REU Projects and Mentors

Click on faculty name below for more detail. 

_________Faculty_________ Research area
Elke K. Buschbeck
Neuroethology, Evolution of insect visual and other sensory systems
Joshua Gross
Associate Professor
Evolutionary genetics and development of morphology and behavior of vertebrates (e.g., blind cave fishes)
Patrick Guerra
Assistant Professor
Sensory ecology; orientation and navigation mechanisms; animal architecture; animal movement patterns and life history traits; insect flight
John Layne
Associate Professor
Behavioral neurobiology and sensory ecology of invertebrates; visual guidance, orientation and navigation
Stephen Matter
Associate Professor
Ecology of insect-plant interactions and dispersal behavior in insects.
Nathan Morehouse
Assistant Professor
Visual and behavioral ecology of butterflies and jumping spiders, coevolutionary dynamics of reproductive traits (e.g., male and female reproductive proteins; male coloration and female color vision)
Stephanie Rollmann
Associate Professor
Behavioral genetics; neurophysiology; chemosensory behavior; sensory ecology
George W. Uetz
Behavioral ecology of multi-modal communication and sexual selection in spiders.
Ilya Vilinsky
Education Associate Professor
Director of Neuroscience Major
Molecular biology, genetics and neurophysiology of visual systems (using Drosophila melanogaster)

Elke K. Buschbeck, Professor - Neuroethology, Evolution of insect visual and other sensory systems. Dr. Buschbeck’s research interest is in mechanistic aspects of how animals perceive the world, and how their visual sensory systems have evolved to adjust to specific needs. More specifically, her lab is interested in the eyes of two different insects with unique visual capabilities: the twisted-wing insect Xenos peckii, and the larvae of the diving beetle Thermonectus marmoratus and its relatives. Eye design is extensively influenced by the physical properties of light in the environment and the limits of optics in the visual system. Therefore most animal eyes studied so far are variations of a few previously described types. However, these two insects have hardly been studied, although they have eyes that diverge in fairly fundamental ways from known visual organs. This may be due to a complex evolutionary history as is likely for Strepsiptera, or to accommodate a specific visual need (such as accuracy in prey capture) as is the case for the diving beetle larvae. The objective of NSF-sponsored studies in Dr. Buschbeck’s lab is to determine why these eyes differ from known eye types, and how they function. REU students will examine the optics and neural organization of these systems in regards to its function and mediated behaviors. Students will use a variety of techniques, including anatomy, immuno-histochemistry, physiology, optical measurements and behavioral experimental paradigms. (homepage, contact info, list of publications)

Joshua Gross, Associate Professor - Evolutionary genetics and development of morphology and behavior of vertebrates, e.g., blind cave fishes. Dr. Gross’ lab studies the genetic and developmental mechanisms that underlie morphological, sensory, physiological and behavioral evolution. He uses the blind Mexican cavefish, Astyanax mexicanus, as a model system because it enables a variety of classical and contemporary genetic tools. This species supports two morphotypes - a surface-dwelling and cave-dwelling form - that can be inter-bred to produce viable hybrid offspring. Intercrossing hybrids to produce large F2 pedigrees allows us to analyze trait distribution and make predictions regarding the gene(s) that mediate evolution of a particular trait. Among the extreme cave-associated traits under study are eye loss, enhanced lateral line sensitivity, increased tastant sensitivity, relaxed circadian rhythms, pigmentation loss and craniofacial bone fragmentation. Investigations in this animal are very attractive for undergraduate students owing to the extreme nature of their phenotypic adaptations, and the tractable nature of experimental projects. REU students will have many exciting opportunities for learning tools to carry out direct phenotypic analysis, and studies at the genetic, genomic and developmental levels. (homepage, contact info, list of publications).

Patrick Guerra, Assistant Professor - Sensory ecology; orientation and navigation mechanisms. The primary goal of our work in the Guerra Lab is to understand how individuals use sensory information during behavioral decision-making. In particular, we examine how animals use sensory cues derived from the environment, in order to help guide them during movement across broad spatial and temporal scales. For example, using field and laboratory studies, we examine how monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) use sensory-based compass mechanisms for directionality during their seasonal long-distance migration in North America. By studying monarchs, we aim to increase our basic knowledge on the sensory ecology of animal movement, as well as provide information that can help protect and conserve phenomena that are threatened by climate change, habitat fragmentation and degradation, such as animal migration patterns. (homepage, contact info, list of publications)

John Layne, Associate Professor - Behavioral neurobiology and sensory ecology of invertebrates; visual guidance, orientation and navigation Dr. Layne’s research aims to discover how sense organs, and the neural processing of sensory information, mediate and constrain animal behavior under natural conditions. Sense organs both make possible a given behavior, and also limit its range of capacity. Dr. Layne and students are engaged in research spanning neural, sensory and behavioral fields at an intersection of several biological, psychological and engineering disciplines. REU students in Dr. Layne’s lab can choose from two major projects: 1. Mechanisms of navigation by path integration. Study of the navigational process of path integration in fiddler crabs, which are the ideal subject for three reasons. First, unlike other animals, they regularly walk in virtually any direction relative to their body axis. This means that in sensation, measurement and computation they must deal with three, rather than two, degrees of terrestrial locomotory freedom (direction, distance and turns, rather than merely the latter two). Second, they are the only animals known to primarily, and possibly exclusively, use idiothetic path integration for homing. This means that they are a model system for investigating a real biological manifestation of the worst possible mode of navigation. Third, they have highly developed stabilizing eye movements, which operate much like those in humans. This means that the role of eye movements in the sense of navigational space is best studied in, and generalized from, these animals. 2. Optical and physiological adaptations of retina to environment. Research that relates animals' visual morphology and physiology to their behavior and the structure of their natural habitats. The goal is to understand the way natural stimuli are perceived, and to understand the evolutionary adaptation of sense organs with respect to the behaviors they mediate. This research follows the trail of information vertically through different levels of biological organization: from the spatial structure of light in an animal's habitat, to the gross anatomy of its eyes, to the integration of information in the brain, to the actual behavior. (home page, contact info, list of publications)

Stephen Matter, Associate Professor - Ecology of insect-plant interactions and dispersal behavior in insects. Dr. Matter is broadly interested in Biology with topics ranging from community level patterns (e.g., metapopulation and community dynamics, ecological modeling) to the ecology of insect-plant interactions, biochemistry of host plant defense and dispersal behavior. The goals of this work integrate well with research focusing on the dispersal, and host plant and oviposition site selection of herbivorous insects. REU students in Dr. Matter’s lab will participate in research to answer questions about why some herbivorous insects do not oviposit on their host plants (e.g. beetles in the genus Tetraopes, and Parnassius and Spyeria butterflies) while most do. Answering this question would likely involve investigation of evolutionary pressures as well as changes in sensory abilities and modalities, i.e. species where larvae emerge far from a host plant would be expected to have well-developed capacities for host-plant detection and movement. (homepage,contact info, list of publications )

Nathan Morehouse, Assistant Professor - Visual and behavioral ecology of butterflies and jumping spiders. In the Morehouse lab, we are fascinated by how males and females interact during reproduction. Why are reproductive traits so diverse and how do they evolve over time? We study this exciting topic using insects and spiders, with a particular emphasis on visual ecology and visual communication during courtship. Current projects in the lab include investigating the role of female visual attention in the evolution of complex male displays in jumping spiders, exploring how the repeated evolution of color vision in jumping spiders has led to patterns of biodiversity in this species-rich group, and studying coevolutionary dynamics between male and female reproductive proteins in butterflies. (homepage,contact info, list of publications )

Stephanie Rollmann, Associate Professor - Behavioral genomics of chemosensory behavior. Dr. Rollmann’s research focuses on understanding the genetic architecture of chemosensory behavior, which is influenced by many interacting genes and sensitive to the environment. REU students will participate in NSF-sponsored research that addresses the following critical questions: What are the genes that shape the behavior? How do ensembles of genes act together to give rise to the behavioral phenotype? To what extent do polymorphisms in these genes account for phenotypic variation in natural populations? And, how does the genetic architecture constrain or direct the evolution of behavioral traits? To address these questions Dr. Rollmann and students have used chemosensory behavior in Drosophila melanogaster as a model. Drosophila melanogaster provides an excellent model system for examining the genetic architecture of chemosensory behavior as it is readily amenable to genetic, neuroanatomical and behavioral analyses. The Rollmann lab also studies the olfaction in Drosophila mojavensis, an ecological model system, to understanding genetic processes underlying host specialization. These research projects use a combination of behavioral, electrophysiological, molecular genetic and genomic approaches. The ability to integrate these approaches in these systems provides exciting opportunities to gain new insights into the genetic architecture and evolution of behavior. (home page, contact info, list of publications)

George W. Uetz, Professor - Behavioral ecology of multi-modal communication and sexual selection in spiders. Dr. Uetz is interested in the sensory ecology of visual and vibratory communication and its role in sexual selection and species recognition. The evolution of animal signals is influenced by sender behavior, receiver perception, and the physical environment in which communication takes place, although signals are also exploited by eavesdropping competitors and predators. REU students will participate in NSF-sponsored research on sensory ecology of multimodal communication (visual and vibratory signals) by wolf spiders in the complex leaf litter environment of the forest floor, and investigate how aspects of male signals maximize reception and response of targeted female receivers, and/or reduce exploitation by eavesdroppers. Research is focused on the role of aspects of the physical environment (light spectrum, substrate properties) and the biological/social environment (mate availability, male competition, eavesdropping predators) on signal transmission and detection. Together, these multiple selection forces shape signal evolution. Students will gain experience with bioacoustic research techniques (recording male signals with laser vibrometry), illuminance and irradiance spectrophotometry (assessment of complex visual background and spider contrast/crypsis), as well as behavioral experiments using digital video/audio playback technology. Students will participate in all aspects of the research with Dr. Uetz and grad students, including planning and execution of experiments, data collection and analysis, and ultimately presentation and publication of results. In addition, numerous opportunities exist for cross-disciplinary projects involving neuroanatomy and neurophysiology of visual and vibration perception, and psychology of decision-making heuristics involved in mate choice. (home page, contact info, list of publications)

Ilya Vilinsky, Education Associate Professor, Biological Sciences, Neuroscience Dr. Vilinsky is director of the interdisciplinary undergraduate Neuroscience program in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences, and oversees the newly-developed neurobiology teaching lab facility. His research interests are in the integration of molecular biology, genetics and neurophysiology to study visual systems using the Drosophila melanogaster model in collaboration with the Buschbeck lab. Electroretinograms (ERGs) are a multifaceted neural signal that can be relatively easily measured by students and provide a rich source signal for students to analyze. It consists of transient “on” and “off” spikes at the start and termination of a light stimulus, a sustained depolarization in between, and a biphasic signal decay after stimulus termination. The different components of the signal correspond to separate events occurring within the retina in response to light. Mutations in genes such as trp and norpA are important for visual signal transduction and show distinctive phenotypes at the ERG level. Specific opsin mutations influence signal strength in response to light of different wavelength. The latter can be tested in the teaching laboratory through a set of calibrated diodes. REU students will analyze waveforms of different mutant ERGs to study the physiological consequences of specific gene mutations on visual system function. A wide variety of biochemical signal transduction pathways, developmental programs, and neurodegenerative processes can also be examined by students using this model. In addition, many recently generated mutant lines that are likely to have an electrophysiological phenotype, but have never been tested, could be explored in novel research. Finally, most genes involved in Drosophila vision have human homologues, and therefore analysis of Drosophila ERGs is generally informative for students of neurophysiology.(home page, contact info, list of publications)