When I teach, one of my main goals is to shift students' emphasis from looking for specific answers to asking themselves how the material fits within theoretical expectations. I also emphasize how specific knowledge integrates with other aspects of biology, giving them an important perspective on the interconnectedness of the biological approach. I often use inquiry-based approaches to get students to ask questions, and then help them work out the answers on their own, which provides students with a strong sense of ownership over course material, while also providing a strong knowledge base and analytical skill set.
One of my favorite courses to teach is Animal Behavior. This is the type of course that has the potential to completely change a person's perspective on the world — the power of using evolutionary thinking applied to day-to-day events can be remarkably enlightening for many students — and I am constantly thrilled to see this kind of excitement erupt in many of my students.
* denotes Trinity undergraduate co-author
My lab's research program spans ecology and evolutionary biology, with an emphasis on social signaling and the evolutionary maintenance of elaborate characters used during animal communication. I combine evolutionary based comparative-studies with field- and aviary-based behavioral studies. My students and I generally work on birds because they are wonderful model organisms for this kind of research, as they display such incredible diversity of sexual dimorphism, ornaments, and mating systems. We also study mating and social behavior in fish in the laboratory, as these systems are tractable and easily manipulated.
Most of the lab's research focuses on understanding the evolutionary processes that select for female ornamentation. Although many studies have provided strong empirical support for fitness benefits associated with male ornaments (i.e., usually to impress females), it remains unclear if females also generally benefit from elaborate traits. Because females have been so neglected in studies of behavior and evolution, we have only a rudimentary understanding of selective pressures acting on them. In fact, we know very little about whether elaborate female traits are generally adaptive, and in cases when female traits are used during communication, it remains unclear whether they typically function as mate-advertisement signals, or as indicators of status (i.e., dominance). As such, the field is growing quickly, and new discoveries are rapidly emerging that are shaping the way we look at the process of evolution (see research on how females have been found to use elaborate traits to signal dominance in both goldfinches and orioles).
Students that join my lab conduct independent research projects, and often turn their projects into honors theses. Student-based research focuses on understanding evolutionary adaptation or evolutional history of behavioral phenotypes. I work hand-in-hand with students throughout the process of conceptualizing the theoretical framework, conducting the experiment, analyzing the data, and in the end, results are presented at national/international meetings and we publish the work in peer-reviewed journals. Most student-research is on birds (goldfinches, motmots, titmice) and fish (bettas), and many of my students accompany me to the field (often to Canada or to Mexico) for 6-8 weeks of the summer to conduct behavioral work with birds.
Currently, I am partnering with middle-school classrooms in the Northside Independent School District here in San Antonio to capture, band, and monitor Purple Martins breeding in large nesting colonies. One of the most exciting aspects of this project is that these colonies, made up of large manmade martin condominiums, are located right in the middle of their respective campuses -- and so the students gain a glimpse of nature and science in action as they walk from one class to another. This partnership provides a wonderful opportunity for Trinity faculty and students to share their passion and scientific expertise with kids and teachers at local elementary schools.