OU Biology News


News Archive for 2009                                                            return to current news


November 2009

  • Associate Professor Jeff Kelly (Oklahoma Biological Survey and Biology) is part of an OU-Kansas State University collaboration that has received $6 million from NSF for a 3-year project to develop “A cyberCommons for Ecological Forecasting.” OU researchers will lead the effort to develop cyberCommons—an information “commons” or cafeteria where others can obtain electronic real-time data or forecasts similar to those produced for weather. This service will be useful for business and policy makers and will enable students of many ages to learn from the study. Teachers and students will be able to download data, models and visuals to use in the classroom for learning about ecological processes, predictions, and the use and management of data. The massive amounts of data available will allow ecologists to predict how changes in weather will alter the amount of carbon used by plants or how much water from leaves will be lost in the atmosphere. Or, over longer time intervals, how weather will affect the amount of nitrogen stored in plants and soil or how the diversity of grassland plants will change with drought.

  • Professor Mike Kaspari’s research on the effects of salt on tropical ecosystems is featured on National Geographic News. Kaspari and colleagues found that the Amazon jungle, supposedly the most robust of the world's rain forests, suffers from "chronic malnutrition" due to a lack of salt. And that might not be a bad thing, because the carbon build-up spurred by lack of salt in some forests may be keeping our atmosphere cooler. See the full description at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2009/11/091104-amazon-salt.html

  • Dr. R. Brian Langerhans, Biological Station Postdoctoral Fellow, has received a 3-year $273,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the research project titled " Human-induced Phenotypic Variation in an Endemic Livebearing Fish." Dr. Langerhans will be collaborating with colleagues at Florida International University on this project.

October 2009

  • Professor Lawrence Weider (Biology and Director, OU Biological Station) will be collaborating with Dr. Punidan Jeyasingh, assistant professor of biology at Oklahoma State University, on a 3-year grant from National Science Foundation to study " Organism-Environment Interactions - Impact of Cultural Eutrophication on Daphnia Tracked by Genomics, Physiology and Resurrection Ecology." Weider and Jeyasingh, in collaboration with colleagues at Indiana University, will use an integrated approach involving genetic/genomic, physiological, and “resurrection ecology” methods to examine how cultural eutrophication (enrichment of lakes and ponds with nutrients such as phosphorus) influences microevolutionary changes in organisms (Daphnia). This will involve hatching out (i.e. "resurrecting") long-dormant (decades-old) eggs from lake sediments and testing how microevolutionary changes in response to nutrient enrichment have occurred during the past century. The total project budget is ~$780,000.

  • PhD Candidate Tingting Gu’s abstract has been selected for a platform presentation at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s 2009 Neurobiology of Drosophila meeting. Ms. Gu will be one of about 50 speakers total over about 4 days; all other abstract submissions are presented as posters. The meeting, which is held every two years, attracts about 300-400 Drosophila neurobiologists, including most of the leaders in the field and quite a few international scientists. The other speakers will include many postdocs and faculty and only a few other graduate students. This recognition follows Tingting being chosen to attend CSHL’s highly selective Neurobiology of Drosophila course in Summer 2008. Congratulations Tingting!

September 2009

  • Associate Professors Phil Gibson and Marielle Hoefnagels (both members of the Biology and Botany&Microbiology departments) were awarded a 3-year $149,992 grant from the National Science Foundation for their research project "Tree-Thinking in Introductory Level Biology Education." Tree-thinking is a perspective that focuses on the information and patterns contained in phylogenetic trees. Their research will investigate how students learn concepts about the nature of science in general, and biological evolution in particular, when “tree-thinking” is used as a central organizing framework for a course. The grant will also fund teaching workshops for graduate students to learn more about science pedagogy and travel for them to attend science education conferences.

  • Dr. Laurie Vitt (George Lynn Cross Research Professor and Curator of Herpetology, SNOMNH) and colleagues recently reported important findings on the susceptibility of lizards to climate change. Published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dr. Vitt and other lizard biologists independently studying the thermal biology of tropical lizards argue that global warming will likely have a much greater and more immediate impact on species living in tropical forests than those living in temperate forests. The researchers combined many years of comparative and experimental studies to show that lizards living under the canopy exist at the very limits of their thermal tolerances and may not be able to adapt to rapid temperature changes associated with global warming. Geckos, Anolis lizards, and lizards in the family Gymnophthalmidae (tiny leaf-litter lizards) appear to be at greatest risk, and these are among the most speciose groups of lizards. Dr. Vitt contributed nearly 20 years of data from his studies on lizards in Central America and the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador and Brazil. Lizards are important components of tropical ecosystems because they are often abundant, diverse, and near the top of the food chain, with most species eating insects, spiders, and small vertebrates. They contribute to research in many conceptual areas, including ecology, physiology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary biology. Moreover, because they are hosts to some important disease organisms, such as Plasmodium, the parasite that causes malaria, they impact medical research as well. The research has been featured a variety of websites from around the world, including NSF’s Discoveries, Yahoo India, and Science 360 News Service.

August 2009

  • Drs. Jeff Kelly (Associate Professor in Biology and Oklahoma Biological Survey) and Eli Bridge (postdoc) have received $285,000 from NSF’s EAGER program to study "Multiple Migration Strategies in Sympatric Painted Buntings - Behavioral Plasticity or Genetic Divergence?" Migration is a way for animals to take advantage of predictable changes in food availability. It is unclear how migrants will respond to the changes in the seasonality of food abundance caused by global change. Predicting how global change will affect migrant populations requires knowing how unique migration strategies arise and persist, which in turn requires an intense focus on populations where multiple migration strategies exist. However, local populations that harbor such variation are extremely rare. One such population exists in Painted Buntings (Passerina ciris). It appears that about half the birds molt in a single dry location while a significant minority appear to initiate molt in a more moist location. This project will track the locations of individual birds through their annual cycle by using a small geolocation device (0.7g). The project will reveal factors that enable different migration strategies to co-exist within populations and will evaluate the carry-over impacts of these strategies on the reproductive success of migrants. The tiny geolocators developed for this project will improve scientific research by greatly expanding the range of animal body sizes for which it is possible to track movements.

  • Drs. Kelly and Bridge have also received $78,000 from the National Science Foundation for their collaboration with Stephan Schoech at the Univ. of Memphis to study "Influences of Environmental Manipulation on Parental Programming and Stress Physiology in a Cooperatively Breeding Bird". A wealth of research has demonstrated that rearing environment is an important contributor to offspring development. Are these developmental effects adaptive in terms of molding an individual to match current environmental conditions? We will first test whether variation in provisioning behavior by breeding Florida Scrub-Jays gives rise to differences, both physiological and behavioral, in the resulting offspring. The research will then follow the survival and reproduction of these offspring to assess whether the developmental pathways determined by their parent's provisioning behaviors do indeed match the offspring phenotype to the current environment. Findings with respect to the rearing environment and its potential to affect physical and mental aspects of the emerging adults will have implications for other species with complex social systems. The project should provide insight into the mechanisms that drive environmental influences on offspring development (preliminary data suggest an important role for the 'stress hormone' corticosterone early in life). A key component of the research will be the development of a new automated RFID feeding technology to manipulate food availability and provisioning rates in particular family groups. We have shown previously that food supplementation can increase the number of young produced in this threatened species; the improved delivery system used in this research will be a powerful conservation tool that can be used by managers of other threatened and endangered species.

  • Mike Kaspari's Insect Biodiversity lab has received a National Science Foundation EAGER grant entitled "Does sodium availability limit tropical decomposers?". It will allow them to explore how the availability of sodium (one half of table salt) shapes the Earth's carbon cycle by preventing decomposers from breaking down detritus (and hence turning it back into carbon dioxide). EAGER proposals are evaluated quickly by NSF and support "high-risk, exploratory and potentially transformative research". Kaspari (Presidential Professor of Biology) and colleagues will perform a large scale sodium addition experiment in an Ecuadorian forest. If they are correct, it should "wake up" the moribund Amazon brown food web, resulting in the disappearance of much of the stored carbon accumulating as forest litter. One implication: since sodium is distributed from oceans to continental interiors via rainfall, future changes in precipitation may have an unexpected impact on Earth's atmosphere.

  • Bing Zhang, Assistant Professor of Biology, received a 5 year, $1,535,036 R01 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for studies of the “Genetics and Cell Biology of Synaptic Development and Function.” This research will study synapse development in fruit flies using molecular genetics, electrophysiology, and optical imaging techniques.

  • Dr. Zhang also received a 3-year, $135,000 research grant from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science & Technology (OCAST) to study amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in fruit flies.

  • P. L. Schwagmeyer and Douglas W. Mock , Professors of Biology, received a 3-year, $90,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for studies of the “Behavioral Dynamics of Biparental Negotiation.” This research will use an experimental approach to determine how pairs of adult house sparrows respond in real-time to increases and/or decreases in the amount of parental care the partner provides.

June 2009

  • The newest member of the Biology faculty will be Dr. J.P. Masly. Through research in the fruit fly genus Drosophila, he is examining molecular mechanisms underlying speciation and adaptation of organisms. He is currently at the University of Southern California and will arrive at OU in August, 2010.

  • Brian Davis, PhD student with Dr. Richard Ciffeli, was awarded a Provost's Graduate Teaching Assistant Awards in recognition of his excellence in teaching Human Anatomy.

  • Matt Dugas, PhD student with Dr. Doug Mock, has been awarded a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant by NSF.

  • Tyler Gunther, an undergraduate in Dr. Bing Zhang’s lab, won a "Distinction in Undergraduate Research Award" for his presentation at the "Student Research and Performance Day".

  • Dr. Richard Cifelli was selected as an editor for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  • Dr. Gary Wellborn and Dr. Ingo Schlupp receiving REU supplements to their grants.

  • Dr. Gary Wellborn received a "Most Inspiring Professors" award from OU Athletics.

  • Dr. Chris Leary, a former Ph.D. student under Dr. Rosemary Knapp and Janalee Caldwell, has accepted tenure track faculty position at University of Mississippi.

  • Nancy Blass, Assistant Director of Premedical Professions Advising, was elected to the Board of Directors of Southeastern Association of Advisors of Health Professions

March 2009

  • Dan Allen, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Biology, has been awarded an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant. Allen’s research investigates how the diversity of freshwater mussel assemblages influences the quantity of nutrients provided by mussels to stream food webs. Previous experiments suggest that mussels increase nitrogen levels in streams which leads to increases in algae abundance, and consequently increases grazing aquatic insect populations. Adult aquatic insects are an important food source for terrestrial predators in riparian forests. These data suggest that if the biodiversity of mussel assemblages increases the quantity of nutrient subsidies, then the abundance of adult aquatic insects and riparian predators should also increase when mussels are present, and this effect should be stronger when more mussel species are present. Allen’s research will contribute to understanding of relationships between biodiversity and ecosystem function, which will ultimately help scientists predict the consequences of extinctions and climate change on ecosystem processes.

  • Penny Hopkins (Noble Foundation Presidential Professor of Biology) received a Fulbright Specialists grant from the Fulbright Foundation in Washington, DC. She will be assisting the faculty at the Central Institute of Fisheries Education in Mumbai, India to develop a curriculum in crustacean endocrinology. She will be assisting their efforts to establish a PhD program in crustacean aquaculture at their university.  She will also teach a short course in crustacean endocrinology to PhD students and give a guest lecture at Vellore Institute of Technology, Vellore, India.

  • Brian Langerhans, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, was awarded the American Society of Naturalists Young Investigators Prize. The prize recognizes outstanding and promising work by early-career investigators (receiving their doctorate in the three years preceding the deadline or in their final year of graduate school), and is one of the most prestigious awards offered to young scientists in this field. As part of the award, he will present a Young Investigator Prize Lecture at the Evolution 2009 meeting, and receive an award of $500 and travel allowance to the meeting.



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