Ecology and behavior of Alaskan three-spined stickleback

My name is Kevin Neumann and I am a second year PhD student in Alison Bell’s lab, studying the behavior of three-spined stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus). This past summer, I spent nearly a month in Alaska doing field research. It was my first time doing field research, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Kevin Neumann, PhD student in the Bell lab.

Work days in the field were strenuous. I would typically be up at 8am, drive out to pick up fish from minnow traps at that day’s lake, conduct behavioral assays through the evening until around 8pm, and then drop traps in the next day’s lake. However, spending each day overlooking a lake in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness made up for these long days. Being outside and away from any major cities for so long provided many opportunities for observing Alaskan wildlife. Moose, bald eagles, loons, and chipmunks would make their way past my cabin nearly every day. On one day off, I was even lucky enough to head down to the coast and get a look at sea otters, puffins, and other marine life. However, despite carrying bear spray with me every day, I did not see any bears, which was both disappointing and relieving. It was also quite an adjustment to get used to the Alaskan summer, with the sun setting after midnight and rising around 4am.

The view of the sunset (around midnight) from Hope Lake.

My interest in stickleback comes from a more general interest in social organisms. I have always been fascinated with species that live in groups because of the way that differences within individuals can alter both the behavior of other group members and of the group as a whole.  

This work was part of a collaboration with a number of other research teams comparing how different stickleback ecotypes vary in their response to different lake environments. An ecotype is a distinct form of a species that tends to occupy a distinct type of habitat. In the case of stickleback, there are benthic and limnetic ecotypes. Benthic stickleback tend to reside near the bottom of the lake, feeding on crustaceans and other macroinvertebrates in the sediment, while limnetic stickleback spend more time in the open water, feeding on zooplankton.

Limnetic (top) and benthic (bottom) stickleback ecotypes. The streamlined body of the limnetic fish allows them to swim quickly and search for zooplankton, while the large skull of the benthic fish helps them crush the shells of their prey, such as small crustaceans. (Photo credit: Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada)

We are looking at a group of lakes on the Kenai Peninsula where stickleback populations had previously been threatened by the presence of an invasive predator, the northern pike. In 2019, members of our team treated the lakes with a chemical, rotenone, removing pike from the lakes. They then reintroduced stickleback from both benthic and limnetic source populations. Thus, with this project, we have the unique opportunity to study how an ecosystem develops “from scratch” and if the development of these new ecosystems impacts these ecotypes in different ways.

Stickleback populations were located on the Kenai Peninsula in southern Alaska.

My goal this summer was to compare the behavioral types of stickleback both within and across lakes to see if differences in behavior might be linked to ecotype. A behavioral type describes a suite of behaviors that are repeatable in an individual animal. For instance, stickleback may vary in their risk-taking behavior, with some individuals more willing to emerge from a shelter and explore their surroundings, or in their response to predators, with some individuals expressing evasive behavior and swimming away from predators while others will actually approach and inspect a larger, predatory fish, like trout.

Stickleback males will have this beautiful red coloration on the throat during the breeding season.
The largest individual I found (75.4 mm) shown next to an average sized individual.

I am currently in the process of analyzing this data, but preliminary results suggest that while there is variation in behavior between lakes, ecotypic differences alone do not account for this variation. Rather, it appears that fine-scale differences between lakes may be important. I will need to follow this up by going back in future years and measuring lake-level traits like predator diversity, nesting space, or prey types. Returning in future years will also provide me with the opportunity to track the evolution of these populations in real time. If, for instance, the patterns I found this year are even stronger next year, it would suggest that selection is favoring different behavioral types for different lake environments.

Leisure Lake, one of the introduction lakes on the Kenai Peninsula. Stickleback nest right along the shoreline.

I also hope to expand on this project by looking more into the social behavior of stickleback when they are interacting in groups. Prior work has explored how individual variation plays a role in stickleback social groups. However, the relationship between social behaviors and the divergence of traits within species is not as well understood, not only in stickleback but in the field of evolutionary biology at large. By quantifying the role that social interactions can have on the divergence of ecologically relevant traits like the differences we see between benthic and limnetic ecotypes, this work will help us better understand the evolution of social behavior, a concept that has fascinated biologists, psychologists, and philosophers for years.

Looking for fish in G Lake, right next to the cabin where I stayed.

My internship has allowed me to experience many facets of medicine – Natasha Najam

The following is an entry in the LAS Insider Blog for prospective students, a blog for students and alumni of the College of LAs to write about their personal experiences and insights, offering an inside look at the College and the University of Illinois. You can access the original post here.

Natasha Najam is a rising senior working towards a behavioral neuroscience psychology degree with chemistry and integrative biology minors. During the school year, she works as a research assistant for the Human Factors Lab at Beckman Institute and as a teaching assistant for organic chemistry. In her free time, you can find her reading, volunteering, and exploring different genres of music.

What is your internship this summer? What is your specific role? This summer, I am working as an intern at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. The focal point of my internship is on a brain cancer project that looks at the viability of 2HG as a good identifying biomarker for a non-invasive way to monitor cancer treatment. I work with the research assistants in the lab who are also involved in the project, and while they are working on more technical radiology centered aspects of the project, my part of the project is more neuro-oncology focused. I get to observe MRI/MRS scans, greet patients coming in for their scans, and decode patient data. I also partake in career panels about clinical research with doctors in other departments, and the panels are more intimate because there are only six other interns in the program.

What does a typical day look like? It’s hard to determine what a typical day looks like because I don’t really have a day-to-day routine. The time I get to work is dependent on when the patient arrives for their MRI scan. Usually 9 a.m. is a safe bet, but there have been occasions where I get to work at 7:30 a.m. or earlier. I don’t run the scan, but I assist the radiology research assistants in running the scan and talking with the patient. Once the scans related to my project have been completed, I collect and organize the data to assess the metabolites and biomarkers we found in the tumor with other individuals in my team.

I usually have at least one meeting a day, either a panel hosted by my program, a lab meeting, or just planning next steps with the graduate students in the lab. Some days, I’ll have a clinical observation with one of the doctors in the surrounding hospitals. These observations usually go for about 2.5-4 hours. If I spend the majority of the day with a doctor on a clinical observership, I go back to the lab to get some work done by 6-6:30 p.m. If I don’t have a clinical observation, I’ll head home by 5.

What’s your favorite thing about your internship? I love how much I get to learn each day at Brigham. It is astonishing how much experience I have gained working there, especially since the project I have been added to is a blend of radiology and neuro-oncology. It involves organizing and collecting clinical, and genetic data, and making sense of it all. Given that I’m not adept in any of the aforementioned fields, I definitely feel like I’m constantly learning something new!

I also want to give an honorable mention to the location of my internship. It’s in a medical area, where there are major hospitals, medical centers and a medical school, all attached internally by glass bridges and tunnels. The whole area is sectioned off for labs and hospitals, and I found that layout really interesting and something that I haven’t seen prior to this experience. It makes it easy to work with the other hospitals—for example, I work at Brigham and Women’s but recently shadowed a doctor at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and because everything is really close by, it makes collaboration and cross-collaborative work easier.

What do you think you’ve gained so far from your experience? I have learned a lot of material content from the panels and live lectures that I was lucky enough to sit in. I have also experienced so many interesting facets of medicine, namely how to observe and understand the process of running the MRS/MRI scans. I was able to talk to patients in a number of situations, and learned how wide the scope of the medical field really is through these encounters.

I recently shadowed an allergy and immunology doctor and was faced with a challenge to cancer patients I had never considered before. Most people, when it comes to cancer patients, dwell on how taxing chemotherapy can be, but what if the patient was allergic to the life-saving chemo drug? I never thought about it, but that’s the dilemma allergists face. Their desensitization techniques were fascinating to me and very different from the limited scope of the medical field I had previously.

What are you ultimate career aspirations? I would like to continue learning new things in whatever field I choose, though ultimately I feel a strong pull towards the medical field. During my internship, I was given the opportunity to shadow some physician scientists who were able to balance both the clinical and research sides of the medical field. I like the idea of bridging the gap between discovery and implementation and thus, I find that career path highly appealing.

2020 Alumni Achievement Award Winner: Steve Caldwell!

The School of Integrative Biology has a tradition of teaching and research excellence over 150 years old, when courses in Zoology, Botany, and Entomology were first taught at the University of Illinois. Our departments were founded in 1884 (Zoology/EEE, Genetics and Development, Animal Biology), 1901 (Botany/Plant Biology), and 1909 (Entomology). In the last century and a half, our faculty have had the pleasure of working with tens of thousands of undergraduate and graduate students who have gone on to change the world through their impactful and cross-cutting work.

To celebrate these accomplishments, in 2019 the School of Integrative Biology created the Alumni Achievement Award and the Outstanding Young Alumni Award to recognize outstanding professional achievement or exceptional service to the School or the departments.

The Achievement Award recognizes outstanding professional achievement that demonstrates the value of an education (BS, MS, or PhD) from the University of Illinois.

The Outstanding Recent Alumni Award recognizes a recent graduate (within 10 years of final Illinois degree) for outstanding or noteworthy professional achievement.

Our 2020 Alumni Achievement Award winner is Steve Caldwell. Congratulations Steve!

Steve Caldwell, Class of 1993 | Senior Manager of Validation and Change Control, Illumina | Adjunct Professor (Applied Biotechnology M.S. program), University of Wisconsin

Steve has worked in the biotechnology industry for the past 20 years, applying both the content knowledge and the analytical and strategic thinking skills he gained from his time at Illinois. Throughout his career spanning over two decades in industry, he has used this holistic and integrative thinking to solve problems.

Steve has been involved in microbiology research and assay development, validation and quality assurance for lab procedures, project management and oversight of teams of researchers, training of personnel and development of procedures, strategic development and oversight of company activities such as product launches, development and implementation of trainings and cultural change initiatives, and more. He has worked as a microbiologist, validation scientist, senior engineer, process validation engineer, and a senior manager of quality systems.

The contribution Steve has made to our School is more than note-worthy, it has been transformative. When a call went out to our IB community four years ago to help engage our undergraduates and improve career success, Steve leapt at the opportunity to give back to his alma mater, helping to develop the first ever Integrative Biology career course (now a permanent course: IB292 Translating your IB Degree into Career Success).

As the co-instructor for the course, Steve has served as a constant resource for the instructors, collaborators, and students in and out of the classroom.  He has directly impacted 95+ students through the IB292 career course and numerous others through his contributions to the Alumni Mentoring Program as a whole.  

Steve leverages his professional expertise to pull out concrete examples and lessons he has learned about every topic we cover, sharing his experiences in a way that is relatable and meaningful to the students and connecting them back to the bigger picture.  He has spent  110 hours in the classroom alone, not to mention the countless hours spent in person, over the phone, and over email connecting with students, providing insights, developing course content, connecting with alumni, recruiting participants, sending resources, mentoring students, and much more.  

Beyond teaching, Steve connects with students on a personal level, follows up with in-class conversations, and mentors students in and out of class. He takes the initiative to stay connected to the IB students he has mentored, acting as an ally and support system, even helping them to successfully acquire positions after graduation. His dedication to our School is inspirational and admirable, and we are honored to name him as the winner of our 2020 Alumni Achievement Award.

To learn more about Steve or the Alumni Mentoring Program, please visit:

3 continents, 2 majors, 1 minor, and published research

The following is an entry in the LAS Insider Blog for prospective students, a blog for students and alumni of the College of LAs to write about their personal experiences and insights, offering an inside look at the College and the University of Illinois. You can access the original post here.

Abby Knipp is a recent graduate of the College of LAS, where she studied Spanish, Earth, Society & Environmental Sustainability, and Integrative Biology.

Who would’ve thought that a girl from cold, northern Minnesota, far from any body of salt-water and who had never even stepped foot into the ocean would decide to choose marine biology as a future career field? But here I am!

I went into my time as an undergrad as a first generation college student, knowing absolutely nothing about how the college system worked. I never even toured U of I before I got to campus for orientation. So, to be where I am today makes me incredibly grateful.

I started out at Illinois studying environmental sustainability because the earth is the one thing I knew I loved. Over time, I added another major and minor to push me towards my personal goals of working as a marine biologist (preferably in a Spanish-speaking, developing nation, but I’d be satisfied anywhere).

I did not realize my passion for ocean conservation until my sophomore year of college when I took an oceanography course. It was like a candle to a flame! I immediately had a drive to pursue this field, but since Illinois doesn’t offer a degree specifically in marine biology, I took it upon myself to seek out those research opportunities.

So, I got my open-water scuba certification in the frigid April waters, and I hopped on a plane for Thailand that summer. My internship in Thailand taught me how to conduct underwater dive surveys. From there, I found that I really loved speaking another language, so I bumped my Spanish minor up to a double major and took off for Granada, Spain. This study abroad trip gave me the chance to advance my bilingualism as well as granted me opportunities to travel and experience other European cultures.

The itch to learn more about our oceans then drove me to a “not-so-traditional” study abroad program with School for Field Studies (SFS) in the Turks and Caicos Islands. With SFS, I furthered my underwater research skills and learned a variety of marine management techniques. I dove into nitty-gritty research and used my newfound knowledge to write a senior capstone project highlighting the impacts of high sea surface temperatures on coral reefs from the most recent global bleaching event in the TCI. Consequently, this project transformed into a published paper with the journal SN Applied Sciences, as well as a conference presentation in the Dominican Republic for the Association of Marine Laboratories of the Caribbean.

Somehow, by keeping up my time management skills and leaning on others for support, I managed to graduate on time! But I would not be where I am today without the help of my amazing advisor/co-author, Dr. Justin Cory Pettijohn.

For me, I did not go into college with a plan, but once I found what I was passionate about I did not let anything stand in the way. I took chances, trusted my gut instinct, and let fate lead me. I could have transferred to a school with a program in marine biology, but Illinois gave me the flexibility to focus on a range of studies which broadened me and helped to make me a more competitive candidate on the job market. Additionally, U of I also gave me the support, both financially and mentally, to push me towards my dream.

My advice? If you’re thinking about attending the U of I, take the leap! I sure did. I can guarantee your time here will not be anything less than extraordinary.

Interested in learning more about Abby’s research? Read about it at the U of I News Bureau.

Behavior and Barcoding at the Bee Research Facility

[This blog was written by Briana Sobecks, an undergraduate student majoring in Chemical Engineering. It is part of the SIB Student Research Experience, a blog series that offers a closer look at students and their research.]

Over the summer, I had the amazing opportunity to work as an undergraduate field assistant in Dr. Gene Robinson’s lab. I first met Dr. Robinson at a presentation about the Earth Biogenome Project, a global initiative to sequence the DNA of all species on earth. When I spoke to him afterwards, he said his lab hired undergraduates as summer researchers at the Bee Research Facility. I applied for the position later that year and was ecstatic when I was hired.

I had several responsibilities around the Bee Research Facility. One was taking care of small indoor bee colonies. Each colony had a queen who could lay up to sixty eggs a day. I supplied food for the colonies and extracted these eggs, which were given CRISPR injections to manipulate their neurological development. I also prepared small cages of bees and monitored them in behavioral assays. These assays are used to determine how either aggressive or nurturing behavior in bees is affected by a difference in internal chemicals. Depending on which chemical is used, the bees may be more responsive in attacking an intruder or more observant in watching their queen eggs.

Briana Sobecks (center) attaching bar codes to bees at the Bee Research Facility at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The task I spent the most time on was bee barcoding. Bee barcoding involves creating a colony of 1200 individually identifiable bees by gluing a unique QR code to the back of each one. This task was highly difficult since the tags had to be oriented perfectly to be read by the computer. However, the more I practiced, the easier it became. Once the colonies were made, the computer system was able to track each individual bee, measuring how different environmental factors affected both specific bees and the colony as a whole.

Bar codes are attached to the bees to allow researchers to track their activity in and out of the hive as they study environment stresses on bees, as well as the evolution and mechanisms of their social behavior.

This research job was an informative experience that helped me further my career goals and improve my scientific skills. I am a chemical engineering major with hopes to work in biochemistry research after I graduate. Working in an Integrative Biology lab helped me improve not only my biology skills, but my scientific skills as a whole. I received a firsthand look at what considerations are necessary for real research.

For example, I learned about the controls necessary for a biological experiment. In chemistry, experiments often have a lot of consistency, so a difference between two trials is easily explained by manipulation of one variable. In biology, however, the samples are living organisms, and a vast amount of variation is possible between two samples. Experiments must control as many factors as possible, and high-level data analysis techniques are needed to ensure measured trends are not a result of random variation. These same techniques can be applied to complicated biochemical reactions. As I move forward in my career, I will remember the lessons I learned in Integrative Biology research and apply them towards my own projects.

Research Success through Mosquito Mentorship

[This blog was written by Claire Dust, an alumna from the Integrative Biology with Honors program. It is part of the SIB Student Research Experience, a blog series that offers a closer look at our students and their research.]

Hi all! My name is Claire Dust and in May of this year, I graduated from Illinois with my bachelor’s degree in Integrative Biology Honors (IBH) and a minor in chemistry. I was originally admitted to Illinois as a student in the Division of General Studies (DGS), and my sophomore year I started in IBH, where I immediately began searching for research opportunities.

One of my professors invited me to work in her lab, which focused on the relationship between the insect aphids and their endosymbiotic bacteria, Buchnera. I was very excited at this prospect, and during my short time in this lab, I worked with a team of undergraduates from my program to develop and implement a novel procedure to deliver CRISPR/Cas-9 into aphids and silence the tor gene, a gene which is hypothesized to affect exoskeleton formation, in subsequent offspring. To our delight, we were modestly successful in this task (although many aphids gallantly gave their lives during our scientific pursuit).

My first lab experience involved research on aphids and their endosymbiotic bacteria, Buchnera.

I only remained in this lab for roughly a semester; however, my friends and mentors in IBH helped me to find a new research opportunity. One of my good friends worked in the Allan lab under then PhD student Allison Parker (now Dr. Allison Parker, assistant professor in environmental science at Northern Kentucky University in the greater Cincinnati area). Allison was looking for undergraduate students to help with her summer field season, and I was very happy to come on as a part time student researcher during the summer of 2017. A field season with Allison was not what I initially expected, I’ll admit. It involved going out to houses to collect mosquito eggs from the field and then bringing back these eggs to count under a microscope and then hatch. That first summer, I went out to houses and counted eggs three days a week with Allison and other members of the research team.

Allison taught us how to identify mosquito species, different fly species, and she taught us to always wear bug spray when doing field work in mid-July. I think that summer I was doing some of the least technical work I’d ever done in lab (or ever would do during undergrad), but I had by far the most fun, and I learned so much more about insects, the research process, and study design.

My junior year, in addition to our fieldwork with mosquitoes, Allison asked me about conducting an independent study of my own for IB 490 credit (which is a requirement for graduation in IBH). She encouraged me to read different papers on topics that could be encompassed within the realm of the work done in the Allan lab, but she made sure to tell me to look for something that I found interesting, not just something I thought would be quick and easy (and boring). I kept coming up with ideas that were potentially larger and more involved than an undergraduate thesis, but Allison helped me to cull my interests into a more “bite size” amount of work and we eventually together came up with my research project: “Differential hatch rates of Aedes albopictus (Diptera: Culicidae) eggs inoculated with common bacterial species”.

My independent study work gave me a chance to learn more about experimental procedure with bacteria.

Basically, I inoculated mosquito eggs with two different species of bacteria and saw how that affected hatching rates. This was really fun for me, because I got to work with different people from the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS) in order to learn various new laboratory techniques. I was taught how to culture bacteria, how to make a bacterial suspension from my culture, how to work in an aseptic environment, among other skills. I came up with my own experimental procedure, of course with lots of help from Allison.

We applied for a joint grant, which we ended up getting; this allowed me to go with her (and other entomologists from SIB at Illinois) to present my findings at the Entomological Society of America, ESC, and ESBC Joint Annual Meeting in Vancouver, BC in November of 2018. I never thought I’d be able to present my research at an international conference as an undergraduate researcher, yet there I was.

Presenting my research at the ESA, ESC and ESBC Joint Annual Meeting in the fall of 2018.
The ESA, ESC and ESBC Joint Annual Meeting was held in Vancouver, where I was able to network with other biology students also presenting their work.

I worked with Allison up until I graduated, working with her the summer before my senior year and then into my senior year. She helped me analyze my data (or in a lot of cases, she analyzed in for me and taught me how she did it, so I could do it myself next time) and she helped me write up a manuscript for my research that is now in the process of being submitted for publication. Working with Allison in the Allan lab provided me with countless opportunities that I don’t know I would have gotten anywhere else.

Because of my robust research background, I got a great offer from the graduate school I wanted. Starting late this August, I will be attending the Gilings School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill to earn my Master of Science in Public Health, and hopefully I will stay on to get my PhD here as well. So many of the things I learned and skills I gained were a direct result of working with Allison and benefiting from her mentorship.  I feel sure I will remain in contact with Allison even though we no longer work together. Through all of the research and field work and manuscript editing, we became very good friends and I don’t intend to throw that away just because we’re in different states now. My parents still live in the Champaign area, and I know Cincinnati is on the way from Chapel Hill to Champaign; she doesn’t know it yet, but I’ll be sleeping on her couch soon enough.

Figuring out Fly Families

[This blog was written by Scott Clem, a PhD student in the Harmon-Threatt Lab in the Department of Entomology. It is part of the SIB Student Research Experience, a blog series that offers a closer look at our students and their research.]

Hello blog readers! My name is Scott Clem and I am a doctoral candidate studying entomology at the University of Illinois. How did I end up studying insects do you ask? Well, I suppose I have always been interested in these critters, but the major defining moment was when I took my first entomology class and learned about their fascinating diversity and major ecological importance. This solidified my fate to become an entomologist. I proceeded to get my undergraduate degree in zoology with a minor in entomology at Auburn University. I then stayed at Auburn for my master’s where I studied interactions between caterpillar communities and native/non-native trees. Once I finished, I decided that I wanted to pursue a PhD at the University of Illinois’ Department of Entomology. So, here I am today!

My research is part of the Harmon-Threatt lab in the Department of Entomology.

I want to share a little bit about my research at the University of Illinois, and some of my summer experiences. My dissertation is focused around a group of insects known as hover flies (Family Syrphidae). These insects are best known for visiting flowers and having yellow and black coloration, which is an attempt to mimic various bees and wasps. They’re quality pollinators as adults while the larvae of many species are predacious and feed on pesky insects like aphids. So, this is definitely a useful insect to have in the garden! My research is focused on a behavior that is not well understood in these insects: long-distance migration. How the heck does one study fly migration do you ask? Well, I can’t just give them a little radio transmitter (they don’t make them small enough), so I use stable deuterium isotopic ratios found within their tissues. Isotopes are variations of the same chemical element, in this case hydrogen, that have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons.

The idea is that ratios of light to heavy deuterium isotopes in water vary geographically due to differences in temperature, humidity, and other climate variables. You know the saying you are what you eat? Well, larval hover flies inadvertently consume these isotopes from water while they feed, which become permanently fixed in wing and leg tissues once the flies emerge as adults. We can then examine these isotopic ratios and estimate where the flies developed as larvae and whether they are local or foreign. If a fly exhibited isotopic ratios that were highly negative, for example, we might conclude that it developed somewhere in Canada and flew south. For my work this summer, I spent much of my time walking around in local parks with a net, looking for specific species of hover flies (mainly Eupeodes americanus and Allograpta obliqua).

Hover flies Eupeodes americanus (left) and Allograpta obliqua (right).

Aside from working on my summer research, I also had the opportunity to travel to Los Osos, California for two weeks to attend The Diptera Course, organized and hosted by the LA County Natural History Museum. This was the highlight of my summer, and quite honestly one of the highlights of my entomological career. For all you non-entomologists, Diptera is the order of insects that includes true flies. They are incredibly diverse and come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, but the major characteristic that differentiates them from other insects is that they only have two wings (hence their etymology: di = two, pteron = wing). Other insects like bees and wasps have four wings.

Insects that are classified in the order Diptera include mosquitoes, maggots, gnats, midges, house flies, crane flies, hover flies, robber flies, maggots, keds, bots, and many others. The Diptera Course was dedicated strictly to learning all about flies from some of the biggest names in dipterology. We learned about fly morphology, taxonomy, phylogenetics, behavior, and much much more. There were 25 students total representing 16 countries from all over the world and we were each tasked with collecting, mounting, and identifying 40 families of flies. To put this in perspective, there are around 150,000 species of flies described, all classified into 188 families. There are probably around 1,000,000 species in existence today, so there are A LOT yet to be discovered!

Each morning we attended a lecture given by one of the instructors. After that, we grabbed our nets, aspirators (“pooters” as some might call them; devices used to vacuum up small insects via mouth suction), and any other field gear, and jumped into vans to travel to various pre-selected collecting sites. We sampled a wide variety of habitats from coastal sand dunes to mountainous scrub. Once we got back to the camp, we all unloaded our “fly loot” and started pinning, mounting, labelling, and identifying the flies we collected. All total, I ended up with 47 families of flies while the group as a whole had 72! What is the purpose of preserving flies like this? Well, many of these flies will be deposited into natural history collections. Each specimen is basically a “natural history snapshot” that represents the location and date that the fly was collected. This can then be used to answer questions about taxonomy, conservation, phylogenetics, disease vector ecology, and many more.

Conducting research in the field as part of the Diptera Course.
The final version of my 47-family fly collection from the Diptera Course.

You might be wondering, what’s the coolest fly I collected? Well, I’m split because there are so many stinkin’ cool flies that I saw, but I’ll narrow it down to two. The first one is Eulonchus smaragdinus of the family Acroceridae (small-headed flies). This fly is particularly showy because of its bright blue/green iridescence, yellow legs, and a proboscis (a flexible mouthpart) that is nearly twice its body length! It tucks this proboscis under its body while flying and brings it out to sip nectar from trumpet-like flowers. We collected them on high-altitude mountain slopes feeding on monkey flowers of the genus Diplacus.The biology of this fly is astounding. The adults will conceive up to 5,000 eggs and then deposit them on the ground. Upon hatching, the planidial larva waits to grab onto ground-dwelling spiders which happen to pass by. It will crawl up the spider’s leg and force its way inside the spider’s body where it remains for years as a parasite. It will eventually grow and emerge as an adult to start the cycle over.

Eulonchus smaragdinus (Acroceridae)

Another pretty cool fly we collected is of the genus Cuterebra, which are collectively known as rodent bot flies from the family Oestridae. This insect has a pretty gruesome life cycle. Adult females, which have no mouthparts and more or less resemble bumble bees (see below), will lay their eggs near mammal burrows. The body heat of an unsuspecting mammal host triggers the eggs to hatch. Larvae then attach themselves to that host, and burrow under the skin to feed on flesh. Infected hosts have tumor-like bulges with the larva’s spiracles sticking out to breath. Lucky for us, the closely related human bot fly does not occur in North America! We managed to collect these rare flies at the top of a mountain, a great place to sample because of a behavior known as “hill-topping.” This is where insects including flies, butterflies, dragonflies, etc. will gather at the highest point in an area to compete for mates.

Cuterebra sp. (Oestridae)

Where am I going with all this insect knowledge? Well, I will be wrapping up my research and finishing up my program here at Illinois within the next two years. I hope to continue research that advocates for insect conservation and sustainable pest management, and to teach people why insects are awesome and why it is in our best interest to keep them around. Just by reading this blog, I hope that I have inspired at least some of you to appreciate these critters!

Connecting The Relationships Between Birds and Lice

[This blog was written by Stephany Virrueta-Herrera, a PhD student in the Johnson lab at the Illinois Natural History Survey. It is part of the SIB Student Research Experience, a blog series that offers a closer look at our students and their research.]

The author holding a grey-chested dove during fieldwork in Panama.

During undergrad, I took an ornithology course and became interested in studying both birds and conservation, which led me to the PEEC program at Illinois, where I am now starting my third year as a PhD student. In February 2017, I visited the Johnson lab at Illinois, where Kevin Johnson (now my PhD advisor) introduced me to bird lice. Birds are hosts for several different types of parasites, lice being one of them. There are several types of bird lice, which vary based on what part of the bird’s body they live. 

My research explores the evolutionary patterns of the lice found on several different types of birds, with some of my specific projects including birds that live in the Neotropics. At the moment, I am wrapping up a manuscript in which I used whole genome data from lice of an ancient linage of birds, tinamous, to estimate their evolutionary origins (ancestry) in relation to other bird lice.

While they are one of the most abundant organisms on the planet, there is still a lot about parasites that we don’t know. There is even less information about parasites in non-temperate climates. Bird lice in particular can help us understand many different things because they live outside their host, but spend their entire lives on the same host. They are also very small, which makes their genome relatively easy to sequence.

As lice spend all, if not most, of their lives on the same hosts, many times there are similarities between host and parasite evolutionary trees. Lice are not limited to humans or birds, and in a recent study I worked on, we found that seals and their lice have coevolved. An interesting finding from this study showed that seal lice with the highest genetic diversity corresponded with seal hosts with the most individuals. We would need further data to confirm these findings, but this case illustrates that parasites can provide information on what’s happening with the host population, as the lice with the lowest genetic diversity corresponded to an endangered seal.

Being a grad student entails a lot of research and working behind a computer in my office, but recently I have been able to go on some cool travels for work. I attended the 2019 Midwest Phylogenetics Workshop at the University of Minnesota’s Itasca Biological Station. During the workshop, I not only gained new skills and knowledge in comparative phylogenetics (methods that allow us to study the history of how organisms evolved and diversified), but also had the opportunity to meet and work with colleagues thinking about similar phylogenetic questions across the country.

The head waters of the Mississippi River are located near the Itasca Biological Station, so we had the opportunity to visit one afternoon.

Conferences are also a wonderful opportunity to present work and meet with colleagues from around the world. I also recently traveled to Alaska for the American Ornithological Society’s 137th meeting, where I presented my work on tinamou lice, met colleagues and collaborators, and also experienced some of Alaska’s unique habitats.

The view during a hike at Hatcher Pass Management Area.

Being a part of an interdisciplinary department in SIB means that my peers and I study a wide diversity of organisms and systems. Over spring break, I had the opportunity to work with fellow PEEC student, Kira Long, in Panama. Kira studies manakins, but in her work, she also catches several other neotropical birds which also happen to land in her nets. While Kira processed birds for her ongoing studies, I was able to collect feather lice from some of the birds.

Spending time with the birds in their actual habitat was a wonderful experience, and it was truly amazing to be able to see live lice crawling through their hosts’ feathers trying to avoid being removed, in this case, by me. 

Delousing an American pygmy kingfisher.

After being at Illinois for two years, there are still many questions that remain unanswered, and that is one of my favorite parts about being a scientist. Lice are parasites on their hosts, but we also know that most lice are also hosting symbiotic bacteria. Feather lice on birds specifically are thought to host these bacteria because they can help provide nutrients which are limited in their feather-based diets (Smith et al. 2013).

I am currently working with an IB undergrad, Lorenzo D’Alessio, on a project exploring the symbionts found in tinamou lice. So far, we have found evidence for bacteria such as Sodalis (and other genera), which may not be previously described in lice, for which we hope to have more solid results and prepare a manuscript for in the near future. This study will allow us to further knowledge of host parasite systems, and eventually make connections and comparisons from bird (host) to lice (parasite/host) to bacterial symbiont.

Announcing a new blog series – the SIB Student Research Experience!

Summer is an exciting time for the School of Integrative Biology – many of our faculty and students use this time to travel to their study sites across the US and around the world to set up their experiments, collect data, and gain new experiences that will guide their work.

Student researchers are critical to the success of SIB, and the collaborative relationships that they develop with our faculty prepare them for exciting careers in all kinds of industries, such as health care, biotech and bioinformatics, agriculture and plant biology, ecology, sustainability and conservation, and more.

Over half of all of SIB undergraduates gain some form of research experience during their time at Illinois, which provides them with hands-on skills developed in the field and the lab. Using these skills, our undergraduates are uniquely poised to tackle complex, interdisciplinary problems.

Lincoln Taylor, a senior in the IB Honors Program, works with Dr. Adam Dolezal to measure how queen bee egg laying behavior is impacted by diet.

Faculty benefit immensely from having these dedicated, creative students working with them full-time during the summer. This mentor-mentee relationship goes far beyond a set of extra hands in the laboratory. Students bring with them fresh ways of looking at long-standing problems, boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm. These research-based connections transform the way that our students engage with their undergraduate experience and the relationships are often maintained long after the student has graduated.

Beginning this summer, you’ll be hearing from some of these student researchers through a new series on our blog – The SIB Student Research Experience. They will be telling their stories to put a face and a name behind their data and results. Their accounts show in a very tangible way how their professional journey relates to their research goals, and highlights the wide range of backgrounds and interests we have here in SIB.

From microbes to ecosystems, our students are training to develop and apply their extensive technical knowledge to our most pressing issues as a global community, addressing the challenges of 21st century biology. I hope you enjoy their stories, and be sure to check back for each new blog.

Carla Cáceres, Director, School of Integrative Biology

Hear from one of our 2019 grads!

This May, the School of Integrative Biology celebrated the achievements of our graduating class of 2019! We join your family and friends in congratulating you on your accomplishments, and we hope you keep in touch with us as you take the next steps in your journey!

One of our graduating seniors, Daniel Garza, shared his thoughts on his time with SIB.

Daniel Garza will be attending the University of Illinois College of Law in fall 2019.

What do you value the most from your experience with SIB?

I value the diversity in education and training I received. From building phylogenies based on genomic data to crafting an essay in science communication, SIB offers courses and training in everything a science-oriented career could need. The truly well-rounded education offered by the School of Integrative Biology creates an academic community centered on unique career paths. 

What was one of the most important lessons you learned from SIB?

To always be curious and to always seek out answers!

What is something you wish incoming students knew about IB? Do you have any advice for them?

Something that every incoming SIB student should know about is the various career paths you can pursue with a degree in integrative biology. You can build your major through electives to be as specific or as broad as you would like. 

One piece of advice that a professor told me (freshman year!) that has stuck with me is to take the courses that sounds interesting to you, not just the ones that your pre-med or pre-grad school advisor told you to take. You never know where unique courses and world views will take you; it may end up becoming your passion. 

How do you feel SIB has prepared you for the next step in your career journey?

SIB has prepared me extremely well for the next steps in my career. Crafting logical and evidence-based arguments will be of paramount importance to me as a future attorney. Additionally, the ability to write coherently and concisely in the presentation of an argument is a skill taught to all SIB students, and that ability is critical to any career path, regardless of the field. 

What was one of the most valuable things you gained from SIB?

There are many aspects of my education under the School of Integrative Biology that will stick with me for life, but most of all is the ability to have fun while learning and creating scientific discoveries. The passion and personal nature of the SIB creates an environment where students are encouraged to grow both personally and professionally. Good natured professors are abundant in the SIB and the welcoming and fun environment that they help to create promotes science and learning while reducing the stress and anxiety normally associated with the college experience. 

Do you have any professors or instructors that made SIB particularly memorable for you? What kind of impact did they have on your college experience?

Professors Suarez, Berlocher, and Cheng all provided lasting memories for not only myself but almost everyone who comes into their classrooms. Each created a classroom where topics were presented in a way that immediately caught your attention and made learning easy with such passionate and driven teaching. Where some of my friends in other majors dreaded attending classes, these 3 professors made attending class worthwhile and interesting. 

One of my most unforgettable experiences came through working in Dr. Suarez’s lab. The lab was awarded the opportunity to perform research with the particle accelerator at Argonne National Laboratory. Filming x-ray footage of foaming ants, click beetles, and trap-jaw ants through the particle accelerator was one of the most rewarding experiences I had in college and it would not have possible without the Suarez lab and the School of Integrative Biology. 

Where are you going after graduation and how did SIB prepare you for that?

I will be attending the University of Illinois College of Law aiming to specialize in biotech, pharmaceutical corporate law. The scientific background I gained from my degree will be a considerable advantage as I enter this field. Science-based degrees are at the forefront of the job market and SIB prepares its students for all career paths through their well-rounded and research-based curriculum.