being consumed by an herbivore, research has focused on plant defenses (fight) and has scarcely acknowledged the opposing branch of flight (dispersal)."
Hessler is interested in induced dispersal in response to seed predation. Her research design addresses the question, "Can heavy seed predation induce phenotypic plasticity in dispersal traits of a plant?" Her model system is the common weed, Queen Anne's Lace, and a recently introduced paleartic moth, Sitochroa palealis. Queen Anne's Lace is ideal for her hypothesis because it has sequentially maturing umbels (an inflorescence of short flower stalks that spread from a common point). By allowing and preventing seed predation on the primary umbel, she compares differences in dispersal traits in the seeds of the secondary umbel such as appendage length, penetrability, dormancy, and mammal hide adhesion.
"The beauty of the Frontiers Master's Program is that students are encouraged to keep an open mind in regard to research focus," writes Hessler. "For example, I arrived at the University of Michigan from a small private university having never worked in lab. While I have experience caving, diving, volunteering at a whale research center, and benthic macroinvertebrate water quality assessment, I did not have the skills to independently design and complete research of high academic quality. Frontiers allowed me to enter graduate school and gain exposure to research techniques utilizing a model system to answer big questions of evolutionary significance. I work with a weed and a worm to consider if induced dispersal happens. If so, what are the consequences for population ecology, geographic mosaics, and community dynamics?"
On a personal note, she has enjoyed eating Michigan berries in the backyard with her daughter Terra. Her biggest personal accomplishment this season has been learning to ride and maintain her motorcycle. "Riding a motorcycle is a form of meditation and requires complete awareness. And technically, it is a form of dispersal."
She graduated summa cum from Shenandoah University at the age of 34 with various accolades. "But that doesn't matter, science belongs to the people, all people," she writes. "With climate change and various other sentinels of resource mismanagement we no longer can afford to distinguish between those who can participate in science and those who can't."
Photo caption: Insect exclosures and enclosures Hessler created from organza bags at 100 sites in and around the George Reserve. Hessler's advisors are Professors Mark Hunter and Beverly Rathcke.
Hannah Foster spent her first summer in the program looking at culverts as a mechanism for habitat fragmentation in crayfish populations at the U-M Biological Station in northern Michigan.
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EEB Frontiers Master's Program student Hannah Foster spent her first summer in the program looking at culverts as a mechanism for habitat fragmentation in crayfish populations at the U-M Biological Station in northern Michigan. She and Troy Keller from Columbus State University in Georgia ran experiments both in the field and in the streams lab at the BioStation on three different crayfish species.
"Our results indicate that culverts with water flowing above a certain speed may be causing habitat fragmentation," she writes. "In addition, different species respond differently to flow speeds inside culverts."
Foster did her undergraduate degree in music (harp performance) at the University of Michigan. She has been interested in the outdoors and ecology all her life and came back to it as a possible career two years after graduation. Foster's advisors are Professors Earl Werner and Robert Denver.
Profiles written by Gail Kuhnlein