The biology department has had a strong start to the year.
From Jan. 3-7, five students attended the recent conference of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) in Austin, Texas, with four students being nominated for or winning awards.
Dr. Avery Russell, assistant professor of biology at Missouri State University, advises all student presenters.
From Nevada, Texas, Moth Castagna is currently pursuing his master’s in biology while studying bumble bee learning and foraging preferences. His project was titled “Take it or Leaf it: Is Leaf Shape a Reliable Pollinator Learning Cue?”
“Currently, we are looking to determine if bees can use leaf shape, or potentially other non-floral cues, to determine whether specific flowers offer a food reward,” Castagna said. “For instance, thousands of flowering plant species offer no food rewards and thus trick bees into pollinating by mimicking the flowers of rewarding plant species.
“To avoid being tricked, we expect that bees would learn other cues, such as leaf shape, to distinguish between rewarding and non-rewarding flowers.”
This research could help understand how plants could potentially be taking advantage of an evolutionary drawback.
“Flowering plants frequently evolve to exploit limitations of bee learning and memory,” Castagna said. “An inability to learn leaf cues may be a constraint that plants are exploiting.”
Castagna is the recipient of a $1,000 In Aid Of Research grant from SICB in recognition of his research proposal.
“I am honored and incredibly grateful for receiving this grant!” Castagna said. “I’d like to thank the undergraduate researchers, Jenny Burrow and Ciara Stewart, who worked on this project with me.”
“Moth Castagna put together an outstanding research proposal, and his poster presentation on pollinator learning is a solid contribution to animal behavior and our understanding of pollinator cognition,” Russell said.
A biology, sustainability and art student from Kirksville, Annaliese Novinger’s interests lie in animal behavior and ecology.
Her project titled “Learned Bee-haviors of Pollen-foraging Bees” dives deeper into the instrumental learning of pollen-foraging bees.
“We ran behavioral trials to see how efficiently and effectively bees learned to collect pollen from flowers of different morphologies,” Novinger said. “We found that a lot of the fundamentals of instrumental learning in pollen foraging are the same as in nectar foraging, which gives us a better understanding of plant-pollinator relationships and co-evolution!”
Novinger was named a finalist for the Marlene Zuk Best Student Presentation award at the conference, as well as being selected as a finalist for Best Student Presentation.
“I feel very honored,” Novinger said. “It was a great experience to be able to present alongside my brilliant co-finalists and connect with peers in the field of animal behavior.”
“Undergrad researcher Annaliese Novinger was a finalist for the Division of Animal Behavior’s Best Student Presentation award and gave a visually stunning and very well received talk,” Russell said. “This is no small feat, as most BSP finalists are finishing their PhDs!”
A master’s biology student from Delta state, Nigeria, Rita Afagwu’s project titled “How Flower Longevity affects Epiphytic Bacteria Abundance and Community Composition” investigates if the number of microorganisms on flowers increase as the flowers age. It also highlights what kind of mechanisms the flowers may use to reduce the number of microorganisms.
“Microbes play a role in plant fitness and reproduction,” Afagwu said. “We collected data from six plant species with an average lifespan of 3-6 days old. We carried out a preliminary trial by plate counting, and now we are extracting the DNA of about 300 samples. They will later be sent for DNA sequencing in the future to determine their diversity.”
Afagwu’s presentation awarded her a $500 Broadening Participation travel grant.
“Graduate researcher Rita Afagwu earned a very competitive travel grant and presented brand new – and hard-won – microbiome data from her first thesis chapter, capping off her first and very successful field season,” Russell said.
A senior biology student, Jenny Burrow presented their project “Picky Eaters: Generalist Bees Sample Pollen by Ingestion Before Collection” at the conference.
“Undergraduate researcher Jenny Burrow contributed to multiple projects in the lab and has quickly developed into a highly capable and independent scientist,” Russell said. “As would be expected, their poster presentation received a lot of good attention.”
Ciara Stewart is also a recipient of a $500 SICB Broadening Participation travel grant.
“Though she did not present at the conference, Ciara Stewart has been an essential undergrad researcher for a number of research projects in the lab and this grant allowed her to travel with us to explore her interests in molecular ecology,” Russell said.