Projects

Students in the REU program will be members of at least one research theme: Evolution, Ecology or Systematics. On the application, students are required to rank up to three projects that interest them. Possible projects for 2014 are:

Modeling/Bioinformatics
Modeling and bioinformatics projects are ideal for both biology and mathematics/computer science majors.

Dr. Jamie Walters, Molecular evolution and genome biology of butterflies

The REU student will use computational and bioinformatic methods to investigate patterns of molecular evolution in butterflies. Possible research topics include tests of selection on reproductive proteins, proteomic analysis of spermatophores, characterization of transposable elements in lepidopteran genomes, or population genomics of sex-linked genes. A common theme of these projects is that the REU student will be performing computational analyses of existing genomic datasets. This REU position would be well-suited to students coming from either biological or computer science backgrounds. The specific research project will be tailored to fit the interests and skills of the successful.

Dr. Maria Orive, Modeling Evolutionary Genetics

The undergraduate researcher will benefit from a research experience that closely integrates evolutionary biology and mathematics. The student would choose one of two different research projects. The first is a collaborative project (involving scientists at KU, Harvard, Northeastern, and the New England Aquarium) investigating patterns of host-endosymbiont associations. Symbioses between multi-cellular hosts and their endosymbionts are widespread throughout marine and many terrestrial systems. We focus on the well-known example of corals and their photosynthetic dinoflagellates and on developing new theoretical models allowing interpretation and analysis of genetic data for both hosts and symbionts. The second project will investigate the effects of life history stage and clonal structure on the rate of evolution and the amount of evolutionary lag (the difference between current mean population fitness and optimum mean fitness). Developing models that describe how genetic and life history structure affect the rate of evolution is crucial for understanding and predicting patterns of evolution and extinction under changing selective conditions.
Specific activities may include numerical analyses of our models using analytical software such at Mathematica (Wolfram), using computer programming to develop simulations for model testing and parameter exploration, and statistical analyses of genetic data collected by collaborators. The undergraduate researcher will gain hands-on experience in the application of mathematics, numerical analyses, and statistics to questions in biology, and gain an understanding of how theory and data can be linked.
Prerequisite: A course in genetics OR computer programming

Evolution
Evolution projects are primarily lab based

Dr. Rich Glor, Lizard reproductive isolation

How and why do new species form? Members of the Glor Lab investigate these questions with neotropical lizards by integrating field studies of animals in nature with experimental crosses conducted in our KU laboratory. REU projects will focus on experimental laboratory crosses involving two incipient species of Anolis lizards found in the Dominican Republic. The goal of these projects will be to (1) identify the genetic basis of species differentiation and (2) test general rules for the evolution of reproductive isolation between diverging species.

Dr. Paulyn Cartwright, Hydrozoan genomics

The Cartwright lab focuses on investigating the role of developmental gene pathways in the evolution of hydrozoan life cycles. We use genomic approaches to identify and characterize genes that are unique or differentially expressed in a particular life cycle stage. We then characterize the spatial expression of those genes using in situ hybridization and test function using RNAi knock down approaches. By comparing our data between species with very different life cycles, we aim to better characterize the genetic mechanisms involved in the evolution of life cycle transitions. REU students will be involved in characterization of genes from genomic data using bioinformatic and phylogenetic approaches as well and characterization of expression using in situ hybridization and RNAi.

Dr. Daniel J. Crawford, Evolution of plant reproductive biology.

I have long been interested in and published on the origin and evolution of flowering plants on oceanic islands. Recent studies have centered on how plants cope following their dispersal to distant, isolated, oceanic islands. I am now focused on the reproductive biology of the genus Tolpis (relative of lettuce and dandelions) in the Macaronesian Islands (Canary Islands, Madeira, Azores, and Cape Verde Islands). Several students have been involved in this project and two of them have been authors on two publications. There are now more than 1,000 plants of island Tolpis growing in the greenhouse and potential projects for future students include determining the breeding systems (whether a plant can self-fertilize) of plants from different islands and archipelagos, whether there can be selection for lower-higher levels of self-fertility, and whether self-fertility varies among flowers on the same plants. The results are important in the interpretation of a long-debated issue in plant island biology, the value of self-fertility (reproductive assurance) versus self-incompatibility (genetic diversity) in the origin and diversification of island plants.

Dr. Jennifer Gleason, Evolution of behavior

Dr. Jennifer Gleason, Evolution of behavior and Drosophila population dynamics The Gleason lab studies the biology of Drosophila species. Several different studies are possible. Sensory modality use in Drosophila species: In courtship, Drosophila species use different senses (auditory, visual, chemosensory, tactile) to convey and receive signals. These signals are essential for reproductive success. The REU student will either identify the signals that support courtship success in a single species, or study a single sensory modality across a species group to understand how signals change through evolution.
Drosophila population dynamics: The species composition of the Drosophila populations in Kansas is unknown. This project will involve catching flies in the field and identifying them to determine how populations change over the summer. The project will have a large field component.
As little is known in either of these fields, there is great potential for a student to make a substantial contribution to the field. In your application essay, please specify your preferred project.

Dr. Lena Hileman, Genetics of plant morphological evolution

In my lab we study the evolution of flowering plants with special interest in how flowers have diversified through changes in developmental programs. REU students in my lab will work on one of the following two research projects: 1) We are studying the evolution of hummingbird pollinated flowers from insect pollinated flowers in the genus Penstemon. Hummingbird pollinated flowers have evolved multiple times in this lineage and we are studying where, on the phylogeny, these transitions occurred, and how these transitions occurred at the molecular genetic level. 2) We are studying the evolution of flower symmetry across the flowering plants. Previous work from our lab, and from other labs has demonstrated that similar genes are involved in the many transitions from radial flower symmetry to bilateral flower symmetry that have occurred during the diversification of flowering plants. To better understand how these same types of genes could be independently recruited to program bilateral flower symmetry, we are studying how these genes function in species with radially symmetrical flowers (e.g., poppies, carnations, morning glories).
Prerequisite: A course in genetics is recommended

Ecology
Some ecology projects will involve fieldwork

Dr. Helen Alexander, Insect biodiversity and landscape ecology

Throughout the world and across time, changes in vegetation have been associated with patterns of human settlement. In the Great Plains of North America, for example, the once extensive prairies are now small in number and are embedded in a largely agricultural landscape. These changes in vegetation are likely to have major effects on biodiversity in general, and specifically on insects whose life cycles are often intimately associated with plants. In collaboration with Dr. Carolyn Malmstrom at Michigan State University, as well as graduate students Kathy Roccaforte and Daphne Mayes at University of Kansas, I seek an REU student who is interested in comparing insect communities in current landscape types (native prairie, planted grasslands, wheat fields). This project would involve field sampling of insects, laboratory sorting, and data analysis/interpretation. We are particularly interested in aphid diversity in early summer since these insects can be vectors of virus diseases that two of us study (Alexander, Malmstrom). To gain expertise in this area, the REU student will also visit Michigan State University to learn how to sort and identify aphids. We anticipate that knowledge of general insect diversity patterns will additionally integrate well with current studies of insects at similar sites by Roccaforte (research focus on pollinator communities) and Mayes (research focus on host-parasitoid interactions).

Dr. Bryan Foster, Grassland community ecology

REU students in my lab will work directly with me and my graduate students to develop a project suitable for the summer time frame. The project can involve a field and/or laboratory component to investigate linkages between plant functional traits, phylogenetic relatedness of species and the dynamics of grassland community assembly. Within this broad theme students can choose from several alternative avenues of investigation tailored to their own interests and curiosity. For example, students more interested in evolutionary relationships can focus more attention on phylogenetic analysis. Students more interested in the ecological dimension could focus more on questions about plant traits and community structure.

Dr. Benjamin Sikes, Community Ecology of Soil Microorganisms

The vast world belowground has been referred to as the poor man's tropical rain forest. Research in my lab explores this diversity and interactions of the species there. We focus mainly on fungi (and some bacteria) that live in soils. Ongoing projects include the role of mycorrhizal fungi in plant succession, pathogen accumulation over time, fungal feedbacks to fire regimes, and effects of soil microbial additions on ecosystem restoration. REU students in my lab will develop an independent project based on their interests while getting hands-on experience with fungal culturing, molecular techniques to characterize microbial communities and setting up microbial experiments. Past undergraduate projects have explored competition among fungi from different land use types (natural, disturbed, converted to agriculture), the ability of different fungi to decompose above and belowground plant material, and the synergistic benefit to plants from functionally different fungi.

Systematics
Systematics projects involve molecular techniques applied to diverse species groups

Dr. Mark Mort, Evolution of oceanic flora

Oceanic islands have long been recognized as natural laboratories for the study of evolution. The Mort lab uses molecular data to infer phylogenetic relationships and levels of genetic diversity among flowering plants from the Canary Islands, especially stonecrops (Crassulaceae) and the sunflower genus Tolpis. These data are supplemented with studies of breeding system physiology and morphology to understand better the patterns and process of the radiation of this flora. REU students will design independent projects that reflect their interests, such as 1) phylogenetic studies, 2) estimating population level genetic diversity and conservation status or 3) assessing breeding system for focal taxa. Many phylogenies of insular plants have been published, but few studies integrate analyses of molecular and biosystematic data to study both the pattern and process of the radiation of these remarkable floras.