Editor's note: Every Tuesday in Sept. from 5:00 p.m. to 6:15 p.m. in Weyandt 107, seminars are held on research opportunities by Biology faculty. This is the second article covering the series.
The fall faculty presentations were organized by biology professor Dr. Robert Major as part of the Biology Honors Seminar, but the seminars are open to all students.
The first to speak last week was wildlife biologist Jeff Larkin. He has over 130 scientific papers in his name and won the 2002 Wildlife Society book award. He is highly regarded nationally and regionally in the wildlife conservation and forestry community.
For the last 10 years, he has also been a science advisor for both the American Bird Conservancy and USDA’s Working Lands for Wildlife, in addition to being a member of the PA-DCNR's Ecosystem Management Advisor Committee.
“We publish papers for sure, but maybe the most important work we do would be the work of getting the knowledge into the hands of the practitioners, land managers, foresters, agency, biologists, and the like. And then of course, training them, providing them insight as to how best to go about implementing the science, communicating with the public and other organizations that have a vested interest and then implement at the scale that is biologically meaningful,” said Larkin.
While he will research anything from amphibians and pollinators up to moose wildlife habitat relations, Larkin’s passion is birds.
“Birds predominate my life, I would say. Birds rescued me from medical school. I was a pre-med student, got into medical school, went to medical school, but along the way, I was introduced to undergraduate research with a professor in ecology who was studying birds. And I really questioned what I really wanted to be passionate about for the rest of my life,” said Larkin.
3 billion birds have been lost since 1970. Larkin primarily focuses on conserving Neo topical migrant species that breed in Pennsylvania such as the wood thrush, cerulean warbler and golden wing warbler.
One of the biggest conservation efforts Larkin is a part of is diversifying forest conditions.
“It is not just about the amount of forest, but it's the type of forest. Coniferous versus mixed versus the deciduous. It's the juxtaposition of age classes and the amount of disturbance in those forests across landscape, how they are interspersed among themselves. And then of course structural complexity within the forest and itself,” said Larkin.
In addition to providing habitat for them in their breeding habitats, foresters also have to be aware of bird’s behavior after the kids are hatched. Creating conditions to meet all of the species’ habitat needs is called full breeding season conservation.
“We know very well in recent years with nanotechnology and small transmitters that we can attach their kids, that where they go with their kids is much different from where they are born or hatched out of an egg in the nest. But what we've come to realize is that we need to be thinking within the biological movements of the warbler fledglings around the nest site,” said Larkin.
One student asked Larkin what the biggest cause of decline in bird populations was. Aside from deforestation, habitat loss, and pesticides, a specific cause he focused on was window strikes. it's not that they can't see the windows, it's that the reflection from the window tricks them. Larkin was able to convince IUP to put in bird-safe windows in the larger sections of the new science building.
“So, you're in an Oak tree in the Oak Grove, and you think you're flying into the next Oak tree and you just got face planted into a plate glass window that it was reflecting that image. The bird safe glass is all about etchings in those windows that gives the birds that advanced notice,” said Larkin.
Larkin hopes that his presentation was informative and compelling to future research students.
“I've been fortunate to have some really good honors students, as well as non-honor undergraduate and graduate research students in my lab. I'm hoping to, intrigue some of you to maybe be interested in some of the work I do. I've had a pleasure working with many great students in my time here at IUP since 2005,” said Larkin.
Dr. Robert Major is a molecular and developmental biologist. Professor of courses such as Animal Development and Critical Thinking in Cell Biology, he studies tissue regeneration.
Unlike humans, many organisms have the ability to regenerate entire organs and limbs. Zebrafish can regenerate their hearts, and salamanders can regenerate their arms. A human and a salamander might have the same gene that is responsible for regeneration, but in the human it is turned off and in a salamander it is turned on.
There are specific genes that are activated within hours of injury, but when you look at a mouse or a human, these same genes are in the genome, but they do not become activated in the same scenario.
“Humans have very little capacity to regenerate tissues. In fact, we would love to be able to coax cells into regenerating large, complicated structures like the heart or a limb. The idea is to try to understand the key genetic switches that are either off when they should be on, or on where they should be off, in order to coax tissues to repair themselves,” said Major.
Major and his students study how the stem cells proliferate and what genes can be isolated that control the response, as well as how a stem cell knows what to become and what they are in three-dimensional space.
“The project that I have been working is a gene called TBX 20. The fact that your thumb is positioned in the right location, your knuckles bend in the right direction, right? Your elbows bend in the right direction. And when you knock out genes that are involved in this process, you end up seeing physical modifications like that,” said Major.
The third question involves a process of auto self-eating, the idea that when these cells regenerate, they can do so without nutrition by consuming its own organelles and proteins for energy. The specific organism that they are currently studying to understand this process is the planarian, a flatworm that can regenerate their entire head.
“When my students enter the lab for the first time and start chopping up these flatworms, one of the things that they say to me is, ‘I can't believe this is going the work’, but this happens successfully without failure. You can chop these things up into a hundred pieces and each one of those fragments will give rise to a hundred worms. If you slice the head today, Tuesday, by Friday or Saturday, you'll see the photo receptors back,” said Major.
Several of his previous students have been key in making discoveries of the role in genes such as Timeless and Titin.
“It is always a privilege of mine to be able to talk about my work. Not just because I'm passionate about the things that I'm studying, but because I've been privileged to work with some amazing undergrads and graduate students. If I had a penny for every time a student told me that he or she was not smart enough, I wouldn't be standing here. I'd be on a beach somewhere. The reality is that for every one person that's sitting here, there was one student on the screen that is off changing the world,” said Major.
Plant Physiological Ecologist Dr. Michael Tyree was the last to speak. He looks at how plants interact with their environment and how the role that humans’ manipulation of their environment is going to impact them.
“If you understand their physiology and you understand how things like temperature and lack of water and movement of a pathogen or an invasive insect into that system is going to influence that plant, you can make a lot of predictions on how that forest will be able to recover or not recover from those disturbances,” said Tyree.
Tyree studies manmade disturbances, transferring forests into biofuel production, prescribed burns and forests, trying to increase carbon sequestration by pouring organic matter, and incorporating it into the soil and watching how forests recover.
“One of the best things to do in almost every situation in a forested setting is to use plants as biological indicators. They never lie. They are there, they witness every single disturbance that has been across that landscape during the life of that plant. And they can telegraph that information to us [through] tree rings. Based on how those widths change over time tells you about the environment in which that plant was developing and the stresses that that plant was taking on,” said Tyree.
Recently however, he has been more focused on local issues such as protecting the PA state tree, the eastern hemlock tree, from the exotic pest species hemlock woolly adelgid. The Penn did an article this past spring on his work examining tree rings with masters student Brittney Fletcher.
“One of the biggest gifts that Dr. Major and I have is that we can't do anything by ourselves. We have great ideas, we can access funding and we can help pull this together. But it is you all that really do the work, you are actually putting in the time in the labs, working with us closely. And you are the reason that we can get anything done outside of teaching and maintaining our day-to-day operation,” said Tyree.
“I found Dr. Tyree's research exciting and fascinating to listen to. I look forward to hearing more about it,” said Mitch Posney (junior, biology).
Stay tuned for next week’s article, and feel free to stop by and listen to the presentations.