During his first summer as a Frontiers student in 2012, Naim Edwards surveyed two distinct forest stands: Forest Accelerated Succession Experiment (FASET) and AmeriFlux at the U-M Biological Station in northern Michigan.
“Specifically, I was investigating how closely related ant population distributions are with the presence of coarse woody debris on the forest floor,” Edwards said. “I counted the number of ants captured in randomly distributed pit traps and saw if that number correlated with the volume of downed wood.
"At least in the FASET, the data supported that there was a positive correlation. This study served to help better understand forest ecosystem dynamics and potentially determine how much certain ant species depend on wood.”
Edwards received his bachelor’s degree in biology at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. His advisor completed both his master’s thesis and doctoral dissertations at the University of Michigan and encouraged Edwards to apply to the maize and blue for graduate opportunities in ecology and environmental science.
“I had the privilege of visiting the University of Michigan and participated in the field ecology course, which left a lasting impression on me,” Edwards said of his participation in EEB’s Fall Recruitment Partnership weekend in 2008.
“Upon finishing undergraduate studies, I enrolled in the Peace Corps and lived in Ecuador for two years volunteering as a natural resource conservation volunteer. In my last year, I began to think about my next endeavors in life.” He remembered his experience at U-M and applied to the Frontiers Master’s Program. “Fortunately, I was accepted.”
In his free time, Edwards enjoys reading mainly nonfiction such as historical accounts and autobiographies. When time permits he likes the P90X workouts, plays tennis or ultimate Frisbee, and adds that he likes nearly all sports. In the musical realm, he said, “I love singing, joking around rapping with friends, and I play saxophone and a little guitar.”
Clarisse Betancourt Román and her two brothers, Christian and Roberto, are the first generation in her family to attend college. She describes her emotions as a mixture of excitement about being away at school and homesickness for Puerto Rico, where she grew up and studied Environmental Science at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus. She’s the only one of her siblings attending graduate school.
Even though she’s a long way from home, she knows she’s not alone. “Other students are in the same position that I’m in and we can understand each other,” she said. Another Frontiers student, Beatriz Otero Jimenez, told her about EEB’s Frontiers Master’s Program. They met while in the bachelor’s degree program at the University of Puerto Rico.
When she visited the University of Michigan's Ann Arbor campus to find out more about Frontiers, "It was like a big family, the department was really cool," she said. "Everyone wants us to succeed, everyone is willing to help, they really want us to finish and do things right during our time here."
Betancourt's current research interests are the application of remote sensing and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to resource management, land use changes, restoration and conservation. She is also interested in the effects of natural and anthropogenic changes and other disturbances on biodiversity, loss of species and habitats.
Over the summer at the University of Michigan Biological Station, Betancourt compared the flow of nitrogen from soils to hyphae of fungi to roots and foliage of oak trees as part of the Forest and Accelerated Succession ExperimenT (FASET) project. Samples from 2010 and 2011 were collected following an introduction of a tracer isotope of nitrogen (15N enriched ammonium chloride) in 2010.
Previous research during Betancourt's undergraduate studies included internships at two centers of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) and Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). In summer 2010, she interned in MSFC researching the impacts of land cover, land use, and climate change on hydrologic processes in shallow aquatic systems. During spring 2011, she worked at GSFC in a project involving resource monitoring in and around two national parks in the Upper Delaware River Basin. In addition, she had experience as a laboratory assistant in the Tropical Limnology Lab and the Herbarium at UPR-RP.
Betancourt worked as a volunteer during the Latin American Special Olympic Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2010. She assisted with a recycle activity of the Sierra Club and volunteered as a forest guide for children as part of "More Kids to the Woods", a federal program designed to give elementary school students a direct experience in the forest.
She was inspired by her experience with the Latin American Special Olympics, "especially by the amazing accomplishments achieved by these athletes, regardless of the struggles they face, and I was motivated to overcome the hurdles obstructing my own goals."
During Beatriz Otero Jimenez’s first summer with the Frontiers program, she worked at the Forest Accelerated Succession ExperimenT (FASET) and Ameriflux sites at the University of Michigan Biological Station. She worked on a project called “Effects of accelerated succession on the saproxylic beetle community” with her mentor Professor Brian Scholtens of Charleston College. “I compared diversity of saproxylic beetles (beetles that depend on wood or woody debris for some part of their life cycle) from 2009 samples to samples I collected during the summer to see the effects of the accelerated succession. As more dead wood becomes available, we were expecting to see an increase in diversity of beetles."
"Our results showed an increase in the abundance of saproxylic beetles in an accelerated succession area between the two sampled years. Our results suggest a close relationship between plant and animal succession. A generalized understanding of the succession process that includes information from many groups could become a very helpful tool for ecosystem management and monitoring."
For her master's thesis, Otero Jimenez is working in Chiapas, Mexico with Professor John Vandermeer's lab. "I will be looking at the affect matrix composition has on dispersal and connectivity of forest animals. I will be working specifically with Heteromys desmarestianus, mice that live in moist tropical forests. I will be collecting tissue samples in forest patches surrounded by coffee farms for two months. When I return to Ann Arbor, I will do DNA extraction and genetic analysis to determine if populations from different forest patches are distinct and how connected they are." "I learned about the Frontiers program from Professor Ivette Perfecto and also through SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity and Sustainability). I was looking for a master's program that would prepare me for a Ph.D." When she graduated with her undergraduate degree, she knew she wanted to continue in ecology but didn't feel ready to go into a doctoral program. She said she could not afford a master's program and that funding is limited for master's students. "So, I was really happy to hear that a program like Frontiers existed! I have been telling my friends to apply."
Otero Jimenez is interested in community outreach and education. "For me being active and engaged in the community is really important. I think that people can be empowered by having access to knowledge especially scientific and ecological information, and I think that science communication (targeted to the general public) is a great way to activate that. It is our duty as scientists to inform the community."
Together with the SEEDS chapter on U-M's campus, Otero Jimenez is coordinating a BioBlitz in the Nichols Arboretum on April 20, 2012. "We are going to bring in a group of ninth graders from Detroit's Western International High School to expose the kids to ecology and data collection and show them what a career in the sciences could be like." SEEDS is a division of the Ecological Society of America targeting undergraduates and trying to increase diversity in the ecology field.
For her summer research project at the University of Michigan Biological Station, Alexandria Moore researched the fitness impacts that certain herbivores have on the common milkweed. "I measured the impacts of aphids, stem-boring weevils, and leaf-mining flies on milkweed fitness," Moore said. Moore, who is interested in conservation ecology and biodiversity, demonstrated that these insect herbivores can impose fitness costs on their hosts. Specifically, milkweed insects can cause reductions in fruit set in milkweed plants.
“Currently, my research is focused on identifying a presumed new species of freshwater snail that has a very limited range in Eastern Oregon,” said Moore. Last semester, I did genetic work on this species and discovered that it has a very distinct genetic makeup. My pending work will be on describing the physical characteristics of this species and doing a survey of its natural habitat. This work ties in very closely to my interests in conservation biology because of the narrow range that this species inhabits. Identification is the first step towards protection.”
Moore grew up primarily in Ann Arbor (since fifth grade) and studied ecology and evolutionary biology as an undergraduate at U-M. “I was interested in the Frontiers Program because it's exactly the type of content I worked towards learning in my undergraduate career, but also because it's provided an opportunity for me to learn new things, expand upon what I already knew, and apply that knowledge to real-life systems.”
In her spare time outside of school, she loves to write and draw, as well as read (time permitting). “I also have tremendous respect for things that are artistic and creative, so I spend much of my free time exploring movies, music, and live performances.”
Marcella Baiz investigated the relationship between substrate size (coarse versus fine sand) and antlion larvae who don’t “clean their plate,” known as partial prey consumption, for her summer research project at the U-M Biological Station.
Predators don't always fully consume their prey. It is known that prey capture rate affects partial prey consumption behavior since predators can't catch more food while they are eating, she explained. It is optimal for a predator to discard their meal before it has finished when prey are abundant, because they can easily catch another one. Antlions (Myrmeleon immaculatus) are sit-and-wait predators that make pitfall traps in the sand and wait for small, unsuspecting arthropods (their primary prey is ants) to fall in.
A previous study suggested that substrate size would alter prey consumption behavior since ants can escape more easily from pits built in coarse sand. The idea was to induce expected lower than normal prey capture rates in coarse sand and normal capture rates in finer sand and examine percentage consumed from ants at a constant feeding rate (one ant per day).
A previous study was able to induce expected prey capture rates that were different from actual prey capture rates for antlions in two different sizes of substrate and found that partial prey consumption behavior differed between substrates. "I did not find the previously described relationship between substrate size and partial prey consumption, but rather found that prey size was the best predictor of percent prey consumption," Baiz said.
She previously attended Grand Valley State University where she graduated with her bachelor's degree in biology (concentration in animal biology) and a minor in environmental studies.
Baiz's undergraduate research at GVSU involved parental nest defense behavior in tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) under the supervision of her mentor Professor Michael P. Lombardo. Her mentor suggested she attend EEB's Graduate Preview Day at the University of Michigan. The event was for students interested in graduate studies in ecology and evolution at U-M and that's where Baiz learned of the Frontiers program.
"I enjoy teaching discussion for Introduction to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and building my teaching skills at GSI training sessions," Baiz said. "I'm working hard in the field ecology course and I am excited to have started my lab rotation working with Liliana Cortés-Ortiz."
Like many drawn to ecology, Serge Fariñas spent his childhood outdoors. As far back as he can remember he’s always had a great passion and respect for nature. He discovered ecology as career through an undergraduate program funded by the Ecological Society of America called SEEDS (Strategies for Ecology, Education, Diversity and Sustainability). “The opportunities and research experience I gained through their support were unparalleled" he said. "It was at an ESA meeting I met one of my advisors, Knute Nadelhoffer, who introduced me the Frontiers program.
The Frontiers program has been beyond amazing in furthering my development as a scientist.”
Fariñas’ current research fits within the context of global change and the response of alpine plant communities to shifting climate variables. “The network of sites I am using in the Norwegian alpine allows a unique opportunity to look at the independent and interacting effects of temperature and precipitation on plant and soil chemistry. The motivation is to better understand how those variables influence nutrient cycling and thus ecosystem change.”
In addition to his academic interests, the young ecologist is passionate about social and environmental activism. He nurtures his creative side as an active musician who plays the guitar.
Theresa Ong worked with Professor Francesca Cuthbert at the U-M Biological Station during the summer of 2009 testing the anti-predator behavior of captive-reared endangered Piping Plovers (Charadrius melodus) of the Great Lakes region.
"In an effort to conserve this population, eggs found abandoned on the shoreline nesting sites of the Piping Plover have been regularly rescued and reared in captivity at the UMBS," said Ong. "The chicks are released at the end of each season and carefully observed for signs of migration. Captive-reared chicks have limited reproductive success, producing equal numbers of eggs but failing to hatch or rear them to fledgling status. In order to understand this fitness disadvantage, I ran a series of behavioral tests on captive-reared chicks at the UMBS to gauge their responses to auditory and visual cues of predators. Unexpectedly, they did appear to possess innate anti-predator behaviors despite a lack of parental care. However, captive-reared chicks had significantly reduced feeding rates than wild chicks post release. Regular feeding times in captivity may hinder natural inclinations for the chicks to feed post release.
"I am currently working with Professor John Vandermeer on a coffee agroecosystem in Chiapas, Mexico looking at the interactions between natural enemies in a multi-exploiter system, and how these interactions lead to coexistence of the entire system. Multi-exploiter systems are systems where one prey/host is attacked by multiple predators, pathogens, or parasitoids. The prey of my system is the green coffee scale, Coccus viridis, a pest of coffee in some parts of the world. The scales are attacked by a predatory beetle, Azya orbigera, and a fungal pathogen Lecanicllium lecanii. I study how predation by the beetle affects the spread of the fungal pathogen. This is all in an effort to understand how coexistence occurs in complex systems such as the shade-grown coffee farm in which we work. I am interested in combining field work and theory to understand the dynamics of complex systems, especially in relation to biological control.
"The Frontiers program was an excellent opportunity for me to refine my interests in ecology and decide whether I wanted to continue on to a PhD. I was attracted to the freedom of the curriculum, excellent support, and geographical range of study sites to choose from." Ong graduated from Williams College in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in biology and Chinese.
In her spare time, Ong enjoys foosball, ballroom dancing, rock climbing and ice skating – "none of which I claim to be great at," she said.
What attributes are commonly found among soap bubbles, beehives, sand piles, clouds, and tree branches? The answer lies in the formation of patterns. Their striking beauty exemplified through their symmetrical regularity across space has long fascinated scientists in their quest of uncovering how nature works.
Following in this tradition, Senay Yitbarek's research has focused on the formation of patterns in real ecosystems, but this time through the lens of ants. Together with graduate student Dave Allen, Yitbarek spent the summer of 2009 at the University of Michigan's E.S. George Reserve studying how ant communities form spatial patterns in a forested ecosystem.
Their research has been exploring whether the emergent pattern formation that occurs at the level of tree species can also be observed at the level of ant species. Based on their results, they believe that dominant ants form patches in the same way that tree species form patches. The researchers believe that the associated pattern between the trees and ants are likely to be the result of available resources, such as flowering nectaries, which maintain the mosaic structure. In a theoretical realm, Yitbarek and his advisor, Professor John Vandermeer, are currently exploring multi-species coexistence.
Yitbarek's family is originally from Eritrea, a country long involved in a war with neighboring Ethiopia. This 30-year war forced his family to flee to the Netherlands where he grew up in an immigrant working class neighborhood. As a child, Yitbarek was exposed to many different cultures that included people from Morocco, Turkey, Suriname, and Indonesia. He writes, "I grew up in a lively working-class community where family and friends would visit our apartment on the weekends and debate important topics of the day. Despite having acquired little formal education, I consider them leading world-class intellectuals that shaped my own thinking about the world."
Yitbarek eventually moved to the United States and developed a keen interest in the environmental sciences, especially ecology, as a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Yet, pursuing a career in the sciences never seemed an option because he convinced himself that he didn't fit the mold of a traditional scientist. A turning point came when he participated in undergraduate research programs such as the McNair & Miller Scholars Program where he pursued summer research projects with the assistance of a graduate student mentor and faculty member. Suddenly, he realized that exploring fascinating questions as to how nature works could turn into a life-long adventure.
This adventure brought him all the way to the University of Michigan, where he is a student in Vandermeer's lab. Yitbarek writes, "John's mentoring style is very reminiscent of the folks that spent countless hours debating in our living room. His intuitive insights that range from the mathematical to the biological and even into the philosophical arena encourages you to think outside of the box. Furthermore, his dedication to defending the rights of women and minorities to gain equal access to careers in the sciences shows you that being both a good scientist and having a political conscience does not need to be an oxymoron."
Yitbarek enjoys living in Ann Arbor where you can occasionally watch him play Capoeira and the Berimbau in a multi-cultural cooperative house, where he spends time cooking for six housemates. He can also be found discussing interesting topics with friends in many of Ann Arbor's breweries.
All of us are living in the gutter, some of us are looking at the stars. – Oscar Wilde
"Why is this quote relevant to research in evolutionary ecology? It means that if everyone is looking in one direction then a good researcher is obligated to look in the opposite direction." Rachel Hessler cites the research on the behavior of animals as compared to plants. "When an animal is threatened, there are two primary directions for response: fight or flight. However, in plant behavior when a plant is being consumed by an herbivore, research has focused on plant defenses (fight) and has scarcely acknowledged the opposing branch of flight (dispersal)."
Hessler is interested in induced dispersal in response to seed predation. Her research design addresses the question, "Can heavy seed predation induce phenotypic plasticity in dispersal traits of a plant?" Her model system is the common weed, Queen Anne's Lace, and a recently introduced paleartic moth, Sitochroa palealis. Queen Anne's Lace is ideal for her hypothesis because it has sequentially maturing umbels (an inflorescence of short flower stalks that spread from a common point). By allowing and preventing seed predation on the primary umbel, she compares differences in dispersal traits in the seeds of the secondary umbel such as appendage length, penetrability, dormancy, and mammal hide adhesion.
"The beauty of the Frontiers Master's Program is that students are encouraged to keep an open mind in regard to research focus," writes Hessler. "For example, I arrived at the University of Michigan from a small private university having never worked in lab. While I have experience caving, diving, volunteering at a whale research center, and benthic macroinvertebrate water quality assessment, I did not have the skills to independently design and complete research of high academic quality. Frontiers allowed me to enter graduate school and gain exposure to research techniques utilizing a model system to answer big questions of evolutionary significance. I work with a weed and a worm to consider if induced dispersal happens. If so, what are the consequences for population ecology, geographic mosaics, and community dynamics?"
On a personal note, she has enjoyed eating Michigan berries in the backyard with her daughter Terra. Her biggest personal accomplishment this season has been learning to ride and maintain her motorcycle. "Riding a motorcycle is a form of meditation and requires complete awareness. And technically, it is a form of dispersal."
She graduated summa cum from Shenandoah University at the age of 34 with various accolades. "But that doesn't matter, science belongs to the people, all people," she writes. "With climate change and various other sentinels of resource mismanagement we no longer can afford to distinguish between those who can participate in science and those who can't."
Photo caption: Insect exclosures and enclosures Hessler created from organza bags at 100 sites in and around the George Reserve. Hessler's advisors are Professors Mark Hunter and Beverly Rathcke.
John Berini spent his first summer in the Frontiers program working with Professor Phil Myers in the northern most extremities of the Lower Peninsula. They were trying to create a predictive model for finding remnant populations of Peromyscus maniculatus gracilis (woodland deer mouse). Myers is in the process of publishing a paper that examines the effects of climate change on woodland deer mouse distribution in northern Michigan. In short, Myers found that mouse abundance was directly related to the thaw dates of local bodies of water. As a result, they found that the woodland deer mouse was dramatically decreasing in abundance over the entire northern half of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan.
"My project over the summer was an effort to take the most recent occurrence data for P.m. gracilis and use the habitat data from these sites to predict where potential remnant populations of this species might still exist," Berini writes. "More specifically, I used soil type, bedrock geology, ecological region (a combination of topography, soil texture, and drainage characteristics), land cover type, and glacial land system (a combination of soil texture and surface formations) within GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to create a predictive optimal habitat model. We then took the results of the model I created and compared that to more traditional predictive methods." (Based primarily on Myer's knowledge of the species and local habitat of the northern most extremities of the Lower Peninsula).
We trapped in 11 different locations (seven predicted by Myers and four predicted by Berini's model) for a total of 2215 trap nights. They captured a grand total of zero P. m. gracilis. This was an exceptionally bad mouse year (as confirmed by capturing only 44 white footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus), less than a three percent capture rate as compared to the normal 20 percent catch rate), however, these results do help to validate the idea that the woodland deer mouse is nearing extirpation in northern Michigan, presumably due the local climate change.
Berini's true research interests are geared more toward how human-induced (either direct or indirect) landscape change impacts vertebrate behavior (specifically predator-prey behavior) both inter- and intra-specifically. He's currently looking at the possibility of using stable isotopes to map the mammalian food web of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.
Berini is married and has a two-year-old son. His wife is a second year neurology resident at the U-M Hospitals. He grew up in an economically disadvantaged household, the middle of seven children. Berini was accepted into the music program at Ohio State University out of high school but decided not to go for financial reasons. He joined the United States Air Force two years after graduating high school and spent six years as a USAF linguist to save money for college. He majored in conservation biology from the University of Minnesota and graduated with Latin Honors (Cum Laude). He was a stay at home dad the year before graduate school.
EEB Frontiers Master's Program student Hannah Foster spent her first summer in the program looking at culverts as a mechanism for habitat fragmentation in crayfish populations at the U-M Biological Station in northern Michigan. She and Troy Keller from Columbus State University in Georgia ran experiments both in the field and in the streams lab at the BioStation on three different crayfish species.
"Our results indicate that culverts with water flowing above a certain speed may be causing habitat fragmentation," she writes. "In addition, different species respond differently to flow speeds inside culverts."
Foster did her undergraduate degree in music (harp performance) at the University of Michigan. She has been interested in the outdoors and ecology all her life and came back to it as a possible career two years after graduation. Foster's advisors are Professors Earl Werner and Robert Denver.