Biology Graduate Student Awards & Accomplishments


Kudos to our graduate students for their many successes!


Spring 2016


Paul Hime (Weisrock Lab) was awarded the prestigious Blue Waters Graduate Research Fellowship from the NSF-funded National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). This award will fund his last year of doctoral work and will provide access to the ridiculously powerful Blue Waters Petascale Supercomputing Cluster. Paul says he will use this opportunity to develop new computational approaches to Bayesian phylogenetic inference. Only ten of these fellowships are awarded each year nation-wide.

Megan Rhoads (Osborn Lab) was awarded an American Heart Association Pre-doctoral Fellowship.  This two-year award will fund her proposal titled “Sympathetic Nerve Activity and T-Lymphocytes in Spontaneously Hypertensive Caribbean Vervets.” This project focuses on how sympathetic activation alters the adaptive immune system in a non-human primate model of spontaneous hypertension. Megan will focus on how T-lymphocyte cytokine secretion and inflammatory cascades are affected by sympathetic nerve activity and how the two systems together may contribute to the development and maintenance of spontaneous hypertension.


Shishir Biswas (Seifert Lab) and Brittany Slabach (Crowley Lab) were awarded the College of Arts and Sciences Certificate for Outstanding Teaching. The award recognizes excellence in undergraduate instruction by Teaching Assistants. In addition to this recognition they each received $500.

Shishir Biswas and Sruthi Purushothaman (Seifert Lab) both received travel awards from the Society for Developmental Biology to attend the 75th Annual Society for Developmental Biology Meeting this coming August in Boston and a satellite symposium on the Evolution of Regenerative Abilities. Shishir will present a poster about his transcriptomics work with spiny mice and Sruthi will present results from her work looking at the genetic basis for patterning during salamander limb regeneration.

Cagney Coomer (Morris Lab) recently received a travel award to attend the 2016 NEURAL (National Enhancement of Underrepresented Academic Leaders) Conference at the University of Alabama Birmingham June 22-24. At the conference, she won both an Outstanding Poster Award AND a $1000 travel award for her "science shark tank" presentation. She is using the new travel award to attend the Gordon Research Conference on Visual System Development in Vermont this coming August.

Megan Rhoads (Osborn Lab) was awarded the American Physiological Society Caroline tum Suden Award for her abstract titled “Alpha and Beta Adrenergic Receptor Expression is Increased in the Renal Medulla of Spontaneously Hypertensive African Green Monkeys.” Megan also received an American  Physiological Society Minority Travel Fellowship to attend Experimental Biology 2016 in San Diego, CA.

Jim Shaffer (Gleeson Lab) was awarded first place and a $250 check for his poster "Prescribed fire impacts on tree seedling growth in a Kentucky Bluegrass Savanna-Woodland remnant" at the KY/TN Joint Prescribed Fire Council Meeting in Ft. Campbell, KY.

Brittany Slabach (Crowley Lab) received a scholarship to attend the 2016 Summer Institute in Statistics and Modeling Infectious Diseases at the University of Washington. The summer institute is an annual event and one of three summer institutes presented by the Department of Biostatistics at the University of Washington. The $1,800 scholarship provides attendance to three modules, and includes travel cost. Brittany’s goal is to gain a strong foundation in epidemiological models, and to use data parameters from her field data to develop two disease transmission models that will better help manage disease outbreak in wild populations.


Jacqueline Dillard (Westneat Lab) was awarded an $18,980 Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the NSF to investigate dispersal and paternity patterns in the horned passalus, Odontotaenius disjunctus. These funds will go towards investigating whether the general correlation between genetic monogamy and cooperative family formation in animal societies is a consequence of environmental selective pressures that simultaneously favor reduced dispersal and extra-pair mating. Specifically, Jacqueline will assess how resource density, decaying logs in this case, influences mating and dispersal behavior in the horned passalus to determine if increased distance between breeding resources reduces movement of both young adults and potential extra-pair mates.

Paul Hime (Weisrock Lab) was awarded $18,967 for an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG), entitled "DISSERTATION RESEARCH: Assessing gene- and site-specific support for deep amphibian relationships across nuclear loci that interact with mitochondria and ribosomes". This research explores why different regions of the genome may strongly support different evolutionary hypotheses for relationships among the three amphibian orders.

Scott Hotaling (Weisrock Lab) was awarded a UW-NPS Research Grant ($5000) with co-PIs L Tronstad, JJ Giersch, L Zeglin, and D Finn. "A unique 'icy seep' habitat in the high Teton Range: potential refuge for biological assemblages imperiled by climate change".

Kara Jones (Weisrock Lab) received the Society of Systematic Biologists Graduate Student Research Award from the Society of Systematic Biologists. This $1500 grant is to help support further research to unravel the evolutionary history of a diverse salamander clade.

Rose Marks (McLetchie Lab) received the Anderson-Crum Field Research in Bryology Award, a $500 grant to support field work in bryology from the American Bryological and Lichenological Society.

Schyler Nunziata (Weisrock lab) was awarded an $18,946 Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation entitled, “Estimating the genetic and demographic response of an amphibian metapopulation to global climate change.” This research uses genomic approaches to study the conservation, evolution, and ecology of wetland populations. Using salamanders as a study system, the goals are to understand how genetic diversity changes across sub-populations as a result in changes in gene flow, and how these are mediated overall by changes in climate. To achieve these goals, Schyler will generate and analyze genome-wide patterns of genetic variation and develop new models that will be used to project how populations respond to environmental change.


fall 2015

3/18/2015- Travel Award

Melissa Keinath has been awarded a travel grant to attend and present her research at the American Genetic Association Presidential Symposium on “Chromosome Evolution: Molecular Mechanisms and Evolutionary Consequences”. The meeting will be held on Bainbridge Island, Washington on August 17-19, 2015. Melissa will present “Characterization of a Large Vertebrate Genome Using Shotgun and Laser Capture Chromosome Sequencing", a poster describing her work to sequence and assemble the axolotl genome using targeted chromosome isolation in the Smith lab, in collaboration with the Voss lab.


3/1/15- Publication
Graduate students Wen Wen, Lakshmi Pillai-Kastoori, and Stephen Wilson, along with advisor Ann Morris have just published their paper “Sox4 regulates choroid fissure closure by limiting Hedgehog signaling during ocular morphogenesis” in the journal Developmental Biology. By manipulating gene activity, the authors demonstrate that the SoxC class transcription factor Sox4 is necessary for proper eye development, specifically regulating the closure of the choroid fissure. Failure to do so causes coloboma, a class of eye disorders observed commonly in human pediatric patients. They further demonstrated that the ocular morphogenesis defects are due to elevated signaling in the Hedgehog pathway and that the ligand Indian Hedgehog b is dramatically overexpressed when Sox4 activity is reduced. The activities of Sox4 are shown to be partly overlapping with those of Sox11, which they have previously reported.


1/22/2015- Travel Award
Melissa Keinath has been selected by the meeting organizers to receive a fellowship ($750) to attend and present a poster at the upcoming Genome10K workshop in Santa Cruz, CA, March 1-4 2015. This relatively exclusive conference will explore critical topics essential for assembling a genomic zoo of some 10,000 vertebrate species to help understand how complex animal life evolved through changes in DNA and use this knowledge to become better stewards of the planet ( Melissa will present “Characterization of a Large Vertebrate Genome Using Shotgun and Laser Capture Chromosome Sequencing" which describes her recent efforts in the Smith lab to sequence and assemble the axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) genome.


12/15/14- Fellowship
Robin Bagley, a graduate student in the lab of Dr. Catherine Linnen, is the recipient of a two year USDA NIFA fellowship for her project “Testing the host-shift speciation hypothesis in the red-headed pine sawfly (Neodiprion lecontei) using genomic, ecological and reproductive data”.  It is thought that shifts and subsequent adaptation to new hosts are main drivers in the speciation of plant-feeding insects. A primary goal of Robin’s dissertation is to determine if host plant adaptation contributes to speciation in pine sawflies. She will exploit a local outbreak of the redheaded pine sawfly at the UK Arboretum’s Trail of Pines where there are three morphologically and chemically distinct pine host species. The grant, totaling $73,805, will support examination of sawfly populations from these hosts for evidence of genetic, ecological and reproductive isolation to determine if host shifts do contribute to speciation.


12/10/14- Thesis Defense
Congratulations to Lingfeng Tang for defense of his Ph.D. dissertation, “The JAK/STAT pathway is reutilized in Drosophila spermatogenesis.” Lingfeng’s work in the Harrison lab set out to examine the role of Unpaired 3, one of a family of fly cytokines, in regulating maintenance of male fertility. Consistent with a previously known role for the JAK/STAT pathway, he found that Upd3 contributes to maintenance of stem cells in the testis.  He also uncovered a novel and unexpected role for the JAK/STAT pathway in regulating late differentiation of spermatids. Lingfeng has accepted a postdoctoral position at Cornell University and will begin in early 2015.


9/22/14- Publication
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA today published “Beclin-1 deficiency in the murine ovary results in the reduction of progesterone production to promote preterm labor”, a paper authored by Tom Gawriluk, who recently defended his dissertation, on which this work was based. The paper is co-authored with Tom’s thesis mentor, Dr. Ed Rucker, and collaborators from the University of Illinois and the University of Kansas Medical Center. Using mice with a conditional knockout of Beclin1, a regulator of the autophagy pathway, specifically removed in the granulosa cells of the ovary, they find a defect in production of progesterone. This failure to maintain progesterone leads to premature labor. This conditional knockout mouse represents a new model that can be used for studies of preterm labor.


7/10/14- Publication
Lakshmi Pillai-Kastoori is the lead author of a paper published today in PLoS Genetics entitled “Sox11 is required to maintain proper levels of Hedgehog signaling during vertebrate ocular morphogenesis.” The article is co-authored by fellow graduate students Wen Wen and Stephen Wilson and advisor Ann Morris, as well as collaborators at the University of Alberta. The authors demonstrate that the transcription factor Sox11 is essential for proper formation of the eye. In zebrafish deficient for Sox11, they see abnormal lens development, reduction in rod photoreceptors, and failure of choroid fissure closure, known as coloboma. Similar defects are associated with aberrant signaling of the Hedgehog pathway and, indeed, Hedgehog signaling is greatly elevated in Sox 11 deficient animals, suggesting that this may be the primary cause of the observed defects. Lastly, the authors identify two novel sequence variants of Sox11 among patients with coloboma or other eye development defects, suggesting that changes in Sox11 activity may contribute to pediatric eye disorders.


6/24/14- Thesis Defense
Jason Collett successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis, “Renal Humoral, Genetic and Genomic Mechanisms Underlying Spontaneous Hypertension”. Jason’s work in the lab of Jeff Osborn has focused on identifying genes responsible for spontaneous high blood pressure in a rat model system. By repeatedly backcrossing hypertensive with normotensive animals and selecting for those with high blood pressure, he was able to isolate genetic factors responsible. Jason has uncovered gene expression changes in both the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes in the kidneys of hypertensive animals that are likely to underlie this condition. Jason will be moving to the Indiana University School of Medicine to begin postdoctoral work later this summer.


5/16/14- Grant
The American Museum of Natural History has awarded a $900 Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Grant to Jacqueline Dillard to support her research investigating how species change their social behavior in response to resource sustainability in ecological time. She will compare native and invasive ambrosia beetle species to examine whether those that inhabit smaller, less sustainable resources are more dispersal prone than species that inhabit resources of variable sustainability. This project will shed light upon both species-level differences in adaptive plasticity as well as the ecological triggers that shape the decisions to disperse or cooperate.


5/2/14- Thesis Defense
Qian Chen has earned her Ph.D., defending her thesis entitled “The interactions between JAK/STAT signaling ligands in Drosophila“. Qian began this work in the Harrison lab six years ago. She developed tools and assays to investigate the physical interactions of the fruit fly Janus kinase pathway cytokines, the Unpaired family, and the influence of these interactions on signaling activity.


4/22/14- Thesis Defense
Tom Gawriluk successfully defended his Ph.D. thesis, "Targeted Knockout of Beclin-1 Reveals an Essential Function in Ovary and Testis". The project, conducted in the lab of Ed Rucker, uncovered unexpected roles of this autophagy promoting protein in gametogenesis. Tom will pursue postdoctoral research right here in the Biology Department in the lab of Ashley Seifert.


4/18/14- Thesis Defense
Josh Titlow has completed his Ph.D. work with the defense of his thesis entitled “DOPAMINERGIC AND ACTIVITY-DEPENDENT MODULATION OF MECHANOSENSORY RESPONSES IN DROSOPHILA MELANOGASTER LARVAE”. Josh’s work in the Cooper lab used an array of genetic, pharmacological, and electrophysiological approaches to investigate nervous system plasticity regulated by the neuromodulator dopamine. Josh will continue using the fruit fly as a model as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford in the other UK.


4/15/14- Grant
Justin Kratovil has been awarded a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation in support of his Ph.D. thesis project “Phylogeographic analysis of introgressive gene flow among nuclear loci functionally linked to the mitochondrion”. The research, conducted with his advisor, Dave Weisrock, will use high throughput sequencing methods to evaluate evolutionary patterns of divergence in nuclear and mitochondrial genomes using dusky salamanders.  The NSF is providing $19,485 to support Justin’s research over the next two years.


4/10/14- Thesis Defense
Jann Fry has earned her Ph.D. by successfully defending her thesis, "A plant trait-based approach to determine the feasibility of using native C3 and C4 to restore a functional grassland community in a remnant Bluegrass Savanna-Woodland in Kentucky, USA".  Working with Dr. Scott Gleeson, Jann investigated the ability of various bunchgrass species to restore the functionality of a temperate Midwestern oak savanna.

4/9/14- Publication
Graduate students Josh Titlow and Zana Majeed, working with undergraduates Jordan Rice, Emily Holsopple, and Stephanie Biecker in Robin Cooper’s lab, have received word that their paper “Anatomical and genotype-specific mechanosensory responses in Drosophila melanogaster larvae” has been accepted for publication in Neuroscience Research.


4/3/14- Award
Jim Shaffer, Ph.D. student in the lab of Scott Gleeson, was awarded First Prize in the Graduate Student Oral Presentation competition at the American Society of Plant Biologists-Southern Section's annual conference held in Lexington over the weekend. The title of his talk was "Mammalian herbivory on fourteen experimentally planted native hardwood tree seedlings of the Kentucky Bluegrass savanna-woodland community".

3/21/14- Grant
Jacqueline Dillard , graduate student in Dave Westneat’s lab, has been awarded $1820 for a Short Term Research Fellowship from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute to travel to Panama for three months this summer to pursue a project investigating the role of ecology in the evolution of cooperation in bess beetles. By comparing the complexity of family organization among several different species of bess beetles that inhabit different ecological niches, Jacqueline expects to better understand how ecology shapes social behavior. Specifically, she will test the hypothesis that long-lasting, more sustainable resources promote the evolution of more cooperative family groups than short-lived, ephemeral resources.


3/13/14- Thesis Defense
Amber Hale completed the defense of her thesis entitled "ANALYSIS OF THE ROLE OF TWO AUTOPHAGY PATHWAY RELATED GENES, BECN1 AND TSC1, IN MURINE MAMMARY GLAND DEVELOPMENT AND DIFFERENTIATION". Amber’s research, conducted under the mentorship of Ed Rucker, investigated the function of autophagy in the cyclical development and remodeling of the mammary gland with pregnancy, lactation, and weaning. Amber has recently accepted a tenure-track faculty position at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA.

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