Danny Roche began working in Dr. Alison Bell’s lab in 2010. Dr. Bell’s lab investigates how genes and the environment combine to affect behavior using a small freshwater fish, the threespined stickleback. Under the direction of Dr. Katie McGhee (a postdoctoral researcher in the lab), Danny started with humble beginnings coding hundreds of videos of fish behavior. His dedication and motivation paid off however, and very soon he was promoted from watching “video” fish to working with live fish. He worked alongside Dr. McGhee and another postdoc in the lab, Dr. Lauren Pintor (now at The Ohio State University), to examine how maternal exposure to predators affects offspring antipredator behavior. This gave him first hand experience in how to design and execute an experiment and inspired him to do his own independent research project.
Danny was particularly interested in studying learning and wanted to know whether maternal exposure to predators has consequences for offspring learning later in life. Based on the literature, he decided to use a learning assay where a food reward was paired with a particularly colored chamber. To get the food reward repeatedly, the fish has to learn that the “blue” chamber always has the food reward but the “yellow” chamber never does. He found that offspring from mothers that had been exposed to a predator while producing eggs learned the food-color association more slowly than offspring from mothers that had not been exposed to a predator. His study suggests that maternal stress from seeing a predator can have life-long consequences for offspring learning. As part of his IB 490 project, he wrote a scientific paper that was judged by faculty and gave a 15 min presentation at the SIB Undergraduate Research Symposium. Not only did Danny receive “High Distinction” upon graduation for an outstanding independent student research project, but his manuscript was recently published in a high impact peer-reviewed scientific journal, Biology Letters. Moreover, his study is attracting widespread attention and was highlighted in Nature this week.
As an undergraduate, Danny experienced the entire scientific process, from initial brainstorming about ideas for a project, to reading the literature, to collecting and analyzing data, to submitting a manuscript and addressing reviewers’ comments. In addition to successfully carrying out his own project, Danny brought his own perspective to the lab and was an important contributor to other projects in the lab. Although the Bell lab was sad to see him go, Danny is getting valuable first hand research experience at a field station and is presently working in Panama at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Station under the supervision of Dr. Jim Dalling (Plant Biology, University of Illinois).
Biology Letters link: