Graduate Student Experiences of Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment (SVSH)

Featured Scientist: Cierra Raine Sorin (she/her/hers), Ph.D. Candidate (Anticipated: Spring 2022), Department of Sociology with a Doctoral Emphasis in the Department of Feminist Studies, University of California Santa Barbara

Pale feminine person with long, wavy purple hair, wearing purple lipstick at an office desk with a fake plant in the background.
Cierra working in her campus office, pre-pandemic!

Birthplace: Loma Linda, California

My Research: My research is intersectional, meaning that I study people’s identities and how those identities impact their lives. I am interested in how having different identities impacts people’s ability to give consent and to have that consent recognized by others. Using qualitative methods, I study how people understand and react to sexual violence and sexual harassment (SVSH) in their communities, and in the institutions that they belong to. Some of my research questions include:

  • How do people understand and give consent?
  • How are people’s individual understanding of consent connected to group norms, such as normal group beliefs that revolve around sexual behavior?
  • How do these group norms make sexual violence acceptable, so it keeps happening?
  • What do people do when they have experienced sexual violence in their community or institution, like the workplace or in school?

Research Goals: My research focuses on sexual consent. I want to know how consent violations happen in institutional settings and what we need to know about these settings to protect people’s consent. For example, sexual harassment is one type of sexual violence that is common in workplaces, even though it is illegal. My goal is to understand how and why people experience discrimination in the institutional settings that are supposed to help and protect them.

Career Goals: My work has always revolved around solving social problems. While I love being in academia, it is very important to me to do work that benefits society. I see myself in a professor position where I can pursue research and teaching to improve the world around me. Another dream of mine is to write social justice-oriented children’s books, with my partner as the illustrator!

Hobbies: My hobbies include spoiling my German Shepherd pup, Lilith, swimming and doing yoga, watching bad crime television shows, like CSI, and playing action RPG video games with my partner!

Favorite Thing About Science: I love that in science, there really is something for everyone. Anyone with curiosity and interest in how the world around us works can become a scientist! As a social scientist, I study people and how they interact and co-exist. This may seem very different from someone who studies atoms, oil spills, or butterfly migration patterns, but there are many similarities in that the end goal is to gain a better understanding of how to make the world a better place.

My Team: This paper is the result of an amazing collaboration with several other researchers from a larger team project called UC Speaks Up, which took place across three University of California campuses: UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), UC San Diego (UCSD), and UC Los Angeles (UCLA). Our team of faculty members, graduate students, undergraduate students, and research staff collectively designed and carried out multiple kinds of qualitative data collection. Here, I discuss the data we collected from graduate students participating in focus group discussions (FGDs) and in-depth interviews (IDIs). As a graduate student intern on the project, I oversaw the UCSB undergraduate student researchers and acted as a liaison with the larger team based at UCSD. I also conducted all of the IDIs with UCSB graduate students and led both of the FGDs. During this time, I became good friends with another graduate student intern, Brittnie Bloom. Having similar research interests, we decided we wanted to analyze the experiences of graduate students in our data set. Working with our research advisors, Dr. Laury Oaks (UCSB) and Dr. Jennifer Wagman (UCLA), we have written three papers that speak to the different experiences graduate students have with SVSH and campus resources. In this paper, I took on the role of second author and Brittnie took the role as the first author. While Brittnie led the writing process, the formatting, and the submission, we worked closely together to make decisions, analyze the data, and write the paper.

Field of Study: Sociology

What is Sociology? Sociology is the study of social life and human behavior. We are interested in the relationship between individuals and the social environments they exist in. This includes their groups, institutions, and societies more broadly. Sociologists study a variety of social issues, and many connect to forms of inequality.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Employees, Advisees, and Emerging Scholars: A Qualitative Analysis of Graduate Students’ Roles and Experiences of Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment on College Campuses”

Citation: Brittnie Bloom, Cierra Raine Sorin, Jennifer Wagman, and Laury Oaks. 2021. “Employees, Advisees, and Emerging Scholars: A Qualitative Analysis of Graduate Students’ Roles and Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment on College Campuses.” Sexuality and Culture, (doi: 10.1007/s12119-021-09841-w).

Research At A Glance: It is very important to understand SVSH experiences among graduate students. SVSH includes, but is not limited to, stalking, sexual harassment, and invasion of sexual privacy. SVSH is common on college and university campuses but research in this area rarely focuses on graduate students. This is an important gap in campus SVSH studies because graduate students take on many roles for the university. They engage in teaching and mentoring students and in conducting research with faculty. In many of these roles, graduate students face unequal power roles that can make them vulnerable to sexual violence. We wanted to better understand the experiences of SVSH of graduate students on all three University of California (UC) campuses: UC Santa Barbara (UCSB), UC San Diego (UCSD), and UC Los Angeles (UCLA). To do so, we conducted 21 IDIs and 8 FGDs with a diverse group of 43 graduate students, between 23 and 34 years of age. The study consisted of Masters students, PhDW students, and professional students. Participants were mostly heterosexual and 32% identified as LGBTQ+. Of our UC graduate student participants, 41% identified as white, 25% as Asian, 16% as Hispanic/Latino, 6% as Black and 10% as more than one race or ethnicity.  Our research was part of a larger study, but our focus was on the experiences of graduate students. Some of our questions included student knowledge of and perception of SVSH. Additionally, we asked graduate students their opinions about SVSH prevention and the role that they play in reporting and responding to sexual violence. We wanted to see how graduate students understand SVSH, how they work in an environment where they may be faced with unequal power roles, and how to prevent SVSH. We also wanted to raise awareness to situations where these students may be vulnerable or more likely to experience sexual violence.

Highlights: SVSH is a continuing problem on college and university campuses. Students in disciplines that historically lack diverse faculty are at a higher risk of SVSH. Until recently, most research on SVSH has focused on students that identify as white. These studies have also not been intersectional, where students have more than one identity. Our study highlights the importance of race and ethnicity in SVSH work. The stories that we heard from students emphasize that SVSH work is also diversity work. SVSH needs to be more culturally informed because students from underrepresented backgrounds are more likely to experience SVSH. The same is true for sexual orientation. People who identify as gay or lesbian are more likely to experience SVSH than those who identify as heterosexual. Transgender individuals and bisexual individuals are the most likely to experience sexual violence. The students who participated in our study were able to share unique experiences that spoke to these issues. One Latinx student spoke about some of her cultural norms which involve greeting people by kissing. She explained that she was uncomfortable when Latinx faculty engaged in that behavior in academic settings but wasn’t sure about how to respond when it took place. Understanding that certain behaviors have a cultural context is important for teaching and learning consent. We need to recognize and respect the unique experiences of all people in our academic communities and support survivors to prevent SVSH.

What My Science Looks Like: In our study, we identified three themes, detailed below.

  1. Graduate students do not trust university reporting and aid processes because they feel that reporting SVSH can negatively impact them.
  2. Graduate students don’t know about the rates of SVSH on campus or if they are at risk of experiencing SVSH.
  3. Graduate students remain silent about SVSH because of power hierarchies that exist among faculty members, such as professors or mentors.
Themes identified in our study of SVSH experiences among UC graduate students

The Big Picture: Most people who complete a graduate degree are in school for many years. Depending on the environment, graduate students might experience abuse of power by faculty. This can make them more vulnerable to sexual violence. Reporting violence can also have a negative impact on students. Some students experience bullying or lawsuits. Many don’t feel safe reporting their experiences because they may not stay anonymous. It’s a huge risk. Some graduate students have such bad experiences that they choose to or are forced to leave academia altogether. No one should be forced to make the decision between their personal safety and their career. Universities are trying to prevent and respond to sexual violence. One way has been to change group norms about sexuality and consent. However, most of these efforts overlook graduate students. This is a problem because graduate students and undergraduate students have different roles at the university. Interventions that work for undergraduate students may not work well for graduate students. Universities can better support graduate student populations by listening to their experiences. In our paper, we present ideas and solutions that can make the university a safer place for everyone. We suggest recruiting people from different backgrounds to participate in making SVSH policies. We also suggest holding university leaders accountable for any policies, procedures, or practices that protect perpetrators and harm survivors. This includes calling out bad behavior and making sure that faculty engaging in inappropriate behavior are removed from their positions.

Decoding the Language:

Culturally informed: Culturally informed practices are those that recognize that we all belong to different cultures with potentially different group norms and take that into consideration when developing prevention and response efforts. Accounting for these differences is important in reaching most people effectively.

Diversity work: Diversity work refers to the efforts made in an institution or organization to make the environment and group norms more supportive of people from a diverse set of backgrounds.

Group norms: Group norms are the rules for behavior in a particular group. For example, this can be the way you are expected to dress, how you speak, when and what you eat, and so on.

Institutions: Institutions are formal social structures that include governments, universities, churches, and workplaces. They exist beyond the individuals that take part in them but provide group norms and expectations for how people should live and behave.

Intersectional: Doing intersectional work means examining the different social and political identities that people occupy to understand how they experience privilege and/or discrimination. Common categories of intersectional analysis include race and/or ethnicity, gender, dis/ability, social class, and age, but there are many others!

Qualitative methods: Qualitative methods are types of research methods. Information is collected through observations or through interviews. In our study, we used in-depth interviews (IDIs), where we talked with graduate students one-on-one, and focus group discussions (FGDs) where we did group-style interviews with multiple graduate students at the same time.

Sexual violence and sexual harassment (SVSH):  Sexual violence and harassment is any activity, attempted or completed, where one (or more) person uses violence, coercion, force, or drugs to control another to engage in a sexualized activity. Sexual violence is usually not about sex itself, but about someone using power to harm someone else. Sexual violence includes incest, rape, sexual assault, stalking, sexual harassment, and more.

Learn More:

To learn more about the UC Speaks Up project, including some of the other efforts of the group and its members, you can check out our website!

To learn more about intersectionality, I recommend this short Vox interview of Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, thirty years after she coined the term.

Synopsis edited by Maisam Yousef, B.S. 2019, Illinois State University, and Titilayo Omotade, PhD, Yale University, Yale School of Medicine.

Download this article here

What’s killing the buzz? Investigating the multiple stressor hypothesis for bumble bee health

Featured Scientist: Austin C. Calhoun, M.S. (he/him/his), PhD student (Anticipated: Spring 2025), School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

Austin posing on tree stumps at a riverbed.
“Act like a bluebell and the bees will come.” – Austin Calhoun

Birthplace: Danville, IL, USA

My Research: I am interested in how bumble bees defend against parasites and pathogens.

Research Goals: I would like to continue to study disease. I am interested in how diseases arise, how individuals can defend against them, and what environmental contexts amplify the effects of disease. I would also like to study methods that can be used to predict the occurrence of disease in the future.

Career Goals: Ideally, I see myself as a professor at a university, where I could continue to conduct research and to teach. Then, maybe I’ll retire after running a field research station somewhere.

Hobbies: Cooking on a cast iron, building things out of wood, and getting deep into YouTube holes about jiu-jitsu.

Favorite Thing About Science: My favorite thing is the freedom of creativity. Being interested in some question about nature, designing a project to answer that question, and then telling the world about something new.

Organism of Study: The common eastern bumble bee and its pathogen, Nosema bombi (N. bombi).

A close-up picture of a bee on a brood of developing juveniles and a microscope image of N. bombi.
Bumble Bee (left) and N. bombi (right). Photos by Dr. Benjamin Sadd, Illinois State University

Field of Study: Disease Ecology

What is Disease Ecology? Disease Ecology is the study of how organisms interact with their pathogens. A pathogen is a disease-carrying microorganism, like a bacterium or a virus. When an organism is infected with a pathogen, it becomes a host for that pathogen. People who work in disease ecology also study other factors that affect how the host and the pathogen interact. For example, a disease ecologist might study the environment, pesticides, or climate change and how they impact the host or the pathogen.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Testing the multiple stressor hypothesis: chlorothalonil exposure alters transmission potential of a bumblebee pathogen but not individual host health”

 A QR code that links to the original publication.
QR code to the original publication

Citation: Calhoun A.C., Harrod A.E., Bassingthwaite T.A., Sadd B.M. 2021 Testing the multiple stressor hypothesis: chlorothalonil exposure alters transmission potential of a bumblebee pathogen but not individual host health. Proc. R. Soc. B 288: 20202922. (doi: 10.1098/rspb.2020.2922)

Research At A Glance: Bees serve important roles as pollinators, but they deal with many stressors that can negatively affect their health. Climate change, habitat loss, pesticide exposure, and pathogens are types of stressors that can negatively impact bee populations. Although each of these are individually harmful, bees likely experience more than one at a time. When bees are exposed to multiple stressors at once, they may experience worse outcomes. We call this concept the multiple stressor hypothesis. In this research, we test the multiple stressor hypothesis using a species of bumble bee, Bombus impatiens (B. impatiens).

Several species of bumble bee are in decline across North America. One possible reason could be a pathogen called Nosema bombi (N. bombi). N. bombi is a stressor found in many of the bumble bee species that are experiencing population declines. After infecting the bee, it will produce a spore as part of its reproductive cycle. The spores have a hard outer layer that makes them environmentally resistant and these N. bombi spores can infect bees. At the same time, many bumble bees are also exposed to a fungicide called chlorothalonil. A fungicide is a special type of pesticide used to kill fungal pathogens. In 2017, a study found a relationship between the use of chlorothalonil, the presence of N. bombi, and declining bee populations. We wanted to explore this relationship further.

To do this, we infected bumble bees with N. bombi and exposed them to chlorothalonil. Our goal was to test how the combination of these stressors might impact bumble bee health. We measured health by looking at how long the bees survived, how big they were, and how much protein was in their bodies. To make sure that exposure to N. bombi resulted in infection, we calculated how much N. bombi DNA was in each bee as a measure of total infection intensity. We also counted the number of N. bombi spores present in the gut of each bee as a separate measure of infection. We found that chlorothalonil exposure did not increase the total infection intensity or worsen bumble bee health. But we did find that bees exposed to chlorothalonil had more N. bombi spores in their bodies. This meant that bees infected with N. bombi had a higher potential to transmit the environmentally resistant form of the pathogen to other bees. In this research, we did not find solid support for the multiple stressor hypothesis because the bees did not have worse health outcomes when exposed to both N. bombi and chlorothalonil. Instead, we found that chlorothalonil exposure enhances the potential for N. bombi to transmit to new bees.

Highlights: In this research, we exposed bumble bee larvae to chlorothalonil, N. bombi, or both. Larvae are immature bees. Nosema only infects bees during the larval stage of development, which is why we infected them at this stage. We kept the larvae in the lab and allowed nursing bees to take care of them until they grew into adults. At that point, we measured bee health, quantified total infection intensity for each bee, and counted the number of N. bombi spores each bee had. To quantify total infection intensity, we used a technique called quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR). qPCR is a molecular technique that allows a researcher to count how much DNA is in a sample. We used this technique to measure how much N. bombi DNA was inside adult bees that had been exposed to chlorothalonil as larvae and in those that had not been exposed to chlorothalonil. Figure 1 shows the results of this test. The dots in Figure 1 show the average N. bombi infection for bees exposed to chlorothalonil and for those not exposed to chlorothalonil. The “ns” above the dots in Figure 1 show the results of the statistical test that we did to see if the total infection intensity was different between the two groups. Here, “ns” stands for “not significant.” This indicates that the average infection was not significantly different when bees were exposed to both chlorothalonil and N. bombi.

A graph that shows total infection intensity data from two groups of bees, those that were exposed to chlorothalonil as larvae and those that were not. There is no significant difference in total infection intensity between the two groups.
Figure 1. The effect of the chlorothalonil treatment on the total N. bombi infection intensity in adult bees. The y-axis shows the relative amount of N. bombi DNA measured in the bees using qPCR. The x-axis shows whether bees were exposed to the chlorothalonil treatment as larvae.

To count the number of N. bombi spores each bee had, we euthanized each bee, pulverized their abdomens, looked at it under a microscope (see the N. bombi picture in the “Organism of Study” section), and recorded the number of spores present in each bee. We did this because the number of N. bombi spores inside each bee should tell us how ready the pathogen is to transmit to a new host. Figure 2 shows the results of this test. The dots in Figure 2 show the average number of N. bombi spores in bees exposed to chlorothalonil and in those not exposed to chlorothalonil. The two stars (**) above the dots in Figure 2 show the results of the statistical test that we did to see if the number of N. bombi spores was different between the two groups. The stars indicate that there was a significant difference between the two groups. These results show that bees exposed to both N. bombi and chlorothalonil as larvae had significantly more spores per bee when compared to bees that were not exposed to chlorothalonil. This is important because bees that have more spores are more likely to transmit N. bombi pathogens to other bees.

A graph depicts data from counting the number of N. bombi spores in bees exposed to chlorothalonil and those not exposed to chlorothalonil. Bees exposed to chlorothalonil had more N. bombi spores in their abdomens.
Figure 2. The effect of the chlorothalonil treatment on the number of N. bombi spores. The y-axis shows how many N. bombi spores were in each bee. The x-axis shows whether bees were “exposed” to the chlorothalonil treatment as larvae.

What My Science Looks Like: To conduct this experiment, we needed to infect bumble bees with N. bombi. The image below shows the exact method of delivery. N. bombi can only infect bees when they are larvae, so each larva had to be hand-fed the spores. We did this by peeling open the wax casing that protects the larvae and placing food infected with spores at the mouth of each larva. After feeding, they were returned to their homes, the nursing bees would re-seal the wax, and the bees would continue to develop. Nursing bees were bees randomly selected from the colonies to raise the larvae. They are used to maintain the brood until adulthood.

A picture of bumble bee larvae being hand-fed N. bombi spores with a pipette.
B. impatiens larvae receiving a dose of N. bombi spores.

The Big Picture: Bumble bees are especially valuable insects. They increase agricultural production and provide many services that improve ecosystem health. However, some species of bumble bees are in decline. To help them, we must understand how known stressors such as pathogens may impact their health. In our research, we found that a commonly used fungicide may increase the potential for a pathogen to be transmitted to other bees. One possible explanation for our results is that the fungicide chlorothalonil makes the current host less suitable for the pathogen. In response, N. bombi produces more spores to transmit to a new, more suitable host. While higher spore production was the only negative effect that we found related to chlorothalonil, it is important to keep in mind that we only used one bee species, B. impatiens. B. impatiens populations are stable in nature, so it is possible that other bumble bees are more sensitive to the dual effects of chlorothalonil and N. bombi. Regardless, researchers should continue to look at multiple stressors and how they impact bee health. Our research is important because if we can identify factors that increase pathogen transmission or virulence, we can make predictions about how future diseases may impact bee populations. This type of research helps us to understand patterns of disease, prevent outbreaks, and preserve important native pollinators.

Decoding the Language:

Bombus impatiens (B. impatiens): B. impatiens is the scientific name for the common eastern bumble bee.

Chlorothalonil: Chlorothalonil is a type of fungicide that is often sprayed onto crops and used in household gardens. When bees pollinate a plant that has been treated with this type of fungicide, it is easy for bees to pick up chlorothalonil and bring it back to the colony because it stays on the surface of the plant.

Fungicide: A fungicide is a pesticide used to kill fungal pathogens. They are generally used to protect crops from pathogens that may hinder crop development.

Host: A host is the organism infected by a pathogen. The pathogen will extract energy from the host.

Larvae (plural), larva (singular): A larva is the immature stage of an insect’s life, well before it reaches adulthood. The stages of growth go from egg to larva, to pupa, then to adulthood.     

Multiple stressor hypothesis: The multiple stressor hypothesis is the concept that exposure to many stressors will have a more negative impact on the organism than exposure to one alone.

Nosema bombi (N. bombi): N. bombi is the scientific name for the pathogen used in this study, which is known to harm bumble bees.

Nursing bees: A nursing bee is one type of worker bee in a colony. The nursing bees are responsible for taking care of the developing larvae. In the context of this study, our nursing bees were those that were picked to raise the larvae used in our research.  

Pathogen: A pathogen is a disease-causing microorganism, like a bacterium or a parasite.               

Quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR): qPCR is a molecular technique that is used to quantify the amount of DNA within a sample. In this process, the DNA of interest has a fluorescent tag added to it and the DNA is amplified inside a machine. The fluorescent tag glows each time a new DNA strand is made, and the machine counts how many times the DNA glows.

Spores: In the context of this study, a spore is the environmentally resistant stage of Nosema bombi. The spores have a tough, thick outer coating, which allows them to be environmentally resistant.

Stressor: A stressor is any identifiable factor that can negatively affect an individual’s health.

Total infection intensity: Total infection intensity refers to our measure of how infected the adult bees were, after they had been exposed to N. bombi as larvae. We quantified the intensity of infection using qPCR.

Virulence: Virulence refers to theharmfulness of a disease. If it is more virulent, it is more harmful.

Learn More:

A book on how to create good pollinator habitat

Information from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on how to gardeners can help pollinators

Synopsis edited by Emily Kerns (she/her/hers), PhD student as of September 2021, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Integrative Biology, and Maisam Yousef, B.S. 2019, Illinois State University.

Download this article here

Fruit flies shed light on how immune responses are regulated

Featured Scientist: Pooja Kadaba Ranganath (she/her/hers), PhD (Anticipated: January 2022), School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

Two pictures of Pooja KR. In one, she stands in front of the river holding a cup of coffee. In the other, she stands in a museum next to an image of a human body.
Pooja enjoying hot chocolate from Ghirardelli near the Chicago River (left) and exploring a science museum in Washington D.C (right).

Birthplace:  Bangalore, India

My Research: In my research, I work to understand how the immune system works and how it defends itself against germs that can cause sickness, also called pathogens.

Research Goals: I want to work at the intersection of two types of science, basic and translational. The goal of basic research is to learn how a particular system works. The goal of translational research is to apply the information that we learn from basic research to help humans. My main interest is to do research to understand cancer and help make personalized medicine a reality for patients.

Career Goals: I want to help advance medicine by working in the industry research setting.

Hobbies: In my free time, I like to cook, spend time with friends and family, try out new food, and practice a classical form of Indian music. I also love to travel and explore new places.

Favorite Thing About Science: Cells are amazing to me. It is fascinating to explore the mysteries of the body and use that information to support human health. Science allows you to explore new questions. I love the feeling that my work can make a difference to people who are in need.

My Team: The research for this paper was made possible with the help of Jonathan Lee, an undergraduate student who helped me do the experiments, and the principal investigator, who supervised us throughout the process.

Organism of Study: The fruit fly, also called Drosophila melanogaster.

A picture of a fruit fly. It had red eyes and a light brown body.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Field of Study: Cellular Immunology

What is Cellular Immunology? Cellular Immunology is a type of biology. When a person is infected with a pathogen, the immune system is activated to destroy the pathogen before the person can get sick. Researchers in the field of cellular immunology will study the cells and molecules of the immune system to understand how they all work together to protect the body.   

Check Out My Original Paper: “The S1A protease family members CG10764 and CG4793 regulate cellular immunity in Drosophila”

QR code to the original publication

Citation: KR, P, Lee, J, Mortimer, NT. 2021. The S1A protease family members CG10764 and CG4793 regulate cellular immunity in Drosophila. micropublication Biology. (Doi: 10.17912/micropub.biology.000370)

Article written by Rosario Marroquin-Flores, PhD (Anticipated: August 2022), Illinois State University

Research At A Glance: The immune system plays an important role in protecting our bodies against pathogens. When exposed to a pathogen, the body will turn on immune cells to help defend the body against infection. This is called the immune response. To understand how the human immune system functions, scientists often study the immune systems of other animals. In our research, we used the fruit fly and a parasitic wasp to learn more about the immune response. In nature, parasitic wasps can infect flies by laying their eggs inside the body of the fly. When the wasp infects the fly with its eggs, the immune system of the fly will activate to kill the parasite. Special immune cells in the fly recognize the infection, bind to the wasp egg, and surround it with several layers of proteins in a process called encapsulation. During encapsulation, immune cells surround the egg and harden to stop the wasp from getting vital nutrients, killing the parasite. In our research, we identified two important genes called CG10764 and CG4793 that may impact the fly immune response. To figure out what these genes do, we turned them off and measured how the absence of these genes impacted the encapsulation process. We found that these two genes have opposite roles. One gene is involved in turning on the immune response, while the other is involved in turning off the immune response.

Highlights: One important cell involved in the fly immune response is called a lamellocyte. Lamellocytes are immune cells that turn on in response to infection and help form the capsule that kills the wasp parasite. In this study, we turned off our two genes of interest, CG10764 and CG4793, in lamellocyte cells.Then, we watched to see if the fly was still able to encapsulate the wasp egg. Figure 1 is a boxplot that shows how encapsulation changed when our genes of interest were turned off. 

A data figure that shows the percent of encapsulated wasp eggs when CG10764 and CG4793 are turned off. In unchanged cells, around 50% of eggs are encapsulated. When CG10764 is turned off, around 25% of eggs are encapsulated. When CG4793 is turned off, around 80% of eggs are encapsulated.
Figure 1. The percent of encapsulated wasp eggs when CG10764 and CG4793 are turned off in lamellocyte immune cells. The y-axis (vertical) shows the percentage of eggs that were encapsulated. The x-axis (horizontal) shows which gene was absent. Figure adapted from KR et al. 2021.

The letters in Figure 1 show the results of the statistical test. When the letters are different, that means that the percentage of wasp eggs encapsulated by the fly changed. We see that the percentage of eggs encapsulated went down when CG10764 was removed from the cell, compared to unchanged cells. We can see this because the boxplot for “CG10764 gene absent” has a “B” above it while the boxplot for cell unchanged has an “A” above it. We see the opposite effect for CG4793. We see that the percentage of eggs encapsulated went up when CG4793 was removed from the cells because the boxplot for “CG479 gene absent” has a “C” above it while the boxplot for cell unchanged has an “A” above it.

These results suggest that CG10764 may activate the fly immune response to help it fight against the infection. When CG10764 is absent, the fly has a harder time encapsulating the wasp eggs. Our results also suggest that CG4793 can turn off the fly immune response. When CG4793 is absent, the fly is better at encapsulating wasp eggs. We think that these two genes work together to help regulate the immune system when the fly is infected. CG10764 turns on the response and CG4793 turns it off.

What My Science Looks Like: In our research, we work with fly larvae, these are immature flies that have not yet grown their wings. We allow the parasitic wasps to lay their eggs inside the body of the larvae. It usually takes 72 hours for the fly to encapsulate the wasp eggs.  The image below shows a fly larva with an encapsulated wasp egg inside it.

A picture of an infected fly larva under a microscope. The larva looks fat and grub-like. The encapsulated wasp eggs look like hard black ovals.

Microscopic image of a fly larvae infected with a wasp egg. This fly has successfully encapsulated the wasp parasite. Image adapted from Mortimer et al. 2012.

Recall that lamellocyte cells are immune cells that help form the capsule that kills the wasp parasite. The image below shows what a lamellocyte looks like under the microscope. 

A picture of a lamellocyte cell under a microscope. The cell looks amoeba-like and gelatinous.
Microscopic image of a fly lamellocyte cell.

The Big Picture: In this study, we start to get a better understanding about how the fly immune response is regulated. The fruit fly is a model organism, which means that it has been very well studied and there are many tools available to understand the genes of the fly. Model organisms are often used to study human diseases and several parts of the immune response in the fruit fly can be applied to humans. In our research, we have identified two genes that may help regulate the immune response and this might help us to understand human immune systems too.

 Decoding the Language:

Basic research: Basic research is a type of research with the goal of understanding a particular phenomenon or law of nature. The goal of basic research is to advance knowledge in a particular topic.

Boxplot: A boxplot is a graph that shows you information about the spread of your data. The top line of the box shows the 75th percentile. This is where 75% of the data fall below the line, and 25% of the data fall above the line. The line in the middle of the box shows the 50th percentile, or the middle of the data. The bottom line shows the 25th percentile. This is where 25% of the data fall below the line and 75% of the data fall above the line. The lines that extend from the box in either direction are called whiskers. They show the range of the highest values and the lowest values of the data set.

Encapsulation: Encapsulation is the process of enclosing something. In the context of this research, it is the process of surrounding the wasp egg with layers of protein that harden around the parasite to kill it.

Gene: A gene is a unit of heredity passed from parents to offspring. Genes normally code for proteins that have certain functions in the body.

Immune response: An immune response is the reaction that the body has when it encounters a pathogen. The purpose of this response is to defend the body. In the context of this research, the immune response of the fly is to activate the immune cells that the fly needs to encapsulate the wasp egg.

Lamellocyte: A lamellocyte one of several types of immune cell that is turned on when the body identifies an infection, and these cells play a role in the encapsulation process in flies.

Larvae (plural): A larva (singular) is the immature form of an insect. Larvae often look very different from the adult form of the insect. As the larvae grow, they will change to look more like the adult version of the insect.

Model organism: A model organism is a non-human species that is very well studied and is used to learn more about other species. Model species are frequently used to study human disease.

Pathogen: A pathogen is a bacteria, virus, or other microorganism that can cause disease.

Principal investigator: A principal investigator is the person responsible for organizing and managing a research project or lab. In colleges, faculty often serve as principal investigators and run research labs with graduate and undergraduate students.

Translational research: Translational research is a type of applied research with the goal of improving human health.

Learn More:

University of Arkansas Medical Sciences (AKMS) information on translation research

National Institutes of Health (NIH) information on model organisms

Dros4schools information on the fruit fly as a model organism

A video of a wasp laying eggs inside a fly larva

Article edited by Brooke Proffitt, B.S. in Zoology, University of Illinois-Alumni.

Download this article here

How different are bird parasite communities between mountain ranges?

Featured Scientist: Dr. Lisa Barrow (she/her/hers), Assistant Professor and Curator, Museum of Southwestern Biology and Department of Biology, University of New Mexico.

A large green Luna Moth perched on the side of Lisa's head while in the forests in the Southeastern United States. She was a graduate student at the time and was hiking through the woods, probably looking for amphibians.
Making friends with a Luna Moth while exploring the Southeastern United States during my Ph.D. fieldwork.

Birthplace:  Tempe, Arizona, USA

My Research: I am interested in understanding the diversityof amphibians and reptiles. I study how species have evolved over time, where they occur, and what leads to the loss of diversity in these species.

Research Goals: My research uses information from museum collections to study how different species change over time. A museum collection is almost like a library, but instead of books, it contains the preserved bones, furs, feathers, and tissues of animals from across the world and throughout time. Part of my work is to make sure that we continue to build our museum collections so that other researchers can use them to ask their own questions. My research moving forward will focus on herpetofauna, or “herps” for short. These are amphibians and reptiles. I have also enjoyed studying birds and mammals in my previous work.

Career Goals: I recently started as an Assistant Professor and Curator of a museum collection – this has been my career goal for a very long time! I now look forward to continuing my research and training students to help them pursue their goals.

Hobbies: I enjoy traveling to new places to see new herps and birds, learn about other cultures, and try different cuisines. I also enjoy baking and trying new recipes at home.

Favorite Thing About Science: Learning never ends! I especially love that science is a team effort, and we can always keep learning from other people with different knowledge and expertise than we each have on our own.

My Team: This project was a huge team effort. At the time of this project (2016-2018), I was a postdoctoral researcher working in Dr. Chris Witt’s lab at the University of New Mexico. We led a team that included three undergraduates, four post-bacs, four graduate students, and four lab associates and former students. Together, we conducted the first community-wide survey of bird blood parasites in New Mexico. I helped with fieldwork, sample collection, specimen preparation, and trained the students who conducted molecular work, the microscopic examination of blood cells, and data analysis. I drafted the manuscript with great input from Dr. Chris Witt and the other co-authors. From the time we finished data collection, it took another few years to finish analyzing and writing!

Organism of Study: Birds and their haemosporidian parasites, including many different lineages in the groups Plasmodium, Parahaemoproteus, and Leucocytozoon.

A three panel image. The top image shows a vireo, a small grey bird on a log. The bottom two images show parasites inside bird blood cells. The Leucocytozoon parasite is larger, more circular, and causes the infected blood cell and its nucleus to change shape. The Parahaemoproteus parasite is wrapped around the nucleus of the blood cell. Both parasites are stained a light purple color and the nuclei of the bird host cells are dark purple.
The vireo (scientific name: Vireo plumbeus) seen in the top image is an example of a bird species sampled in our study. The bottom images show examples of their common haemosporidian parasites, Leucocytozoon and Parahaemoproteus. The arrows point to infected blood cells. Image source: WikiMedia Commons

Field of Study: Community Ecology

What is Community Ecology? Community ecology is the study of groups of species and how they interact with one another. People who study community ecology look at how species compete with each other, how they are organized in space, and how they live together.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Detecting turnover among complex communities using null models: a case study with sky‐island haemosporidian parasites”

A QR code that links to the original publication.
QR code to the original publication

Citation: Barrow, L.N., Bauernfeind, S.M., Cruz, P.A., Williamson, J.L., Wiley, D.L., Ford, J.E., Baumann, M.J., Brady, S.S., Chavez, A.N., Gadek, C.R., Galen, S.C., Johnson, A.B., Mapel, X.M., Marroquin-Flores, R.A., Martinez, T.E., McCullough, J.M., McLaughlin, J.E., Witt, C.C. Detecting turnover among complex communities using null models: a case study with sky-island haemosporidian parasites. Oecologia 195, 435–451 (2021). (doi: 10.1007/s00442-021-04854-6)

Research At A Glance: Haemosporidians are a diverse group of parasites that are found around the world. They can cause diseases, such as malaria, in humans and birds. Only five species of haemosporidians infect humans, but researchers have found over 3,000 lineages of haemosporidian parasites that can infect birds. Like what we see in humans, haemosporidian parasites can make birds sick and some birds are more likely to become infected, and die from that infection, than others. It is important for scientists to know which parasite lineages are likely to encounter and infect different bird species, so they can be prepared to help prevent infections and protect those species. One way to study this is to describe the community of haemosporidian parasites at different locations. However, it is not easy to sample such a diverse group of parasites. Haemosporidian parasites infect blood cells. This means that we needed to catch birds and obtain blood samples before we could determine the identity of their parasites. This is even more difficult because some parasites are very common, while others are rarer and might be easily missed if we do not catch many birds. Some parasites are also host specialists, meaning they may only occur in one or a few closely related birds. Others are host generalists and can infect many types of birds. These challenges needed to be addressed by sampling many birds at our study sites and by using a specific type of statistical analysis.

Our team set out to describe a community of haemosporidian parasites in the sky islands of the Southwestern United States. Sky islands refer to mountain ranges that have forest habitat at high elevations and desert habitat at low elevations. Like true islands separated by oceans, plants and animals that live in forests may not be able to move easily across desert habitats. We wanted to know if the parasite communities were different between these mountain ranges. To do this, we checked birds for parasitesusing two methods. We used molecular methods to isolate parasite DNA from bird blood cells and sequenced the DNA to find out which type of parasite had infected the bird. We also looked at blood samples using a microscope and photographed the parasites.

Once we had identified the parasites, we analyzed our data using a null modeling approach. This statistical approach allowed us to find out if the parasite communities were different between sky islands. This method also helped us to understand how our results were affected by our sampling. At the end of our study, we had sampled 776 birds. We found that 280 of them were infected with parasites and we found that some bird species were more infected than others. We found that parasite communities were different between the mountain ranges, even when the same species of birds were sampled. This result is interesting because it suggests that different populations of the same bird species will encounter different parasites across the area that the bird is found.

Highlights: One of the most important parts of this research was the way that we analyzed our data. The null modeling approach that we used was developed by Dr. Chris Witt and Selina Bauernfeind. Selina is the second author on our paper and was a post-baccalaureate researcher at the time. Our models ask whether the actual communities of parasites that we observed are different than we would expect if the parasites were randomly sampled from a single parasite community. This community represents our expectation under a null model, where there is no difference in the parasite lineages between sky islands. Selina developed this model by writing computer code in R. R is a type of statistical software that scientists often use to analyze data. She used the computer code to simulate 10,000 parasite communities under the null model.The null model statesthat there is no difference between sky islands. She then compared the simulated parasite communities to the observed parasite communities that we sampled during our study.

The main results are shown in Figure 1 and Figure 2. In both figures, the gray curves show the simulated parasitecommunities. The dotted line represents the results from our observed community, the parasites that we sampled. The stars (*) above the dotted line mean that the parasite community that we sampled is different from the community that we would have expected under the null model. Figure 1 shows that 56 parasite lineages were only found in one of the three mountain ranges. This number was higher than expected based on the null model, indicating that there were many unique parasite lineages in each mountain range.Only 19 parasite lineages were found in all three mountain ranges. This number was lower than expected based on the null model, suggesting that few parasites were shared across three mountain ranges. Taken together, our results suggest that the community of parasites was different between mountain ranges.

The figure shows three curves for the parasite lineages expected under the null model. For one mountain, most simulations found fewer lineages (the expected value) than the 56 lineages that the researchers observed. For two mountains, the observed number (25 lineages) was similar to the expected number of lineages. For all three mountain ranges, most simulations found more lineages than the 19 lineages observed.
Figure 1. The observed (dotted line) and expected (grey curve) number of parasite lineages found in one mountain range, two mountain ranges, or in all three mountain ranges studied. The stars (*) above the dotted line show that the parasite community that we sampled is different than the simulated parasite community. Adapted from Barrow et al. 2021.

Figure 2 shows the Jaccard dissimilarity index. It ranges from 0 to 1. Higher values show a greater difference between mountain ranges. As shown by the dotted line with the stars (*), the results show that the parasite community differed between Mount Taylor and the other two mountain ranges, Jemez and Zuni. The observed parasite communities in these mountain ranges had higher dissimilarity index values than expected under the null model.

The figure shows three curves for the parasite community differences between each pair of mountain ranges expected under the null model. A dotted line for each pair shows the observed parasite community differences. The observed difference between Mount Taylor and the Jemez Mountains was higher than expected under the null model. Similarly, the observed value between Mount Taylor and the Zuni Mountains was higher than expected under the null model.
Figure 2. The observed (dotted line) and expected (grey curve) parasite communities at the three mountain ranges studied: Mount Taylor, Zuni Mountains, and Jemez Mountains. The x-axis shows the Jaccard dissimilarity index. Adapted from Barrow et al. 2021.

What My Science Looks Like: Our team spent two years sampling birds in the field for this project. Our field set-up included plenty of supplies to record data, preserve samples for DNA analysis, and prepare blood smears to examine under the microscope.

A picture of six people sitting around two small tables in the piñon-juniper woodlands. There are test tubes on the table and a nitrogen tank in the background.
Here is a picture of some of the people in our field crew processing samples after a morning of collecting data. Pictured clockwise: Moses Michelsohn, Serina Brady, Chauncey Gadek, Jenna McCullough, Lisa Barrow, and John Ford.

Figure 3 shows the number of birds collected and the number of infections that we found at each of our three mountain ranges. “Individuals” refers to the number of birds that we caught, “host species” refers to the number of bird species that we caught, and “infected birds” refers to the number of birds that were infected with at least one haemosporidian parasite. Parahaemoproteus,denoted by “H”,were the most common haemosporidians we found (54 to 70 infections in each mountain range). Plasmodium,denoted by “P”, were theleast common haemosporidians we found (13 to 37 infections in each mountain range). The number of infected birds in each mountain range was similar, ranging from 87 to 93 birds.

An image that shows the state of New Mexico with locations for the three mountain ranges sampled in the northwestern part of the state. Birds were sampled at the transition zone between the piñon-juniper woodlands and the ponderosa pine forests at elevations ranging between 2,100-2,500 meters. The highest number of birds were sampled at Zuni Mountain (n=294) and Zuni also had the highest number of infected birds (n=93). The lowest number of birds were sampled at Jemez Mountain (n=207), which also had the lowest number of infected birds (n=87).
Figure 3. A figure that summarizes the locations for sample collection and the results of our 2-year study. It shows the number of birds and parasites found at the three mountain ranges: “H” stands for Parahaemoproteus,“P” stands forPlasmodium, and “L” stands for Leucocytozoon.Panel (b) shows the region of the United States that the samples were collected from. Panel (c) shows the elevation of the mountain ranges, where darker colors indicate higher elevations. Adapted from Barrow et al. 2021.

The Big Picture: Parasites are everywhere in the natural world. They can cause disease or death to hosts that they infect. It is important for researchers to study where parasites naturally occur, how widespread they are, and which host species they infect. Parasite communities are usually hard to describe because they are so diverse. If we do not sample all the bird species in an area or if we sample a different number of each bird species in each area, we may underestimate the number and type of parasites there. Our research took a new approach that helped to account for these types of problems. Our null modeling approach can be used by other researchers who want to ask similar questions. Our approach helped us understand the community of haemosporidian parasites in an area that has received little attention in the past. We found that the community of parasites can change between areas that are only tens of kilometers apart, even when the bird communities are similar. Our research helps us better understand parasite diversity and how that relates to host diversity.

Decoding the Language:

Fieldwork: Fieldwork is any type of research conducted outdoors. Examples of fieldwork include people who trap birds, measure plants, or collect water samples outside.

Generalists: Generalists are organisms that can use a wide variety of habitats, food sources, or environmental conditions. In the context of this study, generalist parasites can infect a wide variety of bird species.

Haemosporidians: Haemosporidians are microscopic parasites that can infect the blood cells of vertebrate animals (animals with a backbone). They have a unique structure called an apicoplast that allows the parasite to penetrate the blood cells of the host. These parasites are transmitted when the host is bitten by an insect. There are hundreds of described species and thousands of undescribed lineages.

Herpetofauna: Herpetofauna, or “herps”, are amphibians and reptiles.

Jaccard dissimilarity index: The Jaccard dissimilarity index is a metric that describes the difference between two ecological communities. The index ranges from 0 to 1, where low values show that the two communities have similar species and high values show a greater difference between communities.

Lineages: A lineage is a group of organisms descended from a common ancestor. Members of the same lineage are closely related and their genetic sequences are more similar to each other than to other lineages. A lineage can refer to several species, or it can refer to organisms that are not yet described as a species but are known to be closely related. In this study, haemosporidians are considered different lineages if their genetic sequence is different from other haemosporidian parasites.

Leucocytozoon: Leucocytozoon is a genus of haemosporidian parasite that infects birds. They are introduced to their avian host through the bite of an insect, most often a blackfly. More than 100 species of Leucocytozoon have been described.

Malaria: Malaria is an infectious disease caused by Plasmodium parasites that are transmitted by mosquitoes. This disease affects humans and other animals, including birds. Malaria causes tiredness, fever, headaches, and in severe cases, can result in death. Human malaria is most common in the tropics and subtropics, regions near the equator.

Museum collection: A museum collection is a set of objects that is catalogued and cared for by an institution or dedicated set of individuals. Museum collections can include art, historical objects, or scientific collections, like those at natural history museums. Collections can also include living collections of specimens, such as in zoos or seed banks. Natural history museum collections focus on specimens and parts of animals, plants, fungi, and other natural objects. These specimens are collected and cared for so that current and future generations can study, learn from, and have a record of the natural world.

Null model: The null modeling approach that we used is a statistical method. It is a way to analyze data. A null model describes the expectation that a certain process/event has not happened, or there is no difference between groups. It provides a reference point for comparison. In the context of this research, the null model suggests that there is no difference in parasite communities across mountain ranges. When a null modeling approach is used, researchers randomly sample datasets based on the expectations of the null model (that there is no difference between groups) and then compare that to the dataset that was observed in nature. In the context of this research, we randomly sampled from a pool of all the parasites that we found over the course of the study and compared that to the parasite communities that we found at each individual mountain range. If the values from the observed dataset fall outside the range of values from the randomly generated dataset, this suggests that the null model is not supported. In other words, if the parasites that we found at a particular mountain range look different than the parasites from the random dataset, we say that the null model is not supported and that the parasites are different between the mountain ranges.

Parahaemoproteus: Parahaemoproteus is a genus of haemosporidian parasites that primarily infects birds. They are introduced to their vertebrate host through the bite of an insect, most often a biting midge. More than 170 species have been described.

Plasmodium: Plasmodium is a genus of haemosporidian parasites that infects birds, lizards, and mammals. They are introduced to their vertebrate host through the bite of an insect, most often a mosquito. More than 200 species have been described, only five of which are known to infect humans. These parasites cause the disease malaria.

Post-baccalaureate researcher:  A post-baccalaureate researcher, or a “post-bac”, is a person who has completed their bachelor’s degree and has enrolled in a 1–2 year research-intensive program. Post-baccalaureate programs are offered across the country. They are professional development programs that help students transition into PhD programs.

Postdoctoral researcher: A postdoctoral researcher, or a “post-doc”, is a person who has completed their Ph.D., or doctoral degree, and continues to conduct  research. Postdoctoral research is often collaborative where the post-doc will work with other researchers and students, and often they are more independent. Usually, these researchers have significant training and skills, but are still considered to be early in their career stage. They may be continuing their training or gaining additional skills before beginning a more permanent position. A typical post-doc lasts for 2-3 years, and a person may complete more than one post-doc appointment, depending on their career goals.

Simulate: Scientists run simulations using computers. The computer will take a mathematical concept and a set of data to mimic what might happen in nature. In the context of this research, we created simulated datasets to describe what might happen in nature under the null model. In other words, these datasets describe what we expected if all the mountain ranges had similar parasite communities.

Sky island: The term “sky island” refers to a mountain range that has forest habitat at high elevations and is surrounded by desert habitat at low elevations. Like true islands separated by oceans, plants and animals that live in forests may not be able to move as easily across desert habitats. This landscape can result in isolated populations.

Specialists: In general ecology, specialists may use or specialize on a particular habitat, food source, or set of environmental conditions. In the context of this study, a specialist parasite only infects one species or a closely related bird species.

Learn More:

Arctos: Arctos is a museum collection management system where we make specimen data available. More information for each of the birds sampled in this project can be found through specimen links reported in our paper. See an example here.

MalAvi: MalAvi is the avian malaria database. All the haemosporidian parasite lineages that have been identified are reported here, along with their host species, geographic ranges, genetic sequences, and publications. New genetic sequences can be compared to the existing database to determine whether a particular parasite has been found before.

United States Geological Survey (USGS) information on avian malaria

Audubon article on avian malaria

Dr. Chris Witt’s lab webpage for those interested in this type of research

Synopsis edited by Rosario Marroquin-Flores, PhD (Anticipated: August 2022), Illinois State University, School of Biological Sciences and Madison Rittinger, PhD (Anticipated: May 2027), University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Department of Biological Sciences.

Download this article here

Less equals more: When does mortality lead to larger populations?

Featured Scientist: Joseph T Neale (he/him/his), M.S. 2015, Illinois State University. PhD anticipated Spring 2023, Department of Biosciences, Rice University.

Joey Neale on a walk with his dog Maggie near his home.
Joey Neale on a walk with his dog Maggie near his home

Birthplace: Richmond, Virginia

My Research: My current research looks at how climate change influences the effects of predators on their prey.

Research Goals: I hope to continue to study how climate change and human activities change how species interact in nature.

Career Goals: I want to be a professor at a research university.

Hobbies: Guitar, hiking and backpacking, running, video games

Favorite Thing About Science: I love being on the front lines of expanding human knowledge about the world around us.

My Team: I conducted this research at Illinois State University in Dr. Steve Juliano’s lab. Dr. Juliano advised me in the design and implementation of this project. I wrote the publication with edits from Dr. Juliano. My lab mates in the Juliano lab included Geoff Ower, Kate Evans, and Kris McIntire. I also had assistance from several undergraduates: Keenan Longan, Amy Gensler, and Kaitlyn Frederick.

Organism of Study: Mosquitos

Several mosquito larvae submerged in water. They have their heads down and their bottoms up so that the siphon can stick out of the top of the water.
Several mosquito larvae submerged in water. They have their heads down and their bottoms up so that the siphon can stick out of the top of the water. Mosquito larvae use their siphons to breathe. Image source: Dr. Steve Juliano Lab, Illinois State University.
A close-up of mosquito perched on a person’s skin. It has a red abdomen.
A close-up of an Aedes albopictus, also known as the “Asian tiger mosquito.” One of the four mosquito species we tested in this study. The mosquito’s abdomen is red because it is filled with blood. Image source: James Gathany, USCDCP on Pixnio.

Field of Study: Population Ecology

What is Population Ecology? A population is a group of organisms of the same species that live in the same area and mate with each other. Population ecology is the study of how the size of populations change over time. The size of a population can change when individuals of that population are born and when they die. Population size can also change when individuals leave or enter into the population.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Finding the sweet spot: What levels of larval mortality lead to compensation or overcompensation in adult production?”

A QR code that links to Joey's published paper.
QR code to the original publication

Citation: Neale, J. T., and Juliano, S. A. 2019. Finding the sweet spot: What levels of larval mortality lead to compensation or overcompensation in adult production? (doi: 10:9. 10.1002/ecs2.2855)

Research At A Glance: In nature, organisms are often killed by outside sources such as predators, diseases, extreme weather, and human activity. When outside sources kill organisms, it is called extrinsic mortality. While this type of death may at first lower the size of a population, killing individuals can sometimes lead to increases in the population size over time. This can occur when food is scarce, and many individuals are already at a risk of starvation. The extrinsic mortality kills individuals that would have starved to death anyway. When these individuals are removed from the population, there is now more food for the other members of the population. This can lead to an increase in the population size because these other members are now able to get the food that they need to survive. 

The number of individuals that are removed from a population should determine if the population will grow. Our goal was to find how many mosquitos must be removed from a population for it to grow. We also wanted to know if the species of mosquito made a difference. To test this, we raised four different species of mosquito larvae in small containers. We then removed individuals from the population to imitate the extrinsic mortality that mosquitos experience in nature. We either removed the larvae from their containers by hand or added predators that would eat individuals in the population. We removed between 0% and 70% of the larvae from each container to see what percentage of extrinsic mortality would increase the population size. Afterward, we counted the number of adult mosquitoes in each container to find the final population size. We found that how mosquitos respond to extrinsic mortality depended on the species. We also found that species that can live on less food are less likely to experience population growth in response to extrinsic mortality. Even so, the population size grew for three of the four species that we tested. For two species, high and low mortality kept the population small, but intermediate mortality caused the population to grow. For one species, the population grew no matter how many individuals were removed.

Highlights: In our research, we studied four species of mosquito: the Asian tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus), the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti), the common house mosquito (Culex pipiens), and theeastern tree hole mosquito (Aedes triseriatus). One of the most important results from this study came from the species, A. triseriatus.  A. triseriatus mosquitos can be found in the southern part of the United States. When we removed 70% of the A. triseriatus larvae from the container, the population grew (Figure 1).

Each of the dots in Figure 1 represent one replicate from the experiment. The experiment was done several times in different containers to make sure that we consistently got the same results. This is called replication. Each container is a replicate. The lines show the relationship between the percent mortality and the number of survivors when you take all of the dots into account. When 0-40% of the population was removed by predators, the final population grew from 5-45 survivors (shown in orange). When 0-70% of the population was removed by hand, the final population grew from 0-45 survivors (shown in blue). Overall, the figure shows that removing individuals increased the population size.

A data figure that shows the number of A. triseriatus mosquitos that survived the experiment. In the experiment, more mosquitos were removed by hand than when predators were added into the container. Regardless, this figure shows that removing individuals increased the population size.
Figure 1. The number of adult A. triseriatus mosquitos that survived our extrinsic mortality experiment. The y-axis shows the number of adult mosquitoes that survived the experiment, or the final population size. The x-axis shows the percentage of mosquitoes removed from the container. Larvae were removed by hand (blue) or were eaten by predators (orange). Adapted from Neale et al. 2019.

These results are surprising because we would expect that removing a large number of individuals would cause the population size to decrease. The fact that we can remove 70% of the population and still see an increase is very surprising. When it comes to pest control, this means you could kill up to 70% of a pest population and end up with an even larger population than if you had done nothing at all!

What My Science Looks Like: In this experiment, we mimicked extrinsic mortality by introducing predators called Copepods to our containers. Copepods are tiny freshwater animals related to shrimps and crabs (see the image below).

A picture of a copepod on a white background. It has an oval-shaped, translucent body and what appears to be very large antennae. Its tail is bifurcated and about half the length of its body.
A microscopic view of a copepod predator. Copepods are approximately 1 millimeter long, and only hunt very small mosquito larvae. Image source: Don Loari on iNaturalist.

The Big Picture: Mosquitos have been linked to several human and animal diseases. Mosquito-borne diseases such as the Zika virus, West Nile virus, and malaria are spread when someone is bitten by an infected mosquito. As a result, government agencies often invest in mosquito control techniques to lower the size of mosquito populations. Many types of mosquito control techniques target mosquito larvae.  People will apply insecticides to standing water to kill mosquito larvae, before they can become adults. Our results show why this might be a problem. Our study suggests that removing individuals from the population can increase the population size, depending on the species of mosquito and the number of larvae removed. Our study can be used to better inform mosquito control practices and avoid those that can increase in mosquito populations.

Decoding the Language:

Copepods: Copepods are small animals that live in water and are related to shrimp and crabs. They are predators of other small animals, such as young mosquito larvae.

Extrinsic mortality: Extrinsic mortality is an outside source of death that affects a population. The source of death does not come from the population itself. Deaths that are caused by predators, diseases, fires, and human activities, are all examples of extrinsic mortality. If an organism starves because it is competing for food with other members of the same species, then that is not a death caused by extrinsic mortality.

Insecticides: An insecticide is a substance that can kill insects and is often used in mosquito control. Examples include pyrethroids to kill adult mosquitos, and BTi and pyriproxyfen to kill larvae.

Larvae: Larvae is plural for the word larva. A larva is the immature form of an insect. For example, a caterpillar is the larva form of a butterfly. Mosquito larvae live in water.

Population: A group of organisms of the same species that are close enough to one another to mate.

Predator: A predator is an animal that lives by killing and eating other animals.

Prey: An animal that is killed and consumed by a predator

Replicate: In experiments, replicates are used to make sure that the results of the study are consistent. The researcher will repeat the experiment several times on a small scale to make sure that they are consistently getting the same results. In the context of this research, the replicate was the individual container. For example, five containers may have had 20% of the mosquitos removed to consistently measure how the population size changed in response to 20% mortality.

Siphons: A siphon is a respiratory organ that helps insects breathe underwater. In mosquito larvae, it is like a snorkel attached to their rear ends and serves as a breathing tube. The larvae will rest near the surface of water with their snorkels sticking out to breathe in air.

Learn More:

Juliano lab at Illinois State University, School of Biological Sciences, where I conducted this research for my master’s degree

Rudolf lab at Rice University, where I am currently working on my PhD

Centers for Disease Control (CDC) information on mosquito-borne diseases

The American Mosquito Control Association (AMCA) information on mosquito control

Other scientific papers on this subject:

Ower, G.D., S.A. Juliano. 2019. Effects of larval density on a natural population of Culex restuans (Diptera: Culicidae):  No evidence of compensatory mortality.  Ecological Entomology 44:197-205. (doi: 10.1111/een.12689)

McIntire, KM, SA Juliano.  2018. How can mortality increase population size? A test of two mechanistic hypotheses. Ecology 99:1660–1670. (doi: 10.1002/ecy.2375)

Synopsis edited by Kate Evans, PhD (Anticipated May 2024), Illinois State University, School of Biological Sciences and Rosario Marroquin-Flores, PhD (Anticipated August 2022), Illinois State University, School of Biological Sciences.

Download this article here

Adopting new teaching standards: Fun or folly? Teacher professional knowledge on new science teaching standards in Illinois

Featured Scientist: Michael Burt (he/him/his), Doctor of Education (Anticipated: Spring 2022), Department of Teaching and Learning, Illinois State University

Michal Burt stands in the woods with a camping pack and smiles at the camera.

Birthplace: Rockford, IL

My Research: I want to learn more about how science teachers (especially chemistry teachers) build their curricula and how they change them based on their goals for their students. A curriculum is everything students need to learn, how they learn it, and why it is important.

Research Goals: I’d like to explore how science teachers use their knowledge to create chances for all students to learn. I would also like to learn more about how teachers understand their role as science teachers, what ideas they have about how best to teach science, and what they are doing to bring their ideas into their classes.

Career Goals: I currently teach science (mostly chemistry) at Normal Community West High School in Normal, IL. I plan to use my research to improve student learning.

Hobbies: I love backpacking, hiking, and anything that goes on outdoors.

Favorite Thing About Science: Science provides us with great tools to learn about ourselves and our surroundings. It allows us to learn new information that can challenge or expand our understanding of the world.

Organism of Study: People (teachers)! Specifically, for this research, I studied high school chemistry teachers.

Field of Study: Science Education

What is Science Education? Science Education is a field focused on the methods that teachers use to teach science in the classroom and the way that students learn science in the classroom. We refer to this more generally as the teaching and learning of science. We work with students in K-12 and at the university level.

My Team: This research was completed as part of my initial coursework in the doctoral program at Illinois State University. I was doing an independent study with a faculty member, Dr. Sarah Boesdorfer, in the Department of Chemistry.

Check Out My Original Paper: “The implementation of reform-based standards in high school chemistry classrooms influenced by science teaching orientations”

Citation: Burt, M. B., & Boesdorfer, S. B. (2021). The Implementation of Reform-Based Standards in High School Chemistry Classrooms Influenced by Science Teaching Orientations. The Electronic Journal for Research in Science & Mathematics Education25(1), 71-92.

Research At A Glance:  Teachers use learning standards, or state-wide expectations about what students should know at their education levels, to make lesson plans. These standards are made using the latest research, but it is not known how strictly teachers use the standards in their classrooms. To understand how one common set of standards, the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), have been used to change how teachers teach, it is important to find out how widely they are used. In our study, we looked at how some of the science content included in the NGSS had been used in teachers’ curricula throughout the state of Illinois. We found that the NGSS were not fully used in classrooms across the state and that several topics were either left out or only partially covered. Additionally, other topics not included in the NGSS were covered more thoroughly. This suggests that professional development might be required and/or that teachers’ previous knowledge affects how much of the NGSS they use in their teaching.

Highlights: We sent a survey to Illinois high school chemistry teachers across the state of Illinois to gather our initial data. In the survey, teachers reported how much time they spent teaching different chemistry topics. Figure 1 shows the topics that teachers covered for only a short period of time (0-2 days) each school year. The blue bars show the chemistry topics that are included under NGSS and the orange bars show topics that are not included under NGSS. Figure 1 shows that most of the topics under NGSS were covered for only a short period of time in the classroom.

A bar chart that shows the percent of teachers teaching different chemistry topics for 0-2 days. Most teachers teach organic chemistry and kinetics for 0-2 days. Atomic structure is not on the NGSS standards list and very few teachers teach that topic for 0-2 days.
Figure 1. Chemistry topics that Illinois teachers covered between 0 and 2 days each school year. The x-axis shows the percentage of teachers covering each topic. The y-axis shows the chemistry topics covered. The letters in parentheses (indicated by the format: HS-XX#-#) show each topic represented in the NGSS relating to chemistry.

Figure 2 shows the topics that teachers covered for a longer period of time (more than 11 days each school year). Similar to the previous graph, the blue bars show the chemistry topics that are included under NGSS and the orange bars show topics that are not included under NGSS.  Figure 2 shows that many of the topics that were covered extensively were not directly tied to NGSS.

A bar chart that shows the percent of teachers teaching different chemistry topics for 11 or more days. Most teachers teach Stoichiometry for 11 or more days, but few teach organic chemistry for that long.
Figure 2. Chemistry topics that Illinois teachers covered more than 11 days each school year. The x-axis shows the percentage of teachers covering each topic. The y-axis shows the chemistry topics covered. The letters in parentheses (indicated by the format: HS-XX#-#) show each topic represented in the state standards relating to chemistry.

What My Science Looks Like: After the survey, we interviewed nine teachers about the teaching and learning of chemistry and how that might affect how they make their curricula. Our results suggested that teachers were changing their curricula based on what they thought would help their students be successful. Six out of the nine teachers felt the goal of an introductory chemistry class was to prepare students for a higher-level chemistry class. These teachers felt they had to “give” their students key knowledge important for success in later coursework. This knowledge is part of what is considered to be “essential” chemistry knowledge that many teachers feel they have to teach their students. Three out of the nine teachers felt that their introductory class was a chance for students to develop skills they can use outside of class. These results fit well with the initial survey and were similar for teachers at different sized schools, experience levels, etc. The results of our survey are shown in the image below.

A picture of a woman with a thought bubble that says, "How can I best ensure student success?". Beside the image are two options: 1) "Prepare students for future chemistry classes" and 2) "Teach students to apply their chemistry knowledge". Then there is an arrow that points to "Use of NGSS in the classroom".
The teachers interviewed were changing their curricula based on what they thought would help their students be the most successful. This is impacted how they used NGSS in the classroom.  

Our results suggest that we need a deeper look at how teachers with different beliefs might approach each NGSS topic. My dissertation will explore these ideas for less thoroughly covered topics like kinetics and nuclear chemistry.

The Big Picture: It’s important to check how learning standards are being used in the classroom and how their use affects student learning. Our study helps us understand how the NGSS are being used in chemistry classrooms across Illinois. Our study shows that simply having state standards may not be enough to change student learning because teachers may be using them differently in the classroom, depending on their perception of student needs. We need to think about how we can support teachers so that all students reach the NGSS learning goals.

Decoding the Language:

Content: A specific idea or principle covered in a class (e.g. chemical bonding).

Curriculum (singular)/Curricula (plural): Includes the type of knowledge students “need”, how that knowledge is developed or acquired, and why it’s of value to students and/or society.

Kinetics: A topic within chemistry that focuses on the speed that chemical reactions occur as well as the factors that influence those rates.

Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS): K-12 standards that describes what students should know and be able to do.

Nuclear chemistry: A topic in chemistry that deals with changes in the nuclei of atoms and radioactivity.

Standards: The intended learning or performance outcomes that teachers are expected to have all of their students reach in a given class, school year, or over a high school career.

Professional Development: Training and learning experiences designed for teachers that can be used to improve their curriculum planning, classroom teaching, and support students’ learning.

Learn More:

Website on Next Generation Science Standards

Book on Next Generation Science Standards:

NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For states, by states. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. 

Other peer-reviewed papers on similar topics:

Friedrichsen, P., van Driel, J. H., & Abell, S. K. (2011). Taking a closer look at science teaching orientations. Science Education, 95(2), 358-376. 

Roehrig, G. H., & Kruse, R. A. (2005). The role of teachers’ beliefs and knowledge in the adoption of a reform-based curriculum. School Science and Mathematics, 105(8), 412–422. 

Veal, W. R., Riley Lloyd, M. E., Howell, M. R., & Peters, J. (2015). Normative beliefs, discursive claims, and implementation of reform-based science standards. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 53(9), 1419–1443.

Synopsis edited by Josselyn Gonzalez, M.S. in Biology, Illinois State University, School of Biological Sciences, and Jordyn Kosai, B.S. in Environmental Design (Anticipated June 2024), University of California Davis.

Download this article here

Looking under the hood: how warm temperatures affect gene processing in turtle eggs

Featured Scientist: Rosario Marroquín-Flores (she/her/hers), PhD (Anticipated May 2022), Illinois State University, Biological Sciences.

Rosario standing in the water next to a boat, wearing waders. She holds a red-eared slider turtle in her hands and smiles at the camera.
Trapping turtles at our field site, Banner Marsh State Fish and Wildlife Area

Birthplace: Albuquerque, New Mexico

My Research: I study temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) in turtles. Turtles that have TSD will become male or female based on the temperature that they experience as an egg. 

Research Goals: While I really enjoy fieldwork and my current research, I am interested in studying something different when I graduate. I am interested in doing research in college classrooms. I want to see if writing science communication articles can help students to understand primary literature. I also want to see if reading science communication articles can help students get excited about research.

Career Goals: I am interested in teaching and doing research at the university level.

Hobbies: I enjoy camping, backpacking, and spending time with my partner and my pets. 

Favorite Thing About Science: I enjoy the autonomy of science. I like that I get to decide what I want to study. I get to ask my own questions and find my own answers. I also like how dynamic it is. Every day I get to do something different. I’m very busy, but I’m never bored! 

My Team: I am the first author on the publication, but this has been a collaborative project. My advisors, Dr. Rachel Bowden and Dr. Ryan Paitz, helped me come up with the project, assisted with data analysis, and helped in writing the publication. My wonderful lab mate, Anthony Breitenbach, helped me organize my eggs into treatments, helped me with dissections, and provided lots of emotional support and very loud jokes.

Organism of Study: I study the red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta)

A recently hatched turtle. The turtle is still half inside the egg and is roughly the size of a golf ball.
A hatchling red-eared slider turtle emerging from its shell

Field of Study: Eco-physiology

What is Eco-Physiology? Eco-physiology is the study of the relationship between the body and the environment. In my research, I study how temperature affects the way turtles develop in the egg.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Brief exposure to warm temperatures reduces intron retention in Kdm6b in a species with TSD”

A QR code that links to the original publication.
QR code to the original publication

Citation: Marroquín-Flores RA, Bowden RM, Paitz RT. 2021 Brief exposure to warm temperatures reduces intron retention in Kdm6b in a species with TSD. Biology Letters. 17: 20210167.20210167.

Research at a Glance: Temperature can impact how animals develop, and this is particularly true for animals with TSD. The red-eared slider turtle has TSD, which means that the temperature that the turtle experiences as an egg will determine whether it develops into a male or a female. In this species, warm temperatures result in female hatchlings and cool temperatures result in male hatchlings. Researchers have been studying TSD for over 50 years, but we still don’t understand how the turtle detects the temperature and how that temperature leads to male or female development. But we do know some things. We know many genes in the body of a turtle that turn on in response to temperature. We also know that these genes can lead to male or female development. Genes are made up of DNA and carry instructions that the body uses to make proteins, which go on to play important roles in the body. In this case, genes that turn on in response to temperature will make proteins that lead to male or female development. However, before genes can make a protein, they need to be processed. Usually, the body will process them by removing portions of the DNA, called introns. Once the introns are removed, the body will read the instructions in the gene and make a protein. This is where my research comes in. One really important gene in turtles is called histone H3 lysine 27 (H3K27) demethylase, or Kdm6b. Kdm6b is one of the earliest genes to respond to temperature. It turns on in response to cool temperatures and leads to male development. Kdm6b is special because it is not processed like other genes. Normally, introns are removed from genes when the DNA is processed. In Kdm6b, however, one intron stays in the DNA at cool temperatures, but is removed at warm temperatures.

Researchers who study TSD usually incubate eggs under a constant cool temperature or constant warm temperature. Then, they will look at how turtle genes respond to these temperatures. In my research, we use temperatures that mimic those that a turtle would experience in the wild. We use temperatures that go up and down, or fluctuate, to mimic a daytime and nighttime environment. Everything we know about how Kdm6b is processed is based on research that incubated eggs under constant temperatures. In my research, we wanted to understand how Kdm6b would be processed when we incubated eggs under fluctuating temperatures. To do this, we put eggs into incubators that fluctuated between 22°C and 28°C (25.0 ± 3°C) to mimic a cool, male-producing environment. Then, we moved some of the eggs to a warm, female-producing environment that fluctuated between 26.5°C and 32.5°C (29.5 ± 3°C). We then measured how often the intron stayed in Kdm6b at both temperatures. We learned that Kdm6b is processed very quickly in response to temperature. Within two days of exposure to warm temperatures, the intron was removed from Kdm6b. This shows us that even short bursts of warm temperature can impact how genes are processed. We learned about how Kdm6b is processed, but we still need more information to understand how the intron impacts male development. We are also still trying to figure out if the intron that stays in Kdm6b leads to a different protein.

Highlights: In this research, we found that Kdm6b is processed differently at male and female temperatures. We also found that it happens very quickly. When we isolate the intron containing version of Kdm6b, we see that it goes down when the egg is exposed to warm, female-producing temperatures (Figure 1). Figure 1 is a boxplot that shows how the intron containing version of Kdm6b changes in response to temperature. The y-axis shows gene expression, or how much Kdm6b is present in the body of the turtle. The x-axis shows the day that the eggs were sampled on and the temperature that the eggs were incubated under.

The letters in Figure 1 show the results of the data analysis. When the letters are different, that means that the expression of the intron containing version of Kdm6b changed. We see that the expression did not change between incubation day 26 and day 28 in eggs incubated under cool temperatures because both blue boxplots have the letter “a” above them. On the other hand, we see that expression was much lower on day 26 and day 28 in eggs incubated under warm temperatures because both pink boxplots have the letter “b” above them. Figure 1 shows that the expression of the intron containing version of Kdm6b went down in response to warm temperatures.

A data figure with boxplots that shows how much of the intron containing version of Kdm6b is expressed in the body of a growing turtle. The blue boxes show data from eggs reared at cool (25.0 ± 3°C), male-producing temperatures. These blue boxes are larger and have more spread than the pink boxes, which show data from eggs reared at warm (29.0 ± 3°C), female-producing temperatures. The blue boxes have an average near 0.001 and the pink boxes have an average near 0.  In other words, the intron-containing version Kdm6b is expressed more under male-producing temperatures than female-producing temperatures.
Figure 1. The expression of the intron containing version of Kdm6b at cool, male-producing temperatures and at warm, female-producing temperatures. The blue boxes show the expression of Kdm6b when eggs are incubated under male temperatures. The small pink boxes show the expression of Kdm6b when eggs are incubated under female temperatures. Figure adapted from Marroquín-Flores et al. 2021.

What My Science Looks Like: One important part of our research was the temperatures that we used for our eggs. We used temperatures that mimic those that a turtle would naturally experience in the wild. In our Illinois population, turtles nest from May to late June. When we measure soil temperatures during that time, we find that eggs are often exposed to cool, male-producing temperatures. This leads us to ask the question, how do female turtles hatch in this cool environment? In recent research from our lab, we found that short bursts of exposure to warm temperatures can lead to female hatchlings. Even just 5 days of warm temperature is enough to make some turtles hatch as female. We used this information when we designed our temperature treatments for this experiment.

We programmed incubators to fluctuate within the range of male-producing and female-producing temperatures. Turtles start to respond to incubation temperature during the thermal sensitive period (TSP) of development. The TSP takes place during the middle third of development and exposure to warm temperatures during the TSP can make turtles hatch as female. Longer exposure to warm temperatures during the TSP will result in more female hatchlings. All of our eggs were incubated for the first 24 days at a cool temperature. At these temperatures, incubation day 24 is when the TSP starts. After incubation day 24, eggs either stayed in the cool temperature incubator or were moved to a warm temperature incubator. Our goal was to expose eggs to a short burst of warm temperature, similar to what we see in the wild. Then, we sampled our eggs on incubation days 24, 26, and 28 to see how the intron in Kdm6b responded to the change in temperature over time. The image below shows the incubations that we used.

Eggs were incubated under a male-producing temperature of 25.0 ± 3°C for the entire experiment or were moved to a female-producing temperature of 29.5 ± 3°C after incubation day 24.
Eggs were incubated under a male-producing temperature of 25.0 ± 3°C for the entire experiment or were moved to a female-producing temperature of 29.5 ± 3°C after incubation day 24.

Finally, the image below summarizes the results of our research. When eggs are exposed to warm temperatures, the intron is removed from Kdm6b and these warm temperatures lead to female development. This shows us that temperature can impact how genes are processed, but we are still working to figure out how the intron impacts male development.

A picture of a red thermometer that points to a turtle egg. The image zooms into the inside of the egg to show the intron in the Kdm6b gene.  It shows that the intron is cut out of the gene under warm temperatures.
How Kdm6b responds to warm incubation temperature in a turtle egg. The green boxes represent parts of the Kdm6b gene. The thin green line represents the intron. At warm temperatures, the intron is removed from the Kdm6b gene. Image adapted from Marroquín-Flores et al. 2021.   

The Big Picture: One of the effects of climate change is that we now have warmer temperatures and more days at those warm temperatures. These changes in temperature can affect how animals grow and develop. There are many reptiles that have TSD and all of them are likely to be impacted by warm temperatures. My research helps us to understand how the body will respond to warm temperatures in species that have TSD. This research can also give us insight into how genes are processed more generally. Many of the genes that lead to male or female development are shared between species, including humans. All living things have evolved from a common ancestor and share certain traits. This is why scientists use animals in research to study human diseases. Kdm6b is an important gene in turtles because it turns on another gene called Doublesex and mab-3 related transcription factor 1, or Dmrt1. Dmrt1 is important for male development in humans, mice, chickens, fruit flies, and many other animals. In humans, males are born with a Y-chromosome and that chromosome carries genes that the child needs to develop as male. In humans, Dmrt1 is turned on by a gene on the Y-chromosome. In turtles, Dmrt1 is turned on by Kdm6b and Kdm6b is turned on by temperature. We are starting to learn that many genes can be activated by temperature, even by regular changes in body temperature. This type of research can help us understand how temperature impacts gene processing in many animals. In future work, we will use the same type of incubation conditions to see how temperature effects other important genes linked to male and female development.

Decoding the Language:

Autonomy: Autonomy is the ability to act on your own values and interests. It is having the power to make your own decisions independently and do the things that are important to you.

Boxplot: A boxplot is a graph that shows you information about the spread of your data. The top line of the box shows the 75th percentile. This is where 75% of the data fall below the line, and 25% of the data fall above the line. The line in the middle of the box shows the 50th percentile, or the middle of your data. The bottom line shows the 25th percentile. This is where 25% of the data fall below the line and 75% of the data fall above the line. The lines that extend from the box in either direction are called whiskers. They show the range of the highest values and the lowest values of the data set. Outliers fall outside of the rest of the data and are shown using a dot. As you can see in Figure 1, there was on outlier an incubation day 26 at warm temperatures. It shows up as a dot above the box. That particular sample had higher normalized expression than the other samples gathered on that day and at that temperature.

Chromosome: A chromosome is a long DNA molecule that carries genes. It is found inside your cells. A Y-chromosome is a specific type of chromosome that you inherit from your father and leads to male development. In humans, males have one Y chromosome (inherited from dad) and one X chromosome (inherited from mom). In humans, females have two X chromosomes, with one inherited from each parent.

Climate change: Climate change refers to increasing global temperatures and the resulting shifts in global weather patterns. Human use of fossil fuels releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change.

Data analysis: Data analysis in biology involves comparing data (in this case, the amount of the intron-containing version of Kdm6b in turtles) across groups (known as “treatments”) in an experiment. Data analysis is essential to draw accurate and meaningful conclusions about a topic (like the role of Kdm6b in turtle sex determination) after an experiment.

Doublesex and mab-3 related transcription factor 1 (Dmrt1): Dmrt1 is a gene that is important for male development in many species. It helps male reproductive organs to grow. In turtles, Dmrt1 is turned on by Kdm6b. If Dmrt1 is intentionally turned off by researchers, then the turtle will develop as female.

Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA): DNA is like a blueprint of the body. It is a molecule that contains all the instructions that the body needs to grow, develop, and function. 

Enzyme: An enzyme is a type of protein that can make a chemical reaction go faster.

Fieldwork: Fieldwork is a type of research that takes place outside. People who do fieldwork usually work with plants and animals. For my research, fieldwork includes trapping turtles and digging up turtle eggs at the Banner Marsh Fish and Wildlife Area.

Gene: A gene contains the instructions that your body needs to make a protein. Genes are heritable, which means that the genes you have in your body came from your parents. 

Hatchling: A hatchling is any animal that has recently come out of an egg.

Intron: An intron is a part of the gene that is usually removed during DNA processing. During processing, DNA is converted to RNA. RNA is a messenger that carries the information contained in a gene to the place in the body that is responsible for making proteins. Introns are removed at the RNA stage because introns usually don’t contain information that the body needs to make the protein. Once the introns are removed, the RNA can be re-organized to make different proteins. 

Histone H3 lysine 27 (H3K27) demethylase (Kdm6b): Kdm6b is a gene that is important for male development in TSD species. When turtles are incubated under cool, male-producing temperatures, the expression of Kdm6b increases. If turtles are incubated under male-producing temperatures, but Kdm6b is intentionally turned off by researchers, then the turtle will develop as female. Kdm6b is important because it responds directly to temperature and it turns on another gene that is critical for male development.

Primary literature: In science, primary literature consists of the published results of an original research project. Published research is evaluated by several other researchers to make sure that it is valid and high quality. The research paper referenced under the “citation” section of this article is an example of primary literature. It contains the published results of my original research.

Protein: A protein is a naturally-occurring compound made up of several amino acids. It is present in all living organisms and it performs very important functions in the body. Enzymes and antibodies are examples of proteins.

Temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD): TSD is a special form of sex determination, where temperature will determine whether an individual will develop as a male or female. There are several types of TSD. For some animals, like the red-eared slider turtle, warm temperatures create females and cool temperatures create males. For other animals, cool temperatures make females and warm temperatures make males. In other animals, like the American alligator, males are produced at high and low temperatures, but females are produced at intermediate temperatures.

Thermal sensitive period (TSP): The TSP is the window of development when the body of the growing turtle will respond to temperature and become male or female. If temperature is changed before or after the TSP, it will have no effect on the sex of the turtle.

Learn More:

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), USA site on Global Climate Change

University of Michigan Animal Diversity Web, information on the red-eared slider turtle

The Embryo Project Encyclopedia, information on temperature-dependent sex determination in reptiles

XBio educational video on how the body makes proteins

Recent research papers that provide more information about Kdm6b:

Deveson, I. W., Holleley, C. E., Blackburn, J., Graves, J. A. M., Mattick, J. S., Waters, P. D., & Georges, A. (2017). Differential intron retention in Jumonji chromatin modifier genes is implicated in reptile temperature-dependent sex determination. Science advances3(6), e1700731. *note: this paper calls Kdm6b “JMJD3”

Ge, C., Ye, J., Weber, C., Sun, W., Zhang, H., Zhou, Y., … & Capel, B. (2018). The histone demethylase KDM6B regulates temperature-dependent sex determination in a turtle species. Science360(6389), 645-648.

Weber, C., Zhou, Y., Lee, J. G., Looger, L. L., Qian, G., Ge, C., & Capel, B. (2020). Temperature-dependent sex determination is mediated by pSTAT3 repression of Kdm6b. Science368(6488), 303-306.

Synopsis edited by Jaclyn Everly, PhD (Anticipated: 2024), Illinois State University, School of Biological Sciences, and Naiomy Deliz Rios Arce, PhD, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, CA.

Download this article here

How your infection fights back: Bacterial defense against hypochlorous acid (HOCl)

Featured Scientist: Sadia Sultana (she/her/hers), PhD student (Anticipated: Spring 2024), School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

A picture of Sadi looking directly into the camera.

Birthplace: Dhaka, Bangladesh

My Research: Humans, animals, and several insects have an innate immune system. The innate immune system is the body’s first line defense against pathogens. Pathogens are a type of microorganism that can cause disease. After our body recognizes the pathogen, it activates the immune system to destroy it. In my research, I work to understand how pathogenic bacteria defend themselves against the innate immune system in humans.     

Research Goals: I am interested in studying how pathogenic bacteria interact with their hosts.

Career Goals: My long-term career goal is to establish myself as an academic researcher. My research focus would be how pathogenic bacteria interact with their human hosts.        

Hobbies: I like traveling and sports!

Favorite Thing About Science: Science brings people from different backgrounds together. It is interesting to learn how scientists from diverse research fields work together to answer new questions.

My Team: We have a diverse research group that consists of graduate and undergraduate students. We also host visiting research fellows.

Organism of Study: In my research, I work on a type of bacteria called uropathogenic Escherichia coli (UPEC). UPEC can cause urinary tract infections (UTIs) in humans.

Circles of bacteria on a plate (6 rows and 6 columns). The circles of bacteria on the far right are thin, with only a few bacteria. The circles on the far left are are full and opaque.
A spot plate of UPEC bacteria

Field of Study: Microbiology

What is Microbiology? Microbiology is the study of the forms of life that you cannot see without the use of a microscope. Microbiologists study how microscopic organisms play helpful or harmful roles in our lives.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Bacterial Defense Systems against the Neutrophilic Oxidant Hypochlorous Acid”

QR code that links to the original publication

Citation: Sultana, Sadia, Alessandro Foti, and Jan-Ulrik Dahl. “Bacterial defense systems against the neutrophilic oxidant hypochlorous acid.” Infection and Immunity 88.7 (2020).    

Research At A Glance: Our paper is a review article, a type of scientific paper that focuses on a very specific topic. Review articles summarize the results of prior research and propose possible directions for future research. In our article, we covered how pathogenic bacteria defend themselves from the human immune system. When people become infected by a pathogen, the immune system is rapidly activated to fight off the infection. The innate immune system is the first line of defense against infections. As part of the innate immune response, a type of protective cell, the neutrophil (also called a phagocytic cell) is activated. Neutrophil will surround and engulf the pathogen to destroy it.  Once the bacterium has been engulfed, the neutrophil will produce strong chemicals, like hypochlorous acid (HOCl), to destroy it. However, bacteria have also evolved ways to defend themselves from HOCl. In our paper, we focus on some of the defense strategies that bacteria use against HOCl and describe how bacteria use those strategies to survive in the human immune system.                                                       

Highlights: Our paper contains several illustrations that show how bacteria generally protect themselves from HOCl exposure, but our most important image was Figure 1. Figure 1 is broken into three steps. It shows how an innate immune cell, the neutrophil, will engulf a pathogen and how it will make HOCl to destroy it.

An illustration of a neutrophil surrounding a bacterium, pulling it into the cell, and encasing it within a membrane. The illustration then zooms in to the bacterium enclosed in the membrane. Inside the membrane, antimicrobial enzymes release chemicals to make HOCl.
Figure 1. Upper panel: the three-step process that neutrophils use to 1) sense and attach to the bacteria, 2) ingest the bacteria, and 3) kill the bacteria. Lower panel: how the neutrophil kills the bacteria. The neutrophil will release the antimicrobial enzymes, NOX2 and MPO, into the membrane that surrounds the bacteria. These antimicrobial enzymes help to make HOClFigure adapted from Sultana et al. 2021.  

When the human body becomes infected with pathogenic bacteria, neutrophils will migrate to the site of infection. The neutrophil will bind to the bacteria or “microbe” (step 1). It will then ingest the bacteria and enclose it within a small membrane (step 2). This process is called phagocytosis. In the final step, small particles called granules will release antimicrobial enzymes into the membrane that surrounds the bacterium (step 3). Enzymes are a type of protein that speed up chemical reactions. Antimicrobial enzymes cause a chemical reaction that damages the cellular structure of the bacteria. The top panel of Figure 1 shows steps 1-3 of this process. The bottom panel shows the chemical reactions that take place inside the membrane that surrounds the bacteria. Two important antimicrobial enzymes are NOX2 and MPO. They bring about a series of chemical reactions that create HOCl from oxygen (Figure 2).

A series of chemical reactions. Oxygen is converted to Super Oxide by NOX2. Super Oxide is converted to Hydrogen Peroxide by Superoxide dismutase. Finally, Hydrogen Peroxide is converted to Hypochlorous Acid by MPO.
Figure 2. A series of chemical reactions that can make HOCl from oxygen. One of the chemicals in this process is Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2). Many people are familiar with H2O2 because it is often used as an over-the-counter disinfectant for small cuts and scrapes. HOCl is also a very strong disinfectant and better at killing bacteria than H2O2. HOCl is the common ingredient of the household disinfectant, bleach.

What My Science Looks Like:  My PhD research aims to understand how pathogenic bacteria defend themselves against HOCl exposure. I study a specific type of bacteria, UPEC. In our lab, I recently discovered a group of genes in UPEC that appear to help the bacteria to defend against HOCl exposure. Now, my goal is to find out how these genes function.

The Big Picture: UTIs are the most common types of bacterial infection worldwide. They are particularly common among young and otherwise healthy women. In fact, about 60% of all women are diagnosed with a UTI at least once in their lifetime. Upon entering the urinary tract, UPEC rises from the urethra into the bladder. In response, our innate immune cells, neutrophils, infiltrate into the bladder and generate HOCl. Surprisingly, how UPEC defend themselves from HOCl exposure is completely unexplored. It’s important to learn how these bacteria defend against HOCl exposure. Doing so could reveal new drug targets that make UPEC vulnerable to this immune response. This treatment might increase the body’s ability to clear bacterial infections and lower the chance that the bacteria will become resistant to treatment.

Decoding the Language: 

Antimicrobial enzymes: Antimicrobial enzymes are any type of protein that can kill bacteria. They function by targeting different cellular components of the bacteria.

Gene: A gene is a unit of heredity passed from parents to offspring. Genes normally code for proteins that have certain functions in the body.

Granule: A granule is a small particle that contains different enzymes. It is barely visible under a microscope.

Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2): H2O2 is a type of reactive oxygen species, a molecule made from oxygen that can damage bacteria. Many people use H2O2 as an over-the-counter disinfectant.

Hypochlorous acid (HOCl): HOCl is a reactive chlorine species that can damage bacteria but is more effective at killing bacteria than H2O2. HOCl also commonly known as bleach.

Innate immune system: The innate immune system is the first line of defense against an infection. It is a fast and generalized response that involves many types of immune cells, such as      neutrophils. When you get a small cut on your finger and it swells, that is an example of an innate immune response.  It is different than the adaptive immune system, which is much slower.  In the adaptive immune response, the body will recognize a pathogen and create a defense that is specific to that pathogen. For example, if someone has previously had measles and has recovered, then that person will be protected for the rest of their lives from that illness. This is because the body has designed a specific defense to the pathogen that causes measles.  

Myeloperoxidase (MPO): MPO is an enzyme that is expressed by a neutrophil immune cell. It produces HOCl.

Neutrophil: A neutrophil is a type of white blood cell that is involved in the immune response to infection or injury. Neutrophils are very abundant and can make up 40% – 70% of all white blood cells. Neutrophils will move to the site of injury or infection very quickly and ingest pathogens to destroy them.

NADPH oxidase (NOX2): NOX2 is an enzyme that is expressed by a neutrophil immune cell. It converts oxygen (O2) to super oxide (O2). Super oxide is one of the chemicals in the series of chemical reactions that is needed to make HOCl.

Pathogenic: Pathogenic refers to a pathogen. A pathogen is any type of microorganism, like a bacterium, or virus, or more generally, a “germ”, that causes disease or infection.

Phagocytic cell: Phagocytic cell refers to a class of immune cells that are capable of ingesting invading pathogens to clear them from the body.

Phagocytosis: Phagocytosis is the process that specialized immune cells use to clear infectious microorganisms from the body. The process involves recognizing the invader, surrounding and engulfing the invader, then destroying the invader once it is inside the cell.

Spot plate: A “spot plate” is the plate used in a spot plate assay. A spot plate assay is a research method used to see how sensitive bacteria is to a type of antimicrobial (chemicals that kill microorganisms). The scientist will apply antimicrobials at different concentrations, then count how many bacteria able to survive at each concentration.

Urethra: The urethra is the duct that connects to the bladder and allows people to urinate. 

Urinary tract infection (UTI): UTIs are common infections that take place in the urinary system. Most infections take place within the lower urinary tract, in the urethra and the bladder, but the infection can also reach the kidneys. Symptoms generally include painful urination, but symptoms become more serious if the infection reaches the kidneys. UTIs can occur naturally and can also occur in a medical setting when patients have a catheter placed to allow for assisted urination.

Uropathogenic Escherichia coli (UPEC): UPEC is the most common bacteria that causes UTIs. It causes about 80% – 90% of the UTIs that occur naturally.

Learn More:

Article on innate and adaptive immunity

Research paper on pathogenic Escherichia coli: Kaper JB, Nataro JP, Mobley HL. 2004. Pathogenic escherichia coli. Nature reviews microbiology. 2(2):123-40.

Research paper on hypochlorous acid on hosts and pathogens: Ulfig A, Leichert LI. 2020.The effects of neutrophil-generated hypochlorous acid and other hypohalous acids on host and pathogens. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences. 13:1-30.

Synopsis edited by Rosario Marroquin-Flores, PhD (Anticipated: Spring 2022), Illinois State University, and Jaclyn Everly, PhD (Anticipated: Spring 2024), Illinois State University.

Download this article here

Article released 5-18-2021

What can eggshell coloration tell us about female health and male behavior?

Featured Scientist: Kara Hodges, Master of Science 2019, School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

Kara wears a face mask and smiles at the camera. She is in a laboratory.

Birthplace: Indianapolis, IN

My Research:  My research explored eggshell coloration to see how coloration was connected to the health of a mother bird. I was also interested in exploring how coloration might impact how male birds cared for their offspring after the birds hatched.

Research Goals:  I currently work for the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA). I study the genetics of animals raised for meat. Moving forward, I would prefer to work on animal behavior and conservation-related questions.

Career Goals: I’m still figuring out what to do next with my life. I’m thinking of going back to school to get a professional degree in a medical field.

Hobbies: I like to run, hike, and garden. I also spend a lot of time caring for my many pets.

Favorite Thing About Science: What I like most about science is that it has layers. One question leads you to another, and soon you’re down a rabbit hole of discovery. 

My Team: My advisors, Dr. Thompson and Dr. Sakaluk, helped me develop my hypothesis, design the experiment, collect the data, analyze the results, and edit my thesis. Fellow graduate students from the Thompson Lab and Sakaluk Lab, and members of the summer field crew, helped me conduct field work and collect data. Dr. Alysia Vrailes-Mortimer and Dr. Nathan Mortimer, and their students, assisted me with the molecular lab work, processing digital photographs, and using machine learning. Dr. Hauber from the University of Illinois helped me extract and measure eggshell pigments. My committee members helped guide my research and provided valuable insight. Last but not least, I received funding to buy materials for my research from the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Honor Society, the American Ornithological Society, the Beta Lambda Phi Sigma Honor Society, the National Institutes of Health, and Illinois State University.

Organism of Study: I studied the house wren (Troglodytes aedon), a wild migratory songbird.

I picture of a plump house wren sitting on a branch.
Photo credit: Andy Witchger, Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library

Field of Study: Behavioral Ecology

What is Behavioral Ecology? Ecology is the study of living things and the relationships that they have to each other and to the environment. Behavioral ecology is a branch of ecology that tries to understand why animals do what they do. How does the behavior that we see impact survival and reproduction for the individual or for the species?

Check Out My Original Paper: “Connecting the dots: avian eggshell pigmentation, female condition and paternal provisioning effort”

QR code that links to the original publication.
QR code to the original publication

Citation: Kara E Hodges, Nathan T Mortimer, Alysia D Vrailas-Mortimer, Scott K Sakaluk, Charles F Thompson, Connecting the dots: avian eggshell pigmentation, female condition and paternal provisioning effort, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, Volume 130, Issue 1, May 2020, Pages 114–127, (Doi: 10.1093/biolinnean/blaa002).

Research at a Glance: The color of an eggshell, or its pigmentation, varies between different species of birds and within species of birds, but it’s not clear what causes this variation. One possible explanation is that the pigments are tied to the health of the female that laid the egg. Another possible explanation is that the pigment acts as a signal to the male, which impacts how the male cares for its young. To explore these explanations, we used the house wren (Troglodytes aedon), a wild migratory songbird that lays brown eggs. House wren eggs are mostly pigmented by protoporphyrin, which makes brown and red colors. Inside the body, this pigment is a harmful waste product that can damage important molecules in the wren. We tested the hypothesis that the color of the eggshell is an indicator of the health of the female. Darker, browner eggs have more protoporphyrin. If an eggshell has more protoporphyrin, then it could mean that the female is producing more of this harmful waste product and is in poorer condition. Alternatively, it could mean that the female is better at removing protoporphyrin from her system, making her healthier. To answer these questions, we had to measure eggshell coloration and the health of the female that laid the eggs. To measure eggshell coloration, we photographed clutches of eggs, or groups of eggs that are laid at the same time and sorted them into “light” or “dark” categories. The sorting was performed by a machine learning algorithm. The algorithm sorted the eggs using characteristics of the shell, such as, the number of spots, or maculations, on the egg, the darkness of those maculations, and the background color of the shell. To investigate the relationship between eggshell coloration and female health, we took blood samples and physical measurements from the females and their nestlings. We found that females laying lighter clutches tended to be older and larger than females laying darker clutches (Figure 1). Additionally, we found that nestlings from lighter clutches were bigger, which strongly predicts survival. This information suggests that females laying lighter eggs are healthier than those laying darker, more pigmented eggs. To see if males change their behavior based on egg pigmentation, we set up a modified cross-fostering experiment (Figure 2). We placed dark eggs in nests that had produced light eggs and light eggs into nests that produced dark eggs. Then, we paired males with the females to see if male behavior changed in response to the color of the eggs, the health of the female, or the nestlings themselves. When the eggs hatched, we recorded the feeding efforts of both parents and compared the results between our groups. We found that male feeding effort was not influenced by eggshell pigmentation

Highlights: Our results indicate that house wrens laying lighter eggs are in better condition than those laying darker eggs. We were able to use data from previous years to estimate the age of the female house wrens used in this experiment. We found that older females tended to lay lighter eggs (Figure 1).

A data figure that shows the scale of pigmentations from light to dark. Zero, in the center of the y-axis, is neutral. Average pigmentation for one year old females is -0.2 toward the dark scale. Average pigmentation for one year old females is 0.6 toward the light scale.
Figure 1. Eggshell pigmentation in the nests of one-year-old and two-year-old house wrens. The y-axis shows the scale of light to dark eggshell pigmentation based on the machine learning algorithm. Figure adapted from Hodges et al. 2020.

Some research has found that the pigmentation of a female’s eggs remains consistent across time. Our results could mean that females with lighter eggs are more likely to survive migration and return for a second breeding season. However, this pattern may not be universal. There are many other factors that could influence eggshell pigmentation, such as, camouflage from predators, shell strength, and UV protection.

We also found that male house wrens don’t appear to react to eggshell pigmentation. This does not mean that they aren’t capable of discerning differences between eggs. It is more likely that, by the time eggs are produced, it is mid-season, and the male would struggle to find an unpaired female. This, along with a short lifespan, creates a situation in which it would be better to stay with a poor partner than to risk seeking a better one.

What My Science Looks Like:

An image os several house wren eggs  lined up next to each other. colors range from light beige to dark brown. None of the eggs are uniform in color and some have dark dots on the shell.
The image above shows eggs laid by house wrens from our study site. Eggshell pigmentation can vary greatly between females. Image adapted from Hodges et al. 2020.

To answer the question about male behavior, we used a modified version of a cross-fostering experiment (Figure 2). Some males were paired with a female that appeared to lay dark eggs (when she actually laid light eggs) and some males were paired with a female that appeared to lay light eggs (when she actually laid dark eggs). This way, the attending male would be exposed to eggs that indicated a level of health that was different than the female laying them. Other males were paired with females that appeared to lay eggs similar to what her actual eggs looked like. Just before hatching, we returned the eggs to their original nests to see if differences in male behavior were due to the offspring or the pigmentation of the eggs.

A two-panel cartoon. The top panel shows a male that sired dark eggs but thinks that he sired light eggs. The nestlings that he raises are from dark eggs. He provides a small food item. The bottom panel shows a male that sired light eggs but thinks he sired dark eggs. The nestlings that he raises are from light eggs. He provides a large food item.
Figure 2. A hypothetical example of the cross-fostering experiment. In this instance, the male in the top panel is exposed to light eggs, but cares for nestlings from dark eggs. The male in the bottom panel is exposed to dark eggs, but cares for nestlings from light eggs. The figure shows that the male exposed to darker eggs works harder to provide for his offspring (he has a larger prey item) than the male exposed to lighter eggs. Figure adapted from Hodges et al. 2020.

The Big Picture: Birds and many other animals choose mates with the highest fitness, or those that are the most likely to create strong offspring that will survive and reproduce. Animals will use certain signals as evidence for higher fitness, but it is not always clear to people what those signals are. Our research evaluates one trait, eggshell pigmentation, as a signal for higher fitness. We found some evidence that eggshell pigmentation is related to female health but did not find evidence that males were using pigmentation as a signal. This research is important because it helps us to understand mate choice and understand which traits provide higher fitness. We can use this type of information to track the health of bird populations over time.

Decoding the Language: 

Clutch: A clutch is the group of eggs that a bird lays at one time in one breeding attempt.

Cross-fostering: Cross fostering is a type of experimental design. Offspring are removed from their biological parents and raised by surrogates. Scientists use this method to see if traits in the offspring (such as adult size) are more similar to their biological parents or their adoptive parents. If the offspring are more similar to their biological parents, this suggests that there is a genetic cause. If the offspring are more similar to their adoptive parents, this suggests that there is an environmental cause or a care-related cause.

Fitness: In biology, fitness refers to the ability of an organism to survive and reproduce. 

Machine learning: Machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence that automates choices. Machine learning can find patterns in large amounts of data. It is faster and less subjective than human decision making.

Maculations: Maculations are the spots or specks on an eggshell. These are usually darker than the background color. You can think of these as freckles on an eggshell. 

Nestling: A nestling is a bird that has recently hatched but is still too young to leave the nest.

Pigmentation: Pigmentation, or a pigment, refers to a compound that produces color.

Protoporphyrin: Protoporphyrin is naturally produced inside the body as a byproduct of blood synthesis. However, it can easily be converted into a form that can cause damage to nucleic acids, proteins, and lipids. Excess amounts of protoporphyrin can cause damage to the body.

Learn More: 

For more information on research with house wrens, check out Dr. Charles Thompson’s Lab webpage

The blood samples collected as part of this study are still being processed to assess gene expression and protein damage. This work could not have been done without the input and assistance of Dr. Alysia Vrailes-Mortimer.

The machine learning techniques used in my study were developed by Dr. Nathan Mortimer

Dr. Mark Hauber is a collaborator at the University of Illinois and runs a lab investigating eggshell pigmentation, as it relates to brood parasitism. You can find information about his work and publications here

There are many articles and books written on eggs and eggshell pigmentation. These papers summarize what is known about avian eggshell pigmentation and the causes of its variation:

Kilner, R. M. (2006). The evolution of egg colour and patterning in birds. Biological Reviews81(3), 383-406.

Reynolds, S. J., Martin, G. R., & Cassey, P. (2009). Is sexual selection blurring the functional significance of eggshell coloration hypotheses? Animal Behaviour78(1), 209-215.

Cherry, M. I., & Gosler, A. G. (2010). Avian eggshell coloration: new perspectives on adaptive explanations. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society100(4), 753-762.

The paper that initially sparked my interest in this research:

Moreno, J., & Osorno, J. L. (2003). Avian egg colour and sexual selection: does eggshell pigmentation reflect female condition and genetic quality? Ecology Letters6(9), 803-806.

Synopsis edited by Aleksandra Majewski, M.S. 2020, Illinois State University, School of Biological Sciences and Emily Kerns, B.S. 2018, University of North Florida, Department of Biology.

Download this article here

Article released 5-4-2021

Limited food intake and decision-making affects violence against Eswatini women

Featured Scientist: Brittnie E. Bloom (she/her/hers) Ph.D. candidate in Global Public Health in the Joint Doctoral Program between San Diego State University (Graduate School of Public Health) and the University of California San Diego (School of Medicine, Department of Global Public Health and Infectious Diseases) – (Anticipated: December 2021).

A picture of Brittnie looking into the camera.

Birthplace: San Diego, CA, USA

My Research: I am interested in preventing violence against women and girls. My current research focuses on how we can prevent violence and educate students at schools about how to prevent violence. I investigatesexual violence prevention and post-assault behaviors (e.g., seeking help). My goal is to understand how these impact students and student survivors of sexual violence and harassment.

Research Goals: I am interested in stopping violence before it occurs, both on college campuses and in the “real world” (e.g., bars, social settings). I use mixed-methods in my research. I combine the rigor of numerical, or quantitative, data with the depth and context of “the story,” or qualitative data.

Career Goals: Despite wearing many hats throughout my career, I have always been dedicated to community wellness, student success, and equity. I see myself working at a community college where I can be hands-on with the students and improve campus community and culture. I also hope to build a non-profit company focused on improving outcomes for women and girls. 

Hobbies: My hobbies include playing the ukulele, hanging with my rescue pup Lucky, giggling with my pals and watching trash television with my boo-thang Nico.

Favorite Thing About Science: One thing I love about science is that it is endless — there are endless things in our world to study and become an expert in. It requires someone to be methodical and precise while simultaneously pushing someone to be creative and free-thinking.

My Team: This paper originated from a series of classes I took during the second year of my doctoral program. One quarter was on data analysis and the second was on manuscript writing. I decided to take my in-class assignments and publish them, which I’m really proud of. I worked very closely with Dr. Rebecca Fielding-Miller (the anchor author of this work), whom I became connected with through another project centered on campus-based sexual assault prevention. This data was derived from her Ph.D. dissertation; though I am not part of her lab or research group, I just so happened to be at the right place at the right time with the right questions – a lucky graduate student who Dr. Rebecca Fielding-Miller agreed to share her data with and mentor. I know she spent a tremendous amount of time in Eswatini collecting this data and it is a huge source of pride for her. I did not participate in data collection, but I led the data analysis and writing of this work.

Field of Study: Public Health

What is Public Health? One thing that I love about science, specifically in the field of public health, is that it combines “hard science” with “social science”. It also focuses on global wellness. My field uses the social determinants of health, a complex map of factors (e.g., where we live, learn, work and play) that determine how vulnerable we are to disease and violence. For example, women who live in places where there are cultural and gender norms that accept violence against women as normal, or prioritize men and boys over women and girls, are likely at increased risk of experiencing violence. Public health uses these social determinants of health to stop disease and violence before they occur. Public health also uses these social determinants of health to stop disease progression and improve quality and length of life. It is innately human and scientific, and I love it.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Exploring intimate partner violence among pregnant Eswatini women seeking antenatal care: How agency and food security impact violence-related outcomes”

A QR code that links to the original publication.
QR Code to the original publication.

Citation: Bloom, B.E., Wagman J.A., Dunkle, K. & Fielding-Miller, R. (2020): Exploring intimate partner violence among pregnant Eswatini women seeking antenatal care: How agency and food security impact violence-related outcomes, Global Public Health (DOI: 10.1080/17441692.2020.1849347)

Research at a Glance: Women and girls around the world are uniquely vulnerable to violence, food insecurity (not having enough food), and limited or constrained agency (having the ability to make your own choices). Women who live in low- and middle-income countries, such as Eswatini, are likely at an increased risk of experiencing food insecurity and violence. Eswatini is a small, lower middle-income country in sub-Saharan Africa where 14% of the population faces food insecurity. The country also has the highest prevalence of HIV in the world. In Eswatini, 40% of women under the age of 18 have already experienced sexual violence and 95% of women have been pregnant at least once in their lives. Previous research has shown that there are connections to being vulnerable to food insecurity and experiencing violence. I wanted to understand how personal agency and food insecurity are connected to each other and how they play a role in violence. My study was conducted in Eswatini with women who were seeking pregnancy care at rural and urban health clinics. We asked multiple questions about types of intimate partner violence (IPV) they may have experienced in the last year. We also asked them whether or not they had enough food in the last year. Finally, we asked questions related to why women chose to have sex with their most recent partner to better understand whether or not women had limited agency.

We found that sixteen percent of women had sex with their most recent partner because of poverty, fear of violence, and/or fear that their partner would leave them. More than half of the women had experienced at least one form of IPV, which includes both physical violence and sexual violence. Nearly half of our participants also reported that, at least once a month, they did not have enough food to eat. Ten percent of women reported having less than enough to eat every day. In conclusion, we found that women who had limited agency had a 44% higher risk of experiencing IPV when compared to women who did not have limited agency. We also found that women experiencing monthly food insecurity were twice as likely to experience violence. Women who experienced food insecurity on a daily basis were nearly three times more likely to experience violence. Importantly, food security and limited agency impacted a woman’s risk of experiencing IPV separately. This means that food security and agency should be considered independently when trying to prevent violence against women. These findings have many implications for women and their families. It is especially important for people in Eswatini, who are exposed to high levels of HIV, IPV, food insecurity and cultural gender power imbalances that can influence agency. More work needs to be done to further study food insecurity, agency, and violence together globally, especially among vulnerable women and their families.

Highlights: This research suggests that interventions should focus on women who are both food insecure and who have limited agency. Even just marginally reducing food insecurity could lower a woman’s risk of experiencing violence. Many interventions focus on violence prevention, food insecurity or building agency individually. My study shows that including a mix of these factors (i.e., food insecurity and agency) could have the biggest impact. However, this approach can be difficult. Interventions that do not take into account cultural and gendered norms might actually increase a woman’s risk of experiencing IPV. Intervention tools may need to account for cultural expectations. For example, some cultures expect that women will take care of children and household upkeep. According to these cultures, it is frowned upon for women to earn money or make decisions for the household. Cultural considerations show the care that is needed to create and carry out effective public health violence prevention efforts.

What My Science Looks Like:

An infographic with an arrow going from constrained agency and food insecurity to intimate partner violence.
We measured food insecurity and constrained agency to see how each of these contribute to intimate partner violence (IPV).

Women who experience food insecurity and constrained agency are more likely to experience IPV (Figure 1). To analyze my data, I used a statistical method called Poisson regression, which helped me determine the effect of agency and food insecurity on IPV. The results of my analysis can be found in Table 1.

A data table with the output from the Poison regression. The highest significant IRR is 3.53, for women who did not have enough to eat every day.
Table 1. We used Poisson regression to determine the effect of agency, food insecurity and other variables on IPV among Eswatini women (n=396) seeking care in clinics. Table adapted from Bloom et al. 2020.

The left column of Table 1 represents the questions that we asked the women who participated in the study (i.e., level of education, how often they ate). We used this quantitative information to see if women were at a higher risk of experiencing IPV. The “IRRs” in the middle column tell us the rate of an event occurring at any given point in time. In this case, an IRR of 1.0 indicates that there was no risk of IPV. Any IRR higher than a 1.0 indicates an increase in risk, and anything lower than a 1.0 indicates a decrease in risk. The p-value in the far-right column allows us to determine whether the IRR we calculated is significant or not. If the p-value is less than 0.05, then the IRR is significant, and we can use it to make conclusions. As you can see in the third column, the IRR for food insecurity and agency were significant. This means that both food insecurity and agency are related to a woman’s risk of experiencing IPV.

The data from Table 1 show that women with constrained or limited agency have a 44% higher risk of experiencing violence (IRR = 1.44). We also found that women with higher levels of food insecurity have an increased risk of experiencing violence. We can see this by looking at the IRR values in the middle column of Table 1. Women who experience food insecurity a few times a month have more than double the odds (IRR = 2.18) of experiencing IPV compared to women who never experience food insecurity. Women who experience food insecurity every day have more than three times the odds (IRR = 3.53) of experiencing IPV compared to women who never experience food insecurity.

The Big Picture: Women and girls disproportionately experience violence (i.e., IPV, sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment). Unfortunately, some women are at an even higher risk of experiencing violence based on where they live, their level of education, their age, and their economic opportunities. Many of these characteristics can’t be helped, which can make them even more vulnerable. That is why it is very important to understand how to prevent violence against women and girls. It is also necessary to find or create tools (i.e., culturally appropriate public health interventions) to help prevent hunger and help women and girls to have complete agency. Agency can allow women and girls to make decisions for themselves and for their families. There is a lot of work that needs to be done. Teaching women how to protect themselves should not be the only focus of violence prevention. Men must be included in the process of preventing violence. Including men will require shifts in culture and continued innovation for those working in public health programming and intervention. A recent study among South African men found that food insecure men were more than twice as likely to commit IPV compared to men who were not food insecure. A multi-country study conducted by the United Nations had a similar finding. They found that current experiences of food insecurity were associated with physical and sexual IPV perpetration among men. These studies show that we need to explore violence perpetration and food security among men. We know that women are more vulnerable, but we also need to focus on harm reduction and violence prevention.

Decoding the Language:

Agency: Agency refers to the ability to make choices and create desired outcomes.

Food insecurity:  Food insecurity refers to inadequate access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. Essentially, the amount of food necessary to maintain an active and healthy life.

Intimate partner violence (IPV): IPV is a serious and preventable public health problem. IPV includes physical violence, sexual violence, stalking or psychological harm by a current or past partner or spouse.

Poisson regression: A Poisson regression is atype of statistical test used for rare outcomes. It allows you to see the relationship(s) that exist between one or more independent variables and the dependent variable. In the context of this study, the independent variables included education, agency, food insecurity, and pregnancy. The dependent variable was IPV.

Post-assault behaviors: In the context of this article, post-assault behaviors are actions taken by someone who has experienced sexual violence or harassment. This includes a range of behaviors. An example is help-seeking and disclosure to someone close to the survivor or to a formal source such as the police, a sexual violence resource center, or hotline.

Qualitative data: Qualitative data refers to the information that researchers can get from observations, interviews, or focus groups. It is typically categorized as “word” or “narrative” data. Qualitative data is meant to provide in-depth analysis and context. Generally, researchers will examine the data by looking for common themes. They also determine how often the same themes come up across different interviews.

Quantitative data: Quantitative – which comes from the word quantity, refers to any type of numerical data that is collected in research. In the context of this research, quantitative survey data was collected from pregnant Eswatini women seeking care in clinics. The responses were analyzed and presented in Table 1.

Social determinants of health: Social determinants of health refer to the health conditions and outcomes that are related to where people live, learn, work, and play.   

Learn More:

Important papers published on IPV:

Coll, C. V. N., Ewerling, F., García-Moreno, C., Hellwig, F., & Barros, A. J. D. (2020). Intimate partner violence in 46 low-income and middle-income countries: An appraisal of the most vulnerable groups of women using national health surveys. BMJ Global Health, 5(1), e002208.

Garcia-Moreno, C., Jansen, H. A., Ellsberg, M., Heise, L., & Watts, C. H. (2006). Prevalence of intimate partner violence: Findings from the WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence. Lancet, 368(9543), 1260–1269.

Garcia-Moreno, C., Pallitto, C., Devries, K., Stockl, H., Watts, C., & Abrahams, N. (2013). Global and regional estimates of violence against women: Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence. World Health Organization.                           

Howell, K., Miller-Graff, L., Hasselle, A., & Scrafford, K. (2017). The unique needs of pregnant, violence-exposed women: A systematic review of current interventions and directions for translational research. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 34, 128.    

Important papers on agency:

James-Hawkins, L., Peters, C., VanderEnde, K., Bardin, L., & Yount, K. M. (2018). Women’s agency and its relationship to current contraceptive use in lower- and middle-income countries: A systematic review of the literature. Global Public Health, 13(7), 843–858.

UN Women. Economic Empowerment of Women                                                             

Food insecurity:

World Food Program. (2019). Women are hungrier                                                          

Social determinants of health

Engaging men in violence prevention

Synopsis edited by Emily Kerns, B.S. 2018, University of North Florida, and Maisam Yousef, B.S. 2019, Illinois State University.

 Download this article here

Release date: 3-26-21