Undergrads find research niche in Harris lab
From the savannahs of West Africa to the northern woodlands of Michigan, scientists are capturing camera trap images and collecting scat samples for their wildlife conservation research. Imagine explaining these samples at customs!
Undergraduate students working in the Ann Arbor lab of Professor Nyeema Harris are immersed in this work happening in two vastly different environments. A fundamental question in ecology asks what mechanisms promote and threaten species persistence. One of the related factors the Harris lab explores in a variety of ways is the biogeography of ecological communities.
The students introduced here joined the lab in May 2016. Victoria Zakrzewski is a senior majoring in general biology and art and design. She observes and analyzes the interactions between domestic and wild animals in Burkina Faso, West Africa, using both camera trap and scat survey data. She also brings her artistic talents to bear by creating project logos and infographics to complement the lab’s active outreach program.
Art was a hobby since elementary school, where she participated in an independent art studio. In high school, Zakrzewski won several art show awards. While she never considered art as a potential career, when applying to U-M, she learned she could dual-apply to the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (biology) and the Stamps School of Art & Design and was accepted to both programs. “I was given an opportunity to pursue two important interests of mine, and through my coursework, I was able to combine my interests and find a career path that allows me to utilize and build both skillsets.”
What led Zakrzewski to the Harris lab and the field of ecology and evolutionary biology has its roots in her childhood. “Growing up with a love for wildlife and nature, I always imagined I would pursue a degree in science,” she said. Her interests persisted throughout high school and she became a biology major upon entering college. Her interest in ecology and evolutionary biology drew her to the Harris lab.
“Biology has been a wonderful outlet for exploring what factors drive the natural world around me and understanding how species interact with themselves, other species, as well as their environments.”
She values the lab’s multidisciplinary opportunities ranging from field work, developing and executing a research project, learning computer programs such as R and GIS (geographic information system), participating in outreach programs including the Natural History Museum’s ID Day, and designing infographics. “I've enjoyed working within the lab and discovering different outlets for practicing and delivering science.”
“I have been quite fortunate to attract real talent to my lab including stellar undergraduates from within natural science majors but also across disciplines such as engineers and design,” said Harris. “Victoria is a wonderful example. Her design interests have been a real asset and as a result I would like to develop an artist in residency initiative for my lab to maintain this synergy in the future.”
Zakrzewski plans to earn a master’s degree in medical illustration so that she can consult with doctors, public health specialists, researchers, and other professionals to visually explain important medical concepts. She would like her illustrations to simplify complex information to make it more accessible to the general public, helping them to better understand their health care options.
Natalie Greenhalgh is a junior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology. Prior to joining the Harris lab, she worked on host-parasite interactions of the white-crowned sparrow with the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at U-M. She has also studied the morphological evolution of Pheidole ants at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Okinawa, Japan.
In the Harris Lab, Greenhalgh explores patterns of diet and predation of the Michigan black bear and other predators that inhabit the U-M Biological Station and the Huron Mountain Club in the Upper Peninsula. She is studying how geographic variation in these two northern Michigan communities affects community composition of predators and their prey and in turn, how predators’ food resources varies in the different regions. Her study sites vary in terms of levels of human disturbance, elevation and vegetation. Her community comprises predators such as bears, coyote, bobcat and grey wolf (HMC only) and prey such as white-tailed deer and smaller mammals like rabbits and squirrels.
With the presence of grey wolves in the U.P. of Michigan, Greenhalgh hypothesizes that there is more carrion for bears to scavenge in that region, such as deer and smaller mammals.
Using scat analyses and molecular techniques, she examines the diversity of prey consumed by this notorious omnivore. “If I do find that there is more prey diversity in black bear diet at the HMC site over the UMBS site, then perhaps it would be due to increased carrion from other predators,” she speculates. “This would imply that bears have higher scavenging efforts in the U.P. or perhaps they exploit the resources of other predators, which would emphasize the importance of the interconnectedness of the community. Or, maybe, there are implications for a difference in prey availability between the sites.”
Greenhalgh aims to apply to graduate school to pursue research in ecology and conservation.
“Undergraduates bring an enthusiasm and curiosity that not only contributes to scholarship but also enhances my lab’s culture and climate,” said Harris. “I try to provide holistic immersive experiences for undergraduates in my lab to give them exposure to multiple aspects of my research and outreach program. While in the lab, Natalie has participated in scat surveys and camera deployment in the field, identified wildlife images and compiled natural history information for Michigan ZoomIN, and completed DNA extractions and PCR for lab analysis. It was from these experiences that she created her own thesis project to investigate diet variation in black bear, which is an exciting topic for such a widely distributed large carnivore – well omnivore.”