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A day of inspiration and learning at the Life Sciences Graduate Research

The Birds and the Beetles: Research Highlights from UMass Grad Students

Highlights from UMass Life Sciences Graduate Research Symposium, plus a Q&A with the two award winners. Get inspired!

Post co-written with guest writer Bia Dias.

Every year at the University of Massachusetts (UMass), graduate students and faculty from eight diverse programs come together for the Life Sciences Graduate Research Symposium. But what is a research symposium and why it is important, you may ask? A research symposium is a platform for scientists to communicate their hard work to a broader audience. Picture it as a space to share your progress and findings with people that work on related things or maybe on different problems altogether! Most scientific ideas do not come to light by themselves; they are products of the interactions that you have with your fellow scientists and researchers. The Life Science Graduate Research Symposium accomplished exactly that, by bringing together so many scientists and so many ideas in a supportive and inspiring environment.

The one-day event on December 2nd featured top research from Masters and PhD students, and revealed a diversity of themes from the molecular to ecosystem scale. Students gave talks on topics ranging from the movement of oxygen and hydrogen atoms (Vanessa Chaplin, Chemistry) to dams and river temperature (Peter Zaidel, Environmental Conservation). At one point in the morning session, everybody in the audience got the chance to handle camera traps while learning about MassCams from Hollie Sutherland, a graduate student in the Environmental Conservation program. The MassCams citizen science project uses remote cameras to track skittish and rare wildlife all over Massachusetts.

We then jumped to the poster presentation, with a big representation from Food Science. The afternoon section started with my marine food web presentation. What is a food web, you might ask? As part of our lives, food is our source of energy, and running out of food can bring consequences from being “hangry” to something more life threatening.

Fig. 1 Reversing the “hangry” factor of a hedgehog (Photo Credit: 49blackandwhites via reddit).

With animals it is no different; they have to eat, and often they get eaten. These relationships and linkages are called “food webs.” Marine food webs can be really complex, and to translate this complexity I boarded on a journey, finding the best graphic tools [AKA pretty figures] available to show the power of such measurements for conservation. This was my main motivation to present my work, sharing with the graduate community one solution that I found to address my research problem.

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Fig. 2 Me, Bia Dias, presenting the full picture of Northeast US large marine ecosystem through the food web perspective (Ecopath Matlab implementation). So complex! (Photo Credit: Julia Puffal)

The afternoon was as interesting as the morning section, covering the most diverse topics, from a phylogenomic study of the parasite responsible for malaria (Mario Romero, Organismic and Evolutionary Biology/”OEB”), to a discussion of how immune system fluids flow when blood vessels constrict (Akshay Pujari, Mechanical Engineering). The last presentation was given by Theresa Murphy (OEB), about the interactions between woodpeckers and the invasive beetle, the emerald ash borer. She was awarded the best oral presentation of the day.

We caught up with Theresa as well as Mariamar Gutierrez Ramirez (OEB), the winner of the best poster presentation, for a Q&A about their research.

Question: Can you tell me in simple terms about your research?

Mariamar: My research focuses on the ecology and conservation of migratory songbirds… [particularly] the most vulnerable period: The migration. I try to understand how body condition (the ratio between weight and size or how well fed the animal is) of individual birds impacts migratory decisions; such as direction, route they fly, and how long is the full migration. My research also seeks to understand what environmental variables may lead to decreased body condition in songbirds.

Theresa: I’m looking at the emerald ash borer, which is an invasive beetle. It’s killing a lot of ash trees in the US, and I wanted to try and help control it. My study looks at bio-controls… to get a better understanding if they will work in the system and how we can help improve them in order to be able to control the emerald ash borer.

Question: Why are you interested in this topic?

Mariamar: Birds are very important to our ecosystems: they are pollinators and seed dispersers, they provide pest control, and bring a diversity of color and song to our environment. Unfortunately, birds have experienced alarming population declines, [which are even] steeper in migratory birds… I [also] feel a personal affinity towards migratory birds. They know no political boundaries, they are truly a shared international resource (and responsibility), and they represent how interconnected our environment really is. As a scientist, I seek to inform conservation decisions for the management of these important species.

Theresa: I’m really focused on trying to help conserve our natural resources, [and always try to] look at it from a perspective of how can I help make a difference… In one of my jobs previously, we worked with a lot of landowners and towns. [I saw] the impacts of them losing their ash trees, so I knew first-hand how important it was to see if there was any way we could manage it. Right now we just tell towns, “you’re going to lose your ash trees and maybe you can save a few with chemical methods but you might want to consider cutting them down.” It’s not a great feeling. So to actively use science to try and figure out a better way to manage it was really important to me.

Question: What do you think is one thing that you wish everybody knew about this topic?

Mariamar: One thing … migratory birds, some as small as 9 grams, make INCREDIBLE migrations of thousands of kilometers, TWICE a year (!!!) while navigating natural and man-made obstacles. That Wood Thrush you hear signing along your favorite forest trail during our gorgeous New England summers, spent the winter somewhere in Central America, perhaps in a small patch of tropical forest surrounded by coffee plantations or other agricultural landscapes.

Wood Thrush

Fig. 3 A Wood Thrush perched along a forest rail (photo credit: Fyn Kynd Photography)

Theresa: One of the things I think about now, especially as I’m graduating, is if only people knew that anytime we’re trying to approach science… we’re really trying to improve our understanding for the betterment of managing things. I feel like people look at scientists and academics and say, “that doesn’t apply to me,” but we’re really trying to do work that we think is helpful.

Question: What advice would you give to yourself as a high school student, looking back and looking ahead?

Mariamar: It’s OK to be passionate about things that may not be considered “mainstream”, because those things you are passionate about will bring life-long happiness and purpose; they make you unique. I would let my high school self in on the little secret that everyone has insecurities and doubts - even people that seem to have it all put together. (And I would tell myself to pay more attention in math, because math is important, and you WILL need it, trust me).

Theresa: If you’re interested, it is actually a lot easier than you think to get involved. Grad students have these really big projects and we’re always looking for help. You can also look at nonprofits or state organizations in the area to see if they’re looking for volunteers… Get involved early so that you can figure out if “Yes, it’s definitely something I’m interested in” or “Hey, that’s not really something that I want to do.”

Whether you are a high school student interested in science, a university student conducting research, or a member of the public that loves the birds and the beetles, there are always opportunities to get involved, learn more, and contribute to making a difference. Communicating our science is one aspect of this process, that is crucially important for innovation, progress, and problem-solving. And at the very least, hearing motivated people speak about the things they’re passionate about can be inspiring, no matter what.

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