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Undergraduate Researchers

John Malloy

Susanna Campbell,
Biological Sciences

Exploring Female Song in Newly Recognized Species: Puerto Rican Oriole

My project explores male and female song in the Puerto Rican Oriole (Icterus portoricensis) in its natural environment, the dense tropical forests and adjacent edge habitats located at Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico. In temperate-zone oriole species, song is mostly a male trait; however, song is often a male and female trait in tropical oriole species. Evolutionary reconstruction shows that temperate species have tropical ancestors. Thus, our analysis of the Puerto Rican oriole and other tropical species will indicate ancestral state of the common ancestor of orioles. Comparisons to extant species to the common ancestor will indicate

Susanna is flanked by fellow undergraduate researchers John Malloy and Jin Kim while conducting field work. Susanna is holding a bluebird in her hand.

if female song has been lost in the northern species. Our study will clarify how natural selection is causing evolutionary changes in song. We expect that the males and females of the Puerto Rican oriole are both singing. By observing and recording the orioles in their natural forest habitats, we will be able to determine the role female song plays in mate selection and how this affects the observed evolutionary shift to male-only song.

How did you find your mentor for year research project?

Dr. Omland was my BIOL142 professor. I talked to him after class about lecture material and my interests. From there we started talking about a research position.

How did you know this was the project you wanted to do?

I love learning about the different mechanisms, causes, and results of evolution. I knew Dr. Omland’s research was going to teach me a lot about evolution.

Is this your first independent research project?

Yes, I have been working on this project, Testing for Female Song in the Newly Recognized Speciees: The Puerto Rican Oriole for over a year now.

Do you get course credit for this work? How much time do you put into it?

Yes. I have been getting course credit every semester that I have been in lab. During the semester, it depends how much school work I have but I put in about 8 or 12 hours a week or more.

How did you hear about the Undergraduate Research Award (URA) program?

My advisor, Dr. Omland recommended the URA to me.

What academic background did you have before you applied for the URA? How much did your mentor help you with the application?

I was a sophomore and had been working in my lab for just less than a year. Dr. Omland must have advised me about my abstract 20 times! We made sure that it was perfect!

Was the application difficult to do?

My advisor, Janet Mcglynn, and Devon Fick gave me and other applicants a lot of advice on how to write a successful application. I had also previously written other grant applications so I was able to edit my writing to fit the scope of the URA.

What has been the hardest part about your research?

The hardest, but most exciting part is the field work. I study the Puerto Rican Oriole, so I get to travel to Puerto Rico and study this bird. I have to wake up before the sun rises, typically 4 a.m. to be out and ready to record the bird songs as soon as they wake up. It’s exhausting work following the birds, taking notes on everything they do, and making sure I get good clear recordings.

What was the most unexpected thing?

The most unexpected things is the amount of support I have been given. Dr. Omland, the Office of Undergraduate Education, the MARC U*STAR program, the graduate students in my lab, and the undergraduate students who help with the field work make an amazing team. The support everyone gives me has definitely helped me be successful!

How does your research relate to your work in other classes?

Apart from field work, I run experiments to determine the sex from feather samples we have taken from birds at the study sites. This gives me lots of practice with PCR and electrophoresis which was really helpful in genetics when we learned about different methods of analyzing DNA. Currently, I am in "Genes to Genomes" and my background in evolution is proving to be a huge advantage.

What else are you involved in on campus?

I am the secretary of Hispanic Latino Student Union and a member of the pre-veterinary society.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?

Talk to your professors and don’t be afraid to say “I really want to learn about this from you, can I work with you?” The worst they can say is no, but they might really admire your enthusiasm and help you get a position somewhere else.

What are your career goals?

I will continue on to graduate school and eventually get my Ph.D. in evolutionary genetics. I love learning and don’t ever want to stop. A career in research lets me learn something new every day and lets me determine exactly what questions I want to investigate.

Have you shared the results of your work with professionals in your field?

Yes. I presented my research at the American Ornithological Society/Cooper Ornithological Society meeting in Chicago over the summer, and then at the UMBC Biological Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Festival! This past September I presented my poster at the South Eastern Population Ecology and Evolutionary Genetics meeting at a UVA Field Station. I won Best Undergraduate Poster! It was an amazing experience! People were very interested in that my project looks at sexual selection differently than it typically is.

10/16/2013