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Biology Research Projects

Gerard Beaudoin, Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology

My lab studies the effects of drugs of abuse on the synaptic connections controlling dopamine neurons, the brain’s reward circuitry. We assess synapses using functional and structural neuroscience techniques combining molecular genetics, electrophysiology, molecular biology and confocal imaging to examine effects of cocaine on synaptic plasticity. Specifically, we can control individual synapses in mice using optogenetics, in which a light-operated, depolarizing ion channel is used to label and control one synaptic input to dopamine neurons. The students in my lab drive the research projects relying on collaboration and mentorship by myself and the other students. Your growth as a scientist is guided by one-on-one meetings, lab meetings and attendance at local and national conferences.

Frank Healy, Microbial Physiology and Biochemistry

Students in my lab work on a variety of projects related to the biology of prokaryotes.  Examples of projects include the assembly of natural products such as antibiotics and the regulation of their biosynthetic enzymes, understanding processes related to cell differentiation such as sporulation and the formation of biofilms, and developing microorganisms for production of biofuels.  Students gain skills using the tools of microbiology, molecular biology/genetics and biochemistry, which are valuable in, e.g., biotech and pharmaceutical industries or clinical microbiology.

Michele Johnson, Behavioral Ecology, Evolution, and Neuroscience

My laboratory studies the diversity of social behavior in lizards. Behavior is the process by which an animal’s nervous system responds to its ecosystem, and work in my lab examines both of these components of behavior. We do extensive fieldwork, both in central Texas and in the Caribbean, to address questions about how a lizard’s environment influences how it interacts with other lizards. We combine these field data with measures of muscles, hormones, and the brain to determine how these factors interact to produce different behaviors in different species. Students in my lab design behavioral research projects around their interests in conservation, physiology, evolution, and neuroscience.

Jonathan King, Molecular Cell Physiology

The King lab is interested in understanding how cells interact with their neighbors. Specifically, the research group is investigating the role of protein structures known as tight junctions.  Our studies focus on molecular mechanisms that lead to the disruption of tight junctions using contemporary cellular and biochemical methods.  Long-term goals are to understand how cells control these structures thereby minimizing the detrimental effects caused by stressors on cellular junctions. Recently, we have participated in a collaborative project with local neonatologists and are examining epigenetic patterns and body composition in newborns. Students gain valuable experience in both the theoretical and practical aspects of conducting research.  Former students in my research group have pursued careers in biomedical research, medicine and numerous other meaningful ventures.

Kevin Livingstone, Evolutionary Genetics

I am interested in the relationships between genes and evolutionary pressures. My lab has standard molecular genetics equipment for looking at DNA sequences, and we have used these tools to examine how the genes that lead to pepper color have been influenced by bird fruit consumption. My lab also has computational resources that we use to create and test mathematical theories about how genetic barriers form to isolate species from close relatives (think horses, donkeys, and their sterile mule offspring). The interplay between math and biology that you’ll find in my lab is part of a growing trend towards interdisciplinary studies in the sciences that gives students some great problem solving skills.

Kelly Lyons, Mechanisms of Species Coexistence, Invasive Species Management, Restoration Ecology

Research in the Lyons laboratory is focused at the intersection of biodiversity loss, novel species introductions, and restoration of grassland ecosystems.  We investigate the role of biotic and abiotic factors as determinants of species establishment and persistence.  Specifically, we endeavor to discover how grassland plant species interact each other, soil resources and microbes.  At the heart of these endeavors is a deep appreciation of natural history and a desire to be outside.  Our lab is a dynamic place where students are encouraged to pursue their scientific curiosities, engage with the scientific community, and operate as research colleagues.

Troy Murphy, Behavioral Ecology and Evolutionary Ecology

The Murphy lab focuses on whole-organism questions in animal behavior and evolutionary ecology, with an emphasis on animal communication and the ways in which conflicts are resolved among highly social species. Most of our research focuses on understanding the evolutionary processes that select for aggression and ornamentation among females. Research on female social behavior has been neglected historically, and so our lab’s work is filling important gaps in our understandings. My lab is currently investigating fitness costs associated with female aggression, with focus how aggression in females can lead to poor maternal care, and how female aggression can lead to negative maternal effects, where offspring suffer from reduced investment in egg and offspring development. We are also studying bidirectional feedback between a female’s social competitive environment and the dynamics of signal expression. A third project focuses on the ways in which animals discriminate between kin, and whether, during competition for limited resources, individuals are less aggressive towards kin of higher relatedness. We generally work on birds because they are tractable for experimentation, and because bird social behavior parallels human behavior -- making birds a wonderful model organisms to learn about ourselves. Our general approach is to combine the study of evolutionary history with field- and aviary-based behavioral research. All research in my lab is heavily driven by student projects that are student-designed, -executed, and -written up for publication.

David Ribble, Vertebrate Ecology and Evolution

Students in my laboratory are engaged in understanding the distribution and abundance of vertebrates, usually from central Texas. We take a variety of approaches including theoretical mathematical modeling, geographic information system (GIS) analyses, population genetics, and  good old fashioned field work. Students in my research group gain skills and expertise important for conservation biology, wildlife management, and vertebrate ecology and evolution.

James Roberts, Molecular/Cellular Neuroscience and Biochemistry

My laboratory studies the biochemical mechanisms by which astrocytes protect neurons from oxidative stress and how this changes during the aging of the organism, be it male or female.  Research students culture astrocytes and neurons and utilize biochemical assays and image analysis by microscopy to understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms involved.

Jim Shinkle, Photobiology of Plant Development

My lab studies how plants sense their light environment.  We are in search of a photosensor (like the kinds found in the human eye) that detects a specific part of the ultraviolet light spectrum.  We measure physiological and biochemical responses of plants in the field and in controlled light environments.  Students regularly design experiments and adapt protocols as part of their work.  Working with light means combining the disciplines of physics and biology.  Students also get to see direct connections between lab experiments and field studies of the same processes.  And because the lightlocks (think airlocks) in the controlled light spaces keep out all unwanted photons, students can find themselves truly completely in the dark.