Three cheers to EEB graduate students Brianna Mims, Teresa Sauer and William Weaver who were selected for the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program for 2021- 2022.
The students research encompasses whether the brain regions of snakes predict their habitat, the effects of severe storms on Michigan lake ecosystem disease dynamics and new ways to quantify leaf shape that could uncover insights in their underlying evolutionary mechanisms.
Mims compares the brain regions of different snake species to investigate whether brain size, shape and complexity predict their habitat type. She compares brain regions of snakes with different habitat specializations (arboreal or tree-climbing, burrowing, aquatic and terrestrial) to understand if certain brain traits correspond more to their environment or their relatedness.
Mims, whose advisor is Professor Alison Davis Rabosky, asks questions like, “Do tree-climbing snakes that are expected to rely more on vision show a larger and/or more complex optic brain region than the other snakes that live in different environments? Are brain regions more similar among species within the same family or are brain regions more similar among species that share the same habitat? I use diceCT scans of museum specimens to isolate different brain regions of snake species in order to obtain measurements like volume, surface area and, eventually, shape that I can then compare between species.
“Even though brain evolution is a topic that is well studied among mammalogists and ornithologists, very few studies have been done with reptiles, and more specifically snakes. Since snakes have such a diverse habitat ecology, they could be an interesting source of comparison for brain studies of other taxa. I think my research also highlights the type of projects that can be done with museum collections, which at times can be overlooked.”
The computer files, videos and images she creates of CT scans from museum collections can become public resources, which, in turn, can broaden the scope of this area of research and of natural history museums. Along with other students in the Davis Rabosky lab, Mims is mentoring a group of students enrolled in UM's herpetology course, helping them work with 3D CT data, develop their own questions, and produce an outreach resource that will be available for public use through U-M's Museum of Natural History.
Mims is a second year Frontiers Master's student who is deciding which Ph.D. program to join.
“I am excited to join EEB this fall,” said Sauer, who will join the lab of Professor Meghan Duffy. “I will study how extreme weather events affect disease dynamics of the zooplankton Daphnia in Michigan’s lakes. Daphnia are subject to infection by numerous parasites including the fungus Metschnikowia. The outcomes of epidemics in Daphnia populations are dependent in part on lake community structure. Extreme storms can disrupt that structure by mixing the water column, bringing an influx of nutrients into the system and displacing the phytoplankton and zooplankton at the lake’s surface. Using a combination of experimental models and analysis of long-term datasets, I will examine the direct and indirect effects of these disruptions on the timing and size of Metschnikowia epidemics.”
Storms are a relatively understudied aspect of lake ecosystems. “Given that climate change is predicted to increase the frequency and severity of severe weather events in the coming decades, the response of the Daphnia-Metschnikowia system to storm events is an important aspect of our overall understanding of these fungal epidemics. In completing this research, I hope to contribute to a growing field of research on lake community response to weather events which combines experiments, modelling and analysis of historical data to assess the implications of extreme storms on lake ecosystems across the world.”
The data from Sauer’s research will be made publicly available. In addition, she will use her research as a tool for outreach. She is especially interested in developing educational programs that focus on the relationship between ecosystem health and disease prevalence.
Weaver is studying the evolution of flowering plant leaves in the lab of his advisor, Professor Stephen Smith. “Given how prevalent leaves are, it’s surprising how little we know about why different species have different leaf shapes, why some lineages have extreme shape variability, and why leaf shapes can vary even within an individual plant,” Weaver said. “My dissertation will focus on new ways to quantify leaf shape so that we can better understand the underlying evolutionary mechanisms that produced the extreme shape variability that we see across flowering plants.
“Herbaria contain a wealth of historical and contemporary botanical data that we can now process en masse using modern computational techniques such as machine learning and computer vision. I will apply these tools to process hundreds of thousands of herbarium specimens to generate a new leaf trait dataset that will give new insight into the evolution of leaf features, patterns of biodiversity gradients, and even how plants respond to climate change. My project is primarily computational, but I occasionally get to travel to herbaria for collections work.”
Additional KUDOS to our NSF GRFP Honorable Mentions!
Elizabeth Davenport (Meghan Duffy Lab)
Samantha Iliff (Jacob Allgeier Lab)
Juanita Pardo Sanchez (Elizabeth Tibbetts Lab)
Kristen Wacker (Ben Winger Lab)