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”

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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.

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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.

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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

Nature as an ally in the fight against drug resistant superbugs

Featured Scientist: Juan Canchola (he/him/his) Bachelor of Science (Anticipated: Spring 2021), School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

Two pictures of Juan. One is a picture of him shaking hands with another man, as if he had just received a scholarship or award. The other is a picture of him in the lab. He is filling a balloon with a gas.
Juan at the Illinois State University 6th annual Charles Morris STEM Social (left) and adding a chemical to a reaction flask in the lab (right).

Birthplace: Bloomington, Illinois

My Research: I work in the Mills Medicinal Chemistry research lab, where we study the development of antibiotics from natural products. Natural products are chemicals that occur in nature. Our goal is to create an antibiotic that can be used to fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Research Goals: I’m very interested in infectious diseases and in Medicinal Chemistry. I would like to continue in research involving both of these fields.

Career Goals: I’d really like to continue research in a M.D/Ph.D. program, but my ultimate goal is to be a dedicated scientist who contributes to the fight against infectious diseases. 

Hobbies: In my free time, I love to work out, play with my dog, and binge watch cooking shows and anime. 

Favorite Thing About Science: I really like science because it is an essential and enjoyable field of study. Science has been society’s number one tool to fight off dangers like disease and illness, but it is also very interesting to study and enjoyable to practice. 

Organism of Study:  We studied and synthesized Anaephene A and B, which are two natural products that can be used to make antibiotics. Anaephene A and B were isolated from a marine cyanobacteria (Hormoscilla sp., Oscillatoriales) by a team of marine biologists off the coast of Guam.

Two images. One has the chemical structure of Anaephene A and Anaephene B. The other has a picture of grey marine cyanobacteria.
The two natural products that we synthesized, Anaephene A and B (left). The marine cyanobacteria (Hormoscilla sp., Oscillatoriales) from which the natural products were isolated (right).

Field of Study:  Medicinal Chemistry

What is Medicinal Chemistry? Medicinal Chemistry is a field of research that uses techniques and knowledge from various fields of chemistry and biology to make medicine. In the research lab I work in, we mainly use organic chemistry and microbiology. Organic chemists study the process of making compounds, while microbiologists study small living organisms, like bacteria. In my work, I use laboratory techniques from both fields to try to make antibiotics out of natural products.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Synthesis of the Cyanobacterial Antibiotics Anaephene A and B” 

A picture of David pipetting chemicals under a fume hood.
 David Kukla looks for his desired chemical after purifying a reaction mixture.

My Team: I work with Dr. Jonathan Mills in his medicinal chemistry research lab. At the time of this research, Dr. Mills had just arrived at Illinois State University and the only members of the lab were me and a fellow undergrad, David L. Kukla. David is now a graduate student in the Mills Lab. Under the guidance of Dr. Mills, I made Anaephene A and David made Anaephene B. Dr. Mills grew the bacteria and tested our compounds against them. Once we had results, a team effort was made to assemble the data in a more organized format. Dr. Mills handled writing and editing for the paper. David and I helped to proofread so that we could become familiar with the process of turning data into a scientific paper.

Research At A Glance: In our study, we made two chemical compounds that were effective at killing antibiotic resistant bacteria. The compounds that we used were Anaephene A and B. These are naturally made by a type of marine cyanobacteria and are considered natural products. They were selected because other researchers had found them to be biologically active against some strains of bacteria. Our goal was to find a way to make these natural products in the laboratory and see if they were effective against antibiotic resistant bacteria. We were able to make Anaephene A and B and tested them against three strains of bacteria. We exposed the bacteria to different levels of Anaephene A and B to find the smallest amount needed to prevent their growth. Both compounds did well against all three strains of bacteria, including a superbug known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Anaephene B performed better than Anaephene A, but both were very effective against MRSA

Highlights: To see if Anaephene A and B could be used against our strains of bacteria, we conducted Minimum inhibitory concentration assays (MICs). The three bacterial strains that we used were Bacillus cereus (B. cereus), Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus), and MRSA. We used B. cereus and S. aureus because they are a common cause of infections in humans. We used MRSA because it is an infectious bacterium that is resistant to many antibiotics. We used the MICs to find the minimum amount of Anaephene A and B needed to destroy the bacteria and/or prevent bacterial growth. Compounds that have this effect on bacteria are considered biologically active. A smaller MIC value means that the compound is more potent because less is needed to destroy the bacteria. The purpose of the MIC assay was to confirm that the two natural products were biologically active and to determine if they could be effective against antibiotic resistant bacteria, like MRSA. Our results showed that both compounds were biologically active against the bacterial strains tested. Both of the natural products also succeeded in inhibiting the growth of MRSA at fairly low MICs. Anaephene B, in particular, proved to be highly potent as it displayed an MIC of 8 μg/mL against MRSA and the other two strains of bacteria. As you can see from Table 1, Anaephene A and B were significantly less potent than the positive control, Linezolid. Linezolid is an approved antibiotic that has gone through years of development and optimization. Anaephene A and B, on the other hand, are natural products that have not been modified. The physical structure of these compounds contributes to their biological activity. Investigating the structure of these compounds could help us determine exactly what causes them to have antibiotic properties. 

A table of MIC values for the chemicals tested. Anaephene A has an MIC of 16 micrograms/mL for each bacteria. Anaephene B has an MIC of 8 micrograms/mL for each bacteria. Linezolid has an MIC value of 0.5-1 micrograms/mL for each bacteria.
Table 1. MIC values of Anaephene A, Anaephene B, and Linezolid (a standard synthetic antibiotic).

What My Science Looks Like: To synthesize Anaephene A and B, we had to look at their physical structures. The structure of the compounds helped us to determine the reactions or steps we needed to use to make them (Figure 1).

A chemical reaction that ends with Anaephene A and Anaephene B. The figure highlights the MIC of Anaephene B, 8 microgram/mL against MRSA.
Figure 1. Summary of the main pieces used to make Anaephene A (1) and Anaephene B (2). The more potent compound, Anaephene B (2), is boxed with its reported MIC value. Figure adapted from Kukla et al. 2020.

To make Anaephene A and B, we looked at similar compounds as a reference. We studied the reactions used to make those compounds and used that information as a guide. Through a process of trial and error, we found the arrangement of steps, or the synthetic pathway, that would successfully make Anaephene A (1) and B (2) in 5 steps (Figure 2).

A five step chemical reaction that leads to the precursor that makes both Anaephene A and B.
Figure 2.  The complete synthesis of Anaephene A (1) and Anaephene B (2). This is the synthetic pathway used to make both of the natural products.  Figure adapted from Kukla et al. 2020.

The Big Picture: Many bacteria are evolving resistance to commonly used antibiotics. Bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics are called superbugs. As superbugs become more and more drug-resistant, the number of antibiotics that can be used against them is decreasing. Since we have a limited number of approved antibiotics, health care professionals are forced to use the same ones over and over again. This is what can lead to antibiotic resistance. Some experts think that if we do not develop more antibiotics soon, common bacterial infections may turn deadly because we will not have the drugs needed to treat them. 

Many of the antibiotics that we use for medicine are made using the same synthetic pathways or they use the same mechanism of action. This means that not only are we running out of antibiotics, but we are also running out of ways to make them. To combat the rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we need to look for new synthetic pathways and mechanisms of action. Most of our successful drugs come from natural products, so nature may be the best place to look for a solution. Biologically active natural products show a lot of potential because they are usually made by an organism to defend against pathogens. Therefore, natural products tend to be harmful for pathogens but not the organism itself.

In our research, we have made two natural products, Anaephene A and B, which can kill both common bacteria and antibiotic resistant bacteria. Anaephene A and B could potentially aid us in the development of new antibiotics since they were found to be biologically active against the bacterial strains tested. This is only the very beginning and there could still be some unknown drawbacks. For example, we don’t know what effects Anaephene A and B have on the human body. We also don’t know what the mechanism of action is. This is crucial information for antibiotic development, so it is clear that much more work lies ahead. Overall, we have identified natural products that kill antibiotic resistant bacteria and found a way to make them in the laboratory. Much more research is required to determine if these compounds can be developed into antibiotics safe for use in humans, but we’re off to a good start.

Decoding the Language: 

Antibiotic: A substance that kills or prevents the growth of microscopic living organisms, like bacteria. We commonly use antibiotics in medicine to treat bacterial infections.

Antibiotic resistance (drug-resistant): Antibiotic resistance refers to bacteria that have developed the ability to survive the antibiotics that were designed to kill them. Antibiotic resistance is a global issue. As bacteria become increasingly resistant to many antibiotics, the number of antibiotics that can be used for treatment decreases. Scientists fear that in the near future we may completely run out of antibiotics that can be used to fight off bacterial infections. 

Bacillus cereus (B. cereus): B. cereus is a common strain of bacteria that is often found in soil and vegetation and can also be present in foods. It can multiply quickly at room temperature and is a common cause of “food poisoning”, an intestinal illness that can cause nausea and/or vomiting. 

Bacterial strains: Bacterial strains describe subtypes of bacteria that vary in appearance, structure, and function.

Biological activity:  Biological activity is a term used in medicinal chemistry to describe the negative or beneficial effects that a compound has on a living organism. In our case, the compounds negatively affect bacteria, therefore they are biologically active.

Chemical compound: A chemical compound (referred to as just compound in chemistry) is a substance made from two or more elements in a fixed position.

Marine cyanobacteria: Cyanobacteria is a type of bacteria that is capable of photosynthesis, that is, using light to make energy that supports the growth of the bacteria. These types of bacteria are found in biofilms in the ocean. Biofilms are thin, slimy layers or “films” of bacteria that grow over the surface of rocks, plants, and algae, usually underwater.

Mechanism of action: The mechanism of action describes how a chemical performs its actions. In our study, it describes how our compound is able to inhibit the growth of bacteria.

Medicinal Chemistry: A field of chemistry involving the research, design, and development of chemicals that can be used as pharmaceutical drugs.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)MRSA is a strain of bacteria that has developed resistance to several antibiotics. It can cause ‘staph’ infections that are difficult to treat.Minimum inhibitory concentration assays (MICs): MIC is a test that involves diluting a drug several times to find the lowest amount that will prevent visible growth of bacteria.

Natural products: These are chemicals, or substances, that are found in nature or are produced by living organisms.

Pathogen: A bacteria, virus or other microscopic living organism that can cause disease. MRSA is a pathogen because it can cause disease.

Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus): S. aureus is a common strain of bacteria, frequently found in the upper respiratory tract and on the skin. This strain of bacteria can cause a variety of mild to severe soft tissue infections and pneumonia but is most known for causing skin infections in hospitals.

Superbug: This is a term used for strains of bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi that are resistant to most of the antibiotics and other medications commonly used to treat the infections they cause. 

Synthesis: The process of manually making a product through the use of chemical reactions. In this research, we synthesized Anaephene A and B.

Synthetic pathway: A synthetic pathway describes the collection of steps, or the path, used to synthesize a product.

Learn More:

Check out the following sources for more information on the Anaephene natural products and on antibiotic resistance:

Original publication on the isolation of the Anaephene natural products

Article from the World Health Organization (WHO) on antibiotic resistance

Article from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on antibiotic resistance

Very interesting and relevant information on antibiotic resistance and Covid-19

Synopsis edited by Ian Rines, PhD Candidate (Anticipated: Spring 2023), School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University and Brooke Proffitt, B.S. 2020, Illinois State University Alumna.

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Are GMOs a threat? Exploring Views of Peru‘s Ban on Genetically Modified Organisms

Featured Scientist: Teddy Dondanville (He/Him/His), M.S. 2018, Department of Anthropology & Sociology, Illinois State University.

A picture of Teddy Dondanville looking into the camera.
A picture of Teddy with a group of student standing in front of a building.
In addition to his research, Teddy worked as a Peace Corps volunteer at the Instituto de  Educación Pública San Martin de Porres. The image above shows a Teddy, fellow teachers, and a small group of graduating seniors on a field trip to the local institute for higher education. The goal was to help students learn more about the college experience. 

Birthplace: Los Angeles, California

My Research: I am interested in the relationships between people and the environment. Specifically, I am interested in agricultural practices, like farming, and how agriculture is used to make food.

Research Goals: In the future, I would like to follow up with the research that I did in Peru on the law banning genetically-modified-organisms (GMOs).

Career Goals: I am currently transitioning away from my career from youth development programming (i.e. before/after school care, summer camps, etc.) in the non-profit sector. Moving forward, I am focused on programming in outdoor and adventure recreation.

Hobbies: I am an avid rock climber & cyclist.

Favorite Thing About Science: In general, I like conducting research and providing evidence that helps me to understand the world. For example, Sociology is a field of study that often examines problems in society. By conducting research and gathering data, I can shed light on problems happening in our communities and help find ways we can solve them.

My Team: Since this was my master’s Capstone Project, the majority of the research was carried out by me, with guidance by my committee. When I decided to publish it, Dr. Michael Dougherty signed on as a co-author and took part in the data analysis and the writing and editing of the final paper. Dr. Mathew Himley also supported this research with his expertise in Peru. Dr. Maura Toro-Morn also helped inform some of the methodological components.

Field of Study: Environmental Sociology

What is Environmental Sociology? Environmental Sociology is a branch of sociology that looks at the relationship between humans and the environment. For example, my research looked at farming culture and politics and how these concepts relate to agriculture.

Check Out My Original Paper: “Porousness and Peru’s moratorium on genetically modified organisms: stakeholder epistemologies and neoliberal science”

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

Citation: T.W. Dondanville & Michael L. Dougherty (2020) Porousness and Peru’s moratorium on genetically modified organisms: stakeholder epistemologies and neoliberal science, Environmental Sociology, 6:1, 107-119.

Research at a Glance: My research focused on the ban of GMOs in Peru. I studied the ideas behind different policy approaches towards the ban. I followed the historical development of Law #29811, a law that was designed to temporarily stop the importation and use of GMOs in Peru. Peru is one of three South American countries that has a national ban on GMOs. The main reason for the law was to protect agro-biodiversity. The concern was that natural agricultural products would be outcompeted if GMOs were introduced to the market. However, it was not that simple. I explored the language in Law #29811. Stakeholder groups had different opinions about the ban on GMOs as a result of the vague language used in the law. I argue that the language in Law #29811 was intentionally vague. Through observations and interviews, I examined the impacts of the law on local agriculture and how three stakeholder groups, (1) farmers, (2) academics and activists, and (3) representatives of state understood the law.

I found that the first two groups, farmers and academics/activists, supported the law on a policy level. The local Andean farmers rejected the idea of GMOs, finding them to be expensive and meaningless. They took great pride in their agricultural products, which showed their energy and commitment. Above all, the exemplar quality of the food they grew was important to them.  Non-genetically modified (non-GMO) food is important to farmers. They view it as an expression of hard work and it is grounded in traditional culture and farming practices. Academics and activists also rejected the idea of GMOs, but for a different reason. They believe that GMOs threaten biodiversity. Additionally, preserving biodiversity preserves the traditional livelihood of indigenous farmers with small parcels of land. GMOs can invade non-GMO crop fields and take over native and organic species. GMOs can also introduce allergens and the chemicals used to maintain them can leave toxins in the plants and soil. Some representatives of state did not support the ban and instead approved of the use of GMOs. They sought to benefit the economy by increasing competition in agricultural markets by allowing the trade and use of GMOs. After gaining an understanding of the various stakeholders‘ opinions, my research offered a critique of Law #29811 that was focused on its shortcomings and hidden intentions.

Highlights: For my project, I wanted to understand the real purpose behind the ban of GMOs in Peru. I argued that the ban was never designed to be long term. Law #29811 had a 10-year time limit. There were also many steps written into the law that would allow Peru to adopt GMOs after the 10-year time limit. This is similar to other policies throughout South America. I argue that Peru’s ban serves as an example of neoliberal multiculturalism. The term neoliberal refers to the type of governmental and economic decisions that support free markets and decreased government intervention. Multiculturalism is the practice of accepting and coexisting with people of different ethnicities, cultures, religions, etc. Law #29811 is an example of neoliberal multiculturalism. On the surface, it exists to protect indigenous Peruvian farming culture by banning GMOs. However, the protections offered by this law only create the illusion of multiculturalism. In reality, under the Peruvian neoliberal government, the law seeks to actually further the use of GMOs in agriculture. It recognizes the indigenous agriculture but does not protect it in the long run. We found this through extensive translation and analysis of government documents and through interviews with academics and activists who were focused on agriculture.

What My Science Looks Like: The table below summarizes the policy approaches of the representatives of the state, academics and activists, and famers. It also summarizes how these stakeholder groups have different perspectives, or how they vary epistemologically. Epistemology refers to the study of knowledge. Essentially, how do people know things? It refers to people’s ability to reason, their belief systems, and how they perceive the world. In my study, I found that each stakeholder group views Law #29811 differently based on their own experiences and knowledge of GMOs. I found that representatives of the state and academics/activists have different policy approaches towards GMO use in agriculture. They both agree that competition and economic development are important. They also agree that science (i.e. GMOs) should be used to increase economic development. However, academics, activists, and farmers all support the ban. They are against the use of GMOs in agriculture, but for different reasons.

A table that lays out stakeholder's policy approaches to the GMO ban. Representatives of the law oppose the ban and suggest that GMOs can enhance competition and economic development. Academics and activists support the ban, but still place value in competition and economic development. Farmers support the ban and value hard work and collectivism.
Policy approaches and epistemological views of representatives of the state, academics and activists, and famers toward GMOs. Table adapted from Dondanville et al. 2020.

The Big Picture: My research combines the topics of both GMOs and neoliberalism in South America. I show how modern economic ideas relate to farming and how policy decisions can affect indigenous communities. By using ethnographic and qualitative research techniques, my research serves as an example on how to study GMOs in agriculture. This research is important because it helps to highlight complicated ideas that relate economic development to industrialized agriculture. Like many other countries, Peru is still developing. To fully understand its growth and what the country has been through, I needed to first understand the origin of the country and where it might be in the near future. Research like this combines the perspectives of multiple actors playing a part in a larger scenario. This works to include many voices, especially the voices of those who have been traditionally marginalized. My research gave them a chance to make their voices heard. The data that we collected helps to paint a more complete picture of the complexities involved in an important facet of daily life.

Decoding the Language:

Agro-biodiversity: Also known as Agricultural (Agro) Biodiversity. Biodiversity refers to the variety of living organisms (flora and fauna) in any given ecosystem. Agro-biodiversity refers to the variety of different plant species that are used specifically for agriculture.

Epistemological: The adjective form of “epistemology”: which is the study of knowledge. It seeks to understand what exactly knowledge is, how it is created, and what it actually means. It works towards understanding the ways through which people and cultures come to understand the world around them and form their beliefs.

Ethnographic: Also known as Ethnography. It is the process by which the observer seeks to understand the customs of individual peoples and/or cultures by living in a certain place for an extended period of time.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs): GMOs are living organisms whose DNA is altered to give them specific/desired traits. Usually, agricultural plants are modified so that they are tolerant to drought or to pesticides

Marginalized: People or groups that are treated as insignificant, excluded, or are in the minority.

Neoliberalism: Neoliberalism is an economic ideal that revolves around free and open trade markets, little to no government intervention, and rolled-back regulation of business practices and environmental protections.

Neoliberal Multiculturalism: Multiculturalism is the belief that having diversity of cultures is a good thing. For example, a country should strive to protect and promote the different cultures that make up its population. Under a neoliberal government, multiculturalism is promoted as a strategy to obtain certain political and economic goals and not just for the betterment of the society.

Qualitative research: Qualitative research is a type of research that allows us to classify and describe the characteristics of an individual or culture through collecting and analyzing non-numerical data. This would include observations, videos, recorded audio, or text.

Stakeholder: Someone who has an interest or concern for an issue that is likely to personally affect them. Often, a stakeholder will have a financial interest in the issue.

Learn More:

Illinois State University Department of Sociology and Anthropology

Illinois State University Center for Community & Economic Development, The Stevenson Center

Global international organization committed to support and help communities in crisis OXFAM International, Peru

Peruvian Society of International Law (in Spanish) Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental

Non- profit organization dedicated to help Andean communities, Center for Social Well Being

Synopsis edited by Maisam Yousef, B.S. 2019, and Elyse McCormick, M.S. Anticipated 2022, Illinois State University.

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Timing and continuity of heat waves affects sexual development in a turtle

Featured Scientist: Anthony Breitenbach (he/him/his), PhD in Biology (Anticipated: Spring 2021), School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

Anthony Breitenbach stands at the front of a room full of children and their parents. He holds a turtle in his hands and the children are watching intently.
Anthony Breitenbach, the “turtle guy”, teaches kids about turtles at Sugar Grove Nature Center in McLean County, IL

Birthplace: Connersville, Indiana

My Research: I’m interested in how hot temperatures affect whether individuals develop as a boy or a girl. This is important because heat waves are predicted to intensify in the future as a result of climate change.

Research Goals: We know a lot about sexual development in humans, but we don’t understand how it is affected by temperature for some organisms like turtles. I wish to continue researching how sexual development happens in nature.

Career Goals: I love to teach. I would love to continue teaching science to multiple different age groups.

Hobbies: I love reading nonfiction history books, playing video games, and listening to rock music!

Favorite Thing About Science: My favorite thing about science is its great purpose: to understand the world around us in a collaborative effort with many different people from many different backgrounds. Playing with fire gets you burned, but playing with science gets you learned!

My Team: I am the first author on this paper, but like all research, this was a cooperative effort. Multiple graduate and undergraduate students participated in the fieldwork by trapping turtles and collecting eggs. Graduate students also helped care for the eggs and the hatchlings. The principal investigator handled the controlled substances necessary for my research.

Organism of Study: Red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta)

A turtle sits in the sand between a set of plants, preparing to lay her eggs.
Nesting T. scripta

Field of Study: Physiological Ecology

What is Physiological Ecology? People in the field of physiological ecology want to know how factors in the environment (like temperature) affect how the body develops.

Check out my original paper: “Using naturalistic incubation temperatures to demonstrate how variation in the timing and continuity of heat wave exposure influences phenotype”

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

Citation: Breitenbach AT, Carter AW, Paitz RT and Bowden RM 2020. Using naturalistic incubation temperatures to demonstrate how variation in the timing and continuity of heat wave exposure influences phenotype. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 287: 20200992.

Research at a Glance: In animals that have temperature-dependent sex determination, whether the animal is a boy or a girl depends on the temperature while they are in their eggs. In a lot of turtles, warm temperatures cause the turtles to become girls while cool temperatures cause the turtles to become boys. The research that we know this from has been in labs with constant temperatures that never change while the animals are in their eggs. This is different than natural temperatures. We know that temperatures change, usually by increasing during the day and decreasing during the night. My research looks at how temperature affects whether turtles become boys or girls when the temperature is fluctuating, or going up and down in a repeating cycle. My research found that warm temperatures are most likely to cause turtles to become girls if the warm temperatures happen during the middle of development. It also found that more turtles become girls if warm temperatures are continuous, rather than spread out over a longer period of time. Lastly, my research found that two genes respond differently to continuous warm temperatures compared to warm temperatures spread out over a longer period of time. Since heat waves will likely intensify as a result of climate change, the results suggest that more turtles will be girls and less turtles will be boys in the future, which could cause problems for turtle species.  

Highlights: One experiment found that more continuous warm temperatures make it more likely that a turtle will be a girl. To come to this finding, I placed turtle eggs in incubators that let me control the temperature. Eggs were moved between a cooler condition of 25 ± 3 °C and a warmer (heat wave) condition of 29.5 ± 3 °C. Some eggs were exposed to a continuous 12-day heat wave and others were exposed to 12 heat wave days spread out over a longer period of time. A 12-day heat wave made it much more likely for turtles to become girls. It was much less likely for the turtles to become girls when they experienced discontinuous warm temperatures (Figure 1).

A bar graph that shows the probability that a heat wave of 12 or 6 days applied early or late in development will result in a female turtle. The figure shows that a 12-day heat wave applied early in development has the highest probability of creating a female. The bar for a 12-day heatwave is between 0.5 and 0.75 on a 1.0 scale, all others are 0.25 or below.
Figure 1. The horizontal axis shows the different heat wave treatments. The vertical axis shows the probability that a turtle will end up being a girl as a result of the heat wave treatments.

The results show that it is much more likely for turtles to become girls when they experience an early 12-day heat wave when they are in their eggs. If that 12-day heat wave is delayed until later when they are in their eggs, it becomes less likely for turtles to become girls. If a total number of 12 heat wave days is split up into either two 6-day heat waves or four 3-day heat waves, the probability that turtles will become girls drops even more.

What My Science Looks Like:

An infographic that describes how Anthony Breitenbach does his research. Panel 1 titled "Step 1: Get Turtle Eggs", shows turtle eggs in the ground. Panel 2 titled "Step 2: Expose Them to Variable Temperatures", shows an incubator. Panel 3 titled "Wait Until They Hatch", shows a clock. Panel 4 titled "See How Many Are Girls And How Many Are Boys", shows the word "Results!".
Pictured here is a brief layout of the steps of my research

My research focuses on controlling the temperatures that turtles experience while they are in their eggs. This is interesting because the temperature in the environment influences whether the turtles become girls or boys. Most of what we know about how this system comes from research done in laboratories using constant temperatures. My research involves exposing turtle eggs to more variable temperatures, such as heat waves. After the eggs hatch, I then check to see how many became girls and how became boys. These results can shed light on how the environment can have long-lasting effects on animals!

The Big Picture: As a results of climate change, heat waves are likely to get hotter and longer. This could result in the production of many more girls compared to boys for animals like turtles and certain other animals. If this happens, then these animals will have a much more difficult time finding mates, which means that the numbers of these animals will go down. Since most research in this field has used constant temperatures, it’s important to further our understanding of how more variable temperatures affect these species.

Decoding the Language: 

Climate change: Climate change refers to changes in climate patterns (such as temperature, precipitation, etc.), particularly as a result of the increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases starting in the mid to late 20th century.

Ecology: Ecology is a field of science that studies organisms and their relationships with surrounding organisms as well as with their surrounding physical environment

Fluctuate: In the context of this article, fluctuate refers to the temperature that the eggs were exposed to. I used a temperature that would rise and fall repeatedly.

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.

Physiological Ecology: Physiological ecology is a field of science that studies the normal functions of the bodies of living organisms. We look at how the body of the organism responds to the environment. 

Principal Investigator (PI): In the context of academia, a PI is a university faculty member that supervises the research of the laboratory. The PI is generally responsible for running the lab, financing the research through grant applications, and training graduate and undergraduate students.

Probability: Probability refers to  the likelihood of something happening. In the context of this article, it refers to the likelihood that a turtle would hatch as a boy or as a girl. 

Temperature-dependent sex determination(TSD): TSD is a type of sex determination system where the environmental temperature that an individual is exposed to during embryonic development (in the egg) determines whether it will develop into a boy or a girl.

Learn More:

To learn more about reptiles/amphibians in general: Vitt, L. J., & Caldwell, J. P. (2014). Herpetology: An Introductory Biology of Amphibians and Reptiles (4th ed.). Amsterdam (Holanda): Elsevier.

You can use this book to learn more about turtles:Ernst, C. H., & Lovich, J. E. (2009). Turtles of the United States and Canada. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.

You can use this book to learn more about TSD:Valenzuela, N., & Lance, V. (2004). Temperature-dependent Sex Determination in Vertebrates. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books.

Synopsis edited by: Madison Rittinger (she/her/hers), M.S. (Anticipated Spring 2021) and Casey Gahrs (she/her/her), M.S. 2020, School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

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Religious/Cultural Identity Politics in “Secular” US and Europe

Featured Scientist: Nick Mullins, M.S. (Anticipated Spring 2020), Department of Politics and Government, Illinois State University

A picture of Nick Mullins, looking directly at the camera and smiling.

Birthplace: Bloomington, IL 

My Research: As a student of political science, I study politics. My focus has been on issues involving globalization, identity politics, nationalism, religion, democracy, global issues, and the international system of nation-states

Research Goals: I would like to continue to study how the nation-state interacts with globalization. Some issues involve identity politics, which seem to be growing in importance. I am also curious about the role of religion and national identity in the future of the nation-state. Other research goals of mine cover global issues such as climate change and migration. 

Career Goals: When I “grow up” I want to enjoy what I do and make a positive impact, but I’m still figuring out exactly how I’ll do that. Some careers I have thought about include: a journalist in independent media covering politics and society, a researcher at a non-profit thinktank, or earning my PhD to become a professor and researcher. 

Hobbies: I tend to get lost in discussions about politics or otherwise. I also love to travel, camp, hike, train my German shepherd dogs (x2), run, bike, and read nonfiction in my spare time. 

Favorite Thing About Science: Science and social scientific studies help us learn about ourselves and the world we live in. I love it. 

Organism of Study: Society, all the people within it, and institutions. 

Field of Study: Political science, global politics and culture 

What is Political Science? The field of political science falls under the category of social sciences. Social science involves lots of reading, observations, and analyses. It often begins with brainstorming an important question, crafting a plan to address the question, collecting data, and then interpreting the results. This research becomes part of a broader conversation in the scientific community and builds on our understanding of the world around us. The aim of political science is to understand or explain problems in politics and government. These problems can span from political ideas to institutions, from the behavior of individuals to groups, and much more. Political scientists will usually focus on a subfield, or a specific area of interest relating to politics and government. 

My graduate program focuses on global politics and culture. In general, my work begins with globalization. Globalization refers to the expansion of global relationships. I am fascinated (and sometimes bothered) by modern politics of liberal democracies. My graduate work has led me to the question of social cohesion, or the extent of trust and cooperation in a society. I am also interested in how national identities can be “broken”, or otherwise no longer collective, and other crises that face democracy. 

Check Out My Original Paper: “Contesting the Secular West: Religio-cultural Identity Politics in Western Liberal Democracies”

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

Citation: N.A. Mullins, Contesting the Secular West: Religio-cultural Identity Politics in Western Liberal Democracies. Zeitschrift für Religion, Gesellschaft und Politik 3.1: 61-74 (2019). 

Research at a Glance: Political discussions often neglect the interaction of secularism, religious, and cultural identities in Western liberal democracies. But these important features must be considered in modern politics. For example, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union (Brexit) and the election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States each took the world by surprise. In either event, liberal democracies are known for equal rights and non-discrimination. Secularism is the doctrine or policy that separates religion from public life and is common in liberal democracies. Yet religious influence is apparent in both national and world politics. It is often felt as identity politics, with a tendency for people or groups to form political alliances based on a shared identity. Increasing diversity in places like the United States and Europe has renewed debates over culture and national identity. Inclusion is now a matter of question. Societies are shaped by unique histories with secularism, religion and culture. These experiences may help to explain such modern trends. My paper explores this theoretical debate. Liberal democratic values are contested and I draw attention to the relationship between religion, politics, and national identity in the present era. 

Highlights: I wrote the first version of this paper for a seminar in comparative politics on the topic of religion. I drew connections between the cultures of modern society and their historical experiences with religion and secularism and was inspired to write on this topic. For a long time, probably since I was a young teenager, I’ve been a huge nerd for nonfiction books on secularism. I took a graduate seminar with Dr. Ali Riaz here at Illinois State University and it really helped to clarify my research interests. The course was essential to my research in the politics of religion and identity, and in the discovery of my research interests. 

What My Science Looks Like: A stack of books, 25-30 tabs open on my laptop, mind maps, and hand-scribbled notes. 

A picture of a stack of books, in this order: Public Religions on the Modern World by Jose Casanova, Post-Secular Society by Peter Nynas, Mika Lassander, and Terhi Utriainen, Comparative Secularisms in a Global Age by Palgrave Macmillan, Formations of the Secular by Talal Asad, Religion and Politics in South Asia by Ali Riaz, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence by Mark Juergen-Meyer, Rethinking Secularism by Craig Calhoun, Mark Juergensmeyer, and Jonathan VanAntwerpen, and Secularism and Its Critics by Rajeev Bhargava.
Here are some of the books I referenced when writing my paper. What this picture doesn’t capture is all the articles, reading, notes, and many hours of time put into it! 

The Big Picture: Identity and culture shape the norms, values, and worldviews of individuals and societies. These may be understood as “collective” values or identities around broad ideas, but identities and cultures in societies are often more fragmented. Religions can be supportive of tolerance and other democratic values. They can also take the opposite stance. Secular world views are similar to religion in that way by contradicting tolerance. In either case, religious, ethnic, or cultural minorities may face discrimination from the majority. For example, secularism in France can be restrictive against religious expression and cultural minorities. The reality is that we live in a diverse world. Identity and cultural issues that shape our societies deeply impact our politics. These norms and values are all subject to debate, and it seems to be increasingly so. Additionally, according to the Fragile State Index, social cohesion is worsening in the U.S. I have a hunch this fracturing has something to do with identity politics. The unique histories of societies shape these modern debates and therefore, present politics, which is a key point to remember. 

Decoding the Language: 

Brexit: This term describes the United Kingdom’s vote to withdrawal from the European Union.

Climate change: A change in global or regional climate patterns, often seen as major changes in temperature or precipitation. 

Globalization: This concept has many dimensions. It is generally understood as the expansion of human relations across geographical space. This involves the global economy, politics, culture, environment, and ideology.

Identity Politics: Identity politics places emphasis on individuals and groups. For example, a politician may run for office as a Christian woman and use her identity as a Christian and/or as a woman to appeal to like-minded voters. On the political left, identity politics tends to focus on perceived (or actually) marginalized groups. On the right, it is often about protecting traditional views surrounding national identity, such as, beliefs about race, ethnicity, and/or religion. 

Nation-State: The nation is the political community that legitimizes the state over its territory. Nation-states make up the international system. They are formed by people in a common territory, who may have shared history, traditions, or language. It is territory with a shared cultural and political boundary. 

Secularism: This concept can be simply defined as the doctrine or policy of separation of church and state. It is a basic system of beliefs for how relations between the state and religion are conducted. For example, the political and religious authorities are generally kept separate in a secular state. It can also be understood as a belief system or way of life corresponding to the decline or absence of religious influence on everyday life. 

Social Cohesion: One simple definition of social cohesion is the level of trust in a society, or the extent to which individuals in a society trust one another. It can also be understood as the degree of social stability, how connected we are, and the general wellbeing and representation of individuals and groups within society.

Thinktank: This is an organization with a mission to conduct research to share ideas and/or policy recommendations. 

Learn More: Below are some useful resources relevant to this research and helpful to my current thesis project.

Fragile States Index

Washington Post opinion piece on identity politics

New York Times opinion piece on identity politics

Pacific Standard article on identity politics

Religious extremism

Washington Post opinion piece on political consensus

The Great Regression

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on migration and inclusive societies

Here are some published papers and books on similar topics: 

Identity politics: F. Fukuyama., Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York. 2018. Globalization: M.B. Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. 2009 

Social cohesion: X. Fonseca,S. Stephan, F. Brazier, Social Cohesion Revisited: A New Definition and how to Characterize It. Innovat Eur J Soc Sci Res. 32.2: 231-53 (2019). 

Synopsis edited by: Rosario Marroquin-Flores, PhD (Anticipated May 2022), Illinois State University

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Evidence that offspring manage hormones produced by maternal stress

Featured Scientist: Dr. Amanda Wilson Carter (she/her/hers)

A picture of Amanda Wilson Carter at her field site. She is in a marsh wearing waders. She is next to a canoe, holding a turtle that was just removed from a trap.

Birthplace: New York City, NY 

My Research: I study how animals are affected by changes in their environments. 

Research Goals: I want to understand how changes in temperature affect animal physiology. I would like to be able to better predict how climate change will affect all types of animals. 

Career Goals: I am currently working towards increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in science. My goal is to become a biology professor and researcher. 

Hobbies: Traveling, playing with my dogs, and renovating my 1940’s bungalow. 

Favorite Thing About Science: I love having the freedom to explore questions that I think are necessary and important. Throughout my schooling and career, I have also discovered a passion for mentoring students through independent projects in the lab. There is something very special about watching an undergraduate conduct their first study and transform into a confident and capable young investigator. 

Organism of Study: I study many animals, but my PhD research focused on turtles, mainly the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta). In my current position, I conduct research on dung beetles. 

A picture of a red-eared slider turtle on the ground. The turtle has a red band on the side of its head.
Red-eared slider turtle (T. scripta) Image source

Field of Study: Eco-physiology | Climate Change | Plasticity | Development | Parental Effects

What is Eco-physiology? I broadly consider myself an eco-physiologist. I study how the physiology and behavior of animals are affected by their environment (mainly temperature). 

Check Out My Original Paper: “Evidence of embryonic regulation of maternally derived yolk corticosterone” 

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

Citation: A. W. Carter, R.M. Bowden, R.T. Paitz, Evidence of embryonic regulation of maternally derived yolk corticosterone. J. Exp. Biol. 221.22 (2018). 

Synopsis written by: Ashley Waring, PhD (Anticipated Fall 2023), School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

Research at a Glance: When a mother is stressed, it can affect her future offspring. It can negatively affect them while they are developing and can also affect their survival after they are born. The goal of this study was to understand how maternal stress affects offspring by investigating how corticosterone, a hormone related to stress, affects embryos. In order to test this, turtle eggs from the species Trachemys scripta (red-eared slider turtle) were exposed to high levels of corticosterone. Amanda found out that the embryo will process most of the corticosterone. By the end of her study, less than 1% of the corticosterone was left in the embryo. This shows that, even when a lot of the stress hormone is present, it doesn’t necessarily have a large effect on the embryo. However, if the amount of corticosterone was more than the embryo could handle, some of the embryos did not survive. When embryos did survive and hatch, the hatchling turtles tended to be smaller and have more physical malformations than those that were not exposed to corticosterone. Embryos that had been exposed to corticosterone also took longer to hatch. Amanda’s results show that maternal stress causes a variety of effects on offspring and that too much maternal stress via increased corticosterone can have strong negative impacts. Some of these negative effects exist in traits that are important for survival and reproduction, so maternal stress can harm the offspring’s chances at reproducing successfully. However, since the embryos were able to process some levels of corticosterone, it’s possible that offspring can survive lower levels of maternal stress

Highlights: Figure 1 shows that, at high levels, corticosterone decreases how many turtle embryos will survive. The bar on the far left, labeled “Control”, shows the mortality rate when no corticosterone is given to the embryo. Each bar to the right shows how many turtles died as the corticosterone dose increased.

A data figure that shows embryo mortality in response to corticosterone. The x-axis shows doses of corticosterone (micrograms) using a control, 0.05 micrograms, 0.15 micrograms, and 0.5 micrograms. The y-axis shows embryo mortality as a percentage. The percent mortality is highest at 0.5 micrograms of corticosterone (30 percent). The percent mortality is significantly lower for the control, 0.05 micrograms, and 0.15 micrograms (all near 10 percent).
Figure 1. The percent of embryos that die after exposure to different doses of corticosterone. The x-axis shows the amount of corticosterone given to the embryo and the y-axis shows the percent of embryos that died. Adapted from Carter et al. 2018.

At low levels of corticosterone (0.05 μg and 0.15 μg) there is almost no change in survival. However, at a high level (0.5 μg), there is a large jump in embryo mortality. This suggests that there might be a threshold point, where the embryo can no longer cope with the amount of corticosterone

What My Science Looks Like: Below is a picture of Amanda collecting turtle eggs in the field. She looks for female turtles nesting in the dirt, then digs up the eggs that they lay. 

Picture of Amanda Wilson Carter. She is in a dirt field writing in her notebook. There is a turtle to her left.
Pictured above is Amanda doing field work and collecting data during her graduate career at Illinois State University. Picture courtesy of Amanda’s website

The Big Picture: This research provided the scientific community with a better understanding of maternal-offspring relationships. It helped explain the dynamics of stress and how maternal stress may affect the offspring. There are many ways that humans can cause stress in animal mothers, and the potential effects of that are still unknown. However, we now know that there may be a point where the level of stress causes harm. So, moving forward as a society, we need to be aware of how we treat our environment and what stressful effects that will have on animals. 

Decoding the Language: 

Corticosterone: The hormone produced in response to stress. 

Embryo: An unborn or unhatched offspring that is actively growing. In the context of Amanda’s research, the embryo is the developing turtle inside the egg. 

Malformations: Malformation refers to a part of a body that has not formed normally.

Maternal Stress: Maternal stress refers to the stress that a mother experiences during pregnancy. 

Physiology: A branch of biology that studies how different parts of the body carry out chemical and physical functions.

Trachemys scripta (T. scripta): The scientific name for the red-eared slider turtle. 

Learn More: 

Bowden Lab website (former Doctoral Program)

The role of corticosterone in the body

Synopsis edited by: Brie Oceguera Walk, M.S. 2020 and Eric Walsh, M.S. 2020, School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

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Effects of inbreeding in crickets

Illinois State University dual contributors.

Featured Scientist: Kylie Hampton, M.S. 2020, School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

An image of Kylie Hampton at a research laboratory, looking into a microscope.

Birthplace: Chicago, IL

My Research: I am interested in understanding how the female immune system is impacted by mating in decorated crickets. 

Research Goals: I hope to continue to work in the field of Behavioral Ecology because it provides the opportunity to ask really exciting research questions. I am specifically interested in mating behavior and the study of the insect immune system. However, I have diverse research interests and would be excited to gain experience in other fields as well! 

Career Goals: I hope to be a research assistant in a lab that has similar research interests. I really enjoy doing lab work involving microscopy and microbiology but I’d be excited to give field work a try, too! 

Hobbies: I love listening to true crime podcasts, drinking wine, reading, and painting!

Favorite Thing About Science: I love science because it’s an entire field devoted to understanding the world. Every project that I have been a part of has been my personal attempt to contribute something new or to support existing knowledge, which I find to be a really rewarding experience. 

Featured Scientist: Ian Rines, PhD (Anticipated Spring 2023), School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

An image of Ian Rines at a research laboratory. There is a transparent box in front of him and room is illuminated in red light.

Birthplace: Charleston, SC

My Research: Male crickets produce compounds that they feed to females during mating. I study how male crickets use these compounds to manipulate female behaviors during and after reproduction. 

Research Goals: I’m interested in the study of animal behavior and am broadly interested in continuing to work with insects. I would like to use molecular techniques to change how genes are expressed in crickets. These techniques should help me to understand what causes certain behaviors. 

Career Goals: I’m not entirely sure what I’d like to do in the future, but right now, I’m hoping to do research in an academic setting.

Hobbies: I enjoy reading, watching movies, and (mild) hiking. 

Favorite Thing About Science: My favorite thing about science is actually doing the science itself. It’s fulfilling to design and carry out experiments to get at an answer to a question. 

Organism of Study: We study the decorated cricket, Gryllodes sigillatus

An image of a female decorated cricket. She is crouching down to grasp a clear, globular, object attached to her body. The male is in the distance, walking away from the female.
G. sigillatus, or the decorated cricket. Pictured is a male (left) and a female (center). This pair has just finished mating and the female is bending around to remove the gift (the clear capsule she is grasping). 

Field of Study: Behavioral Ecology 

What is Behavioral Ecology? Animal behavior is shaped over time based on ancestry and environmental surroundings. Good behaviors, those that help animals to survive, become more common. Bad behaviors, those that do not help animals survive, become less common. Behavioral ecology is the study of how these behaviors are formed. 

Check Out My Original Paper: “Effects of inbreeding on life-history traits and sexual competency in decorated crickets” 

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

Citation: S.K. Sakaluk, J. Oldzej, C.J. Hodges, C.L. Harper, I.G. Rines, K. J. Hampton, K.R. Duffield, J. Hunt, B.M. Sadd, Effects of inbreeding on life-history traits and sexual competency in decorated crickets. Anim. Behav. 155: 241-248 (2019). 

Research at a Glance: This paper presents the results of two undergraduate research projects from several years ago. We helped to write the results of their work for publication. We studied how inbreeding affects mating and offspring production in decorated crickets. The crickets were originally collected in New Mexico in 2001. They were mated several times to siblings to create genetically distinct lineages of crickets. To see the impact of extreme inbreeding, we measured the number of offspring that the female crickets produced. Not surprisingly, we found that inbred crickets had fewer offspring. Here, inbred crickets were from the lineages that experienced inbreeding. These offspring took longer to hatch and grow into adults. We also did another experiment to see how inbreeding impacts mating success. From that study, we found that inbred males are less successful at completing their steps in mating, which involve attaching a sperm package to the female’s genitalia. Surprisingly, we found that inbred females preferred inbred males from within their own line, that is, the males that were most closely related to them. This result seemed to contradict all the previous results found in the literature, which indicated that inbreeding had negative effects in these crickets. In general, inbreeding is considered a bad strategy for reproduction, as it can lead to inbreeding depression. Inbreeding depression is a reduction of reproductive output due to mating between relatives. 

Highlights: Experiment 1: In the first experiment, we examined the effects of inbreeding on the offspring. We looked at hatching and development times, the number of offspring produced, the offspring size, and various other outcomes of mating. In Figure 1, we compared the number of days that it took to hatch for inbred and outbred crickets. Here, outbred crickets are from lineages that did not experience inbreeding. We found that inbred crickets take longer to hatch. 

A data figure that shows the amount of time that it took for a cricket to hatch, relative to their inbred or outbred status. The figure shows that inbred crickets took approximately 17 days to hatch, and outbred crickets took approximately 15 days to hatch.
Figure 1. Hatching time of inbred and outbred offspring. The x-axis shows whether the crickets were inbred or outbred, while the y-axis is the average number of days that crickets took to hatch. Hatching time was the time from when the egg was laid to when the cricket emerged from the egg. Figure adapted from Sakaluk et al.2019.

In Figure 2, we compared the number of offspring that were produced from inbred and outbred crickets. We found that inbred crickets have fewer offspring than outbred crickets. 

A data figure that shows the number of offspring, relative to their inbred or outbred status. The figure shows that inbred crickets had approximately 300 offspring, and outbred crickets had approximately 1,000 offspring.
Figure 2. Number of offspring from inbred and outbred matings. Again, the x-axis shows whether the crickets were inbred or outbred. The y-axis is the average number of offspring produced by females. Figure adapted from Sakaluk et al. 2019. 

In Figure 3, we looked at the amount of time that it took male and female offspring to develop into adults because sex is known to affect development time. We then compared development time for inbred and outbred crickets. We found that, regardless of sex, inbred crickets took longer to develop into adults. Overall, these results show that inbreeding can have negative impacts on the cricket offspring. 

A data figure that shows development time (days), relative to sex for both inbred and outbred crickets. The figure shows that female inbred crickets took about 40 days to develop, and female outbred crickets took about 36 days to develop. It shows that male inbred crickets took about 43 days to develop, and male outbred crickets took about 39 days to develop. Males generally took longer to develop than females.
Figure 3. Development time of inbred and outbred offspring by sex. The x-axis shows the sex of the crickets, while the y-axis indicates the average development time in days. Development time was characterized by how long it took crickets to reach sexual maturity. Figure adapted from Sakaluk et al. 2019. 

Experiment 2: Our second experiment, where we studied the effects of inbreeding on mating success, yielded very surprising results. We observed the behaviors of several cricket mating pairs. We paired inbred males with inbred females and outbred males with outbred females, then watched them mate. Next, we paired inbred males with outbred females and outbred males with inbred females. We did this to make sure that we had all possible mating combinations (Table 1). To observe mating, we placed males and females into small plastic containers in a dark, warm room. We had the room illuminated by red light because crickets can’t see red light and it allowed us to observe them. 

A table of Mating Pairs. Pairs are as follows: 1. Inbred female by inbred male, 2. Inbred female by outbred male, 3. Outbred female by inbred male, and 4. Outbred female by outbred male.
Table 1. Layout of all mating combinations we observed. 

To successfully mate, male crickets must attach the sperm package to the female. We found that inbred males had a lower chance of successfully attaching the sperm package, regardless if they were paired with inbred or outbred females. We think that inbred males are just bad at mating. This is because previous research shows that males are more likely to experience the negative effects of inbreeding when it comes to the steps in mating. 

Surprisingly, inbred females were more likely to mate with inbred males. Given these results, we cannot simply conclude that “inbreeding is bad”, because inbred females seem to prefer mating with inbred males. While our experiments don’t tell us why this is happening, we have several ideas. Our inbred lineages of crickets have been isolated within their inbred lines from a long time. It is possible that females don’t recognize males from outside of their lineages. They may not see these outsider males as acceptable mates because they are only ever exposed to one type of male, that is, their inbred counterparts.

What My Science Looks Like: The image the below is a mating chamber. We illuminate the room in red light, then observe the mating behavior through this observation chamber.

An image of the cricket mating chamber. It is a translucent plastic box with air holes on the sides.
Image of a mating observation chamber. 

The Big Picture: Studying the effects of inbreeding in crickets may not seem like an important thing to research. Our cricket species is not endangered or declining, but the same cannot be said for many other insect species. Substantial declines have been reported in bees, moths, butterflies, dragonflies, and other insects. There are approximately 1.5 million species on our planet, and insects account for more than half of those species. Compared to most vertebrates, it is much harder to determine whether an insect species is declining. When species go into decline, they are more likely to experience inbreeding and this can negatively impact the species. Inbreeding can harm offspring by shortening their lifespans, damaging their health, and reducing their reproductive output. Given these negative effects, we would expect inbred individuals to avoid mating each other. However, our research shows that animals may not always avoid inbreeding. This is particularly important because we also find that inbred males are less successful at mating. Our study has led to surprising results and further unanswered questions. Future research should help to unravel these mysteries, and focus on the effects of inbreeding on multiple traits (such as mating), not just life history traits

Decoding the Language: 

Compound: A chemical compound is made up of two or more elements. For example, table salt (NaCl) is a chemical compound because it is made up of both sodium (Na) and chlorine (Cl). 

Gryllodes sigillatus (G. sigillatus): The scientific name for the decorated cricket.

Inbreeding: Reproduction between closely related animals. 

Inbreeding depression: The reduction of reproductive output due to mating between relatives. 

Life history traits: Traits that may influence the fitness of an organism, specifically those involved in growth, survival, and reproduction. 

Mating success: In the context of our study, mating success refers to the successfully completing all the steps in copulation, starting with a male courting and a female terminating sperm transfer. 

Molecular techniques: A method used to manipulate and understand DNA, RNA, or protein. 

Outbred: In the context of this study, these are crickets that were not subjected to full-sibling matings and were allowed to mix freely. 

Reproductive output: The number of offspring produced by a female. 

Sperm package: To mate, male decorated crickets will attach a sperm package to the genitalia of the female. The package contains a combination of proteins that the female will feed on after it is attached to her body. As she feeds, sperm from the package will enter the female’s reproductive tract. The longer the package is attached to her body, the more likely it is for the female to be fertilized by the male’s sperm. It is in the male’s best interest to successfully attach the package and to make it as tasty as possible. This lengthens the amount of time that the female feeds and the amount of time that the sperm has access to her reproductive tract. 

Learn More: 

Insect decline

Synopsis edited by: Rosario Marroquin-Flores (she/her/hers), PhD (Anticipated Spring 2022), School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University 

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Horoscope haters beware: a turtle’s birthday may decide more than we think

Illinois State University contributor

Featured Scientist: Haley M. Nichols, B.S. 2017, School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

A selfie of Haley Nichols in her home.

Birthplace: Okinawa, Japan 

My Research: I studied the role of nesting season and maternal investment on the behavior of juvenile freshwater turtles. 

Research Goals: In the future, I would like to study how maternal nutrition or nesting conditions affect animal development and behavior. 

Career Goals: I would like to work in managing invasive reptile species, particularly in sensitive areas such as the Florida wetlands. 

Hobbies: I enjoy road trips with my fiancé and taking care of our cold-blooded pets and house plants! 

Favorite Thing About Science: My favorite thing about science is learning new things to better understand the world we live in. I think it allows us to appreciate each moment a little more. 

Organism of Study: I work with the red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta). 

A picture of a T. scripta hatchling half emerged from its shell. The head, left leg, and part of the carapace are visible. The eggshell appears torn and there is a number written on the top of the egg in pencil.
Image of T. scripta hatchling emerging from its shell. 

Field of Study: Animal Behavior & Physiology

What is Animal Behavior & Physiology? Animal behavior studies the way animals interact with themselves, others, and their environment. Their behavior can be affected by both internal and external conditions. Animal physiology studies the internal conditions like hormone regulation, temperature, or metabolic function. External conditions may be access to food and water or the presence of predators. Basically, we look at WHAT animals do and WHY they may be doing it. 

Check Out My Original Paper: “Red-eared slider hatchlings (Trachemys scripta) show a seasonal shift in behavioral types” 

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

Citation: H. Nichols, A.W. Carter, R.T. Paitz, R.M Bowden, Red-eared slider hatchlings (Trachemys scripta) show a seasonal shift in behavioral types. J Exp. Zool. Part. A. 331.9: 485-493 (2019). 

Research at a Glance: Behavioral types can be thought of as an animal’s personality. They are patterns of behavior that repeat. The behavioral type that best supports survival may differ across environments, like seasons. We hypothesized that mothers could use their own behavior and physiology to help their hatchlings survive in the conditions that they are born in. That is, they can help them by making sure that the hatchling behavioral type matches the environment. To test this hypothesis, we measured righting response of juvenile red-eared slider turtles across the nesting season. The righting response is the ability of the turtle to turn itself over onto its abdomen (plastron) after it has been placed on its back (carapace). It is a signal for behavioral type, or “personality”. We studied turtles hatching from early and late season clutches to understand if their personalities change based on nesting season. We found that the nesting season has a significant effect on righting response, with early season hatchlings righting more quickly than late season hatchlings. 

To figure out why this happens, we explored two potential causes: maternal estrogen and maternal investment. From prior research, we know that eggs from late season clutches have more estrogen than eggs from early season clutches. To see if maternal estrogen was causing the difference in righting response, we coated early season eggs with an estrogen hormone to mimic the amount of estrogen found in late season eggs. We found that this did not affect hatchling behavior. To see if maternal investment was causing the difference in righting response, we looked to see if mothers were giving extra energy resources to her eggs when she lays them. We measured the mass of the egg, the hatchling mass, and the mass of the residual yolk on the hatchling’s body. We found that early season eggs have more yolk than late season eggs. We also found that early season hatchlings were larger; they used a higher percentage of their yolk to grow new tissue, rather than just keeping existing tissues healthy. Interestingly, in both seasons, hatchlings that had less yolk also used a higher percentage of the yolk to make tissue, but we found no direct relationship to righting response. Overall, our research shows that behavioral types vary across the nesting season, but it appears that neither maternal estrogen nor maternal investment directly leads to this change. 

Highlights: We we were able to show seasonal differences in the red-eared slider turtle (T. scripta) righting response between seasons, but were not able to determine its cause. We showed that early season turtles are given more yolk and use more of this yolk to grow tissues than late season turtles. We were able to determine the amount of yolk given to each hatchling by measuring the yolk from one egg of each clutch shortly after they were laid. After hatching, we measured the mass of each turtle and the mass of their remaining yolk. We then used statistical tests to look at the differences between these groups. 

Figure 1 shows the results of our righting response behavioral test. It shows that turtles that came from eggs laid late in the nesting season righted themselves more slowly than those laid early in the nesting season

A data figure that shows the time that it takes a hatchling to right itself, relative to the season in which it was born. It shows that turtles born in the early season took about 450 seconds to right themselves. It shows that turtles born in the late season took about 550 seconds to right themselves.
Figure 1. Hatchling righting response trial. The x-axis shows whether the turtle was laid in the early or late season. The y-axis shows the amount of time, in seconds, that it took for the hatchling to turn itself over. Adapted from Nichols et al. 2019. 

What My Science Looks Like: The photo below shows the arena that we used during the righting response trial. The turtles in the top left corner cell and center cell have completed the desired behavior: they were able to turn from the carapace (back) to the plastron (abdomen). Each turtle is given a unique number based on their egg and clutch. We took photos of the plastron of each individual to verify the identity of the hatchling. 

A picture of the righting response trial arena. It is an aerial view of a 3 by 3 grid of small cardboard boxes, each with an open top. Each box has a hatchling inside it. The top left and center box have turtles that are on their feet. All other boxes have turtles that are on their backs.
T. scripta in the trial arena. 

The Big Picture: My research is important because it helps us understand how animal behaviors and physical responses form. We used a species that is sensitive to the environment. Knowing how the environment shapes the body and behavior can help us predict how animals will respond to these changes. 

Decoding the Language: 

Behavioral types: A pattern of behavior in an animal. 

Carapace: The top part of a turtle’s shell. 

Clutch: A group of eggs that are laid together at the same time by a single female. 

Estrogen: One of the primary female hormones; previous studies show it increases in eggs over the nesting season, causing more females in later clutches (Carter et. al 2017, see below).

Maternal investment: The services a mother provides her young, such as, provision of food, care, and protection.

Nesting season: The time of the year eggs are laid. For my species there is an early nesting season (late May to mid-June) and a late nesting season (mid- June to late June). 

Residual yolk: The unused yolk remaining after turtle hatching. 

Righting response: The behavior of turning oneself over from carapace to plastron (the “right” position for walking etc.).

Plastron: The bottom part of a turtle’s shell.

Physiology: A branch of biology that studies how different parts of the body carry out chemical and physical functions.

Trachemys scripta (T. scripta): The scientific name for the red-eared slider turtle.

Yolk: The yellow-orange, nutrient-rich portion of the egg that supplies food to the developing embryo. 

Learn More: 

Physiology, Neuroscience, and Behavior sequence at ISU

Animal physiology:

Animal behavior

Information about the red-eared slider turtle

A.W. Carter, R.M. Bowden, R. T. Paitz, Seasonal shifts in sex ratios are mediated by maternal effects and fluctuating incubation temperatures. Funct. Ecol. 31: 876–884 (2017). 

Synopsis edited by: Rosario Marroquin-Flores (she/her/hers), PhD (Anticipated Spring 2022), School of Biological Sciences, Illinois State University

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