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Tulane University

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Newsletter Vol. 9, Fall 2011

Dear EEBer, The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology continues to expand and grow in strength, just as does the School of Science and Engineering of which we are a part. Our three younger faculty members are settled, productive, and moving on to their third-year review. We welcome aboard one new faculty member this year. Sunshine Van Bael has research interests in tropical ecology, plant-insect-fungal interactions, and agroecology. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2003. She is featured in this newsletter. Last year we completed a department-wide review of the undergraduate curriculum to plan for future academic programs in light of the changes in the study of ecology and evolutionary biology. We completed the review as part of a strategic planning process for research, infrastructure, and instruction. The instructional component includes both undergraduate and graduate education. Our goals for the future are ambitious. We will be placing an emphasis on molecular techniques and geographical information systems in the undergraduate curriculum. Beginning next year, sophomores will take a theory and methods course to prepare them for upper-level classes that are now in existence and those planned for the future. Existing courses will be revised to incorporate new information and approaches. Finally, please check out our new website. A lot of effort went into its design. We hope it benefits alums who wish to keep up with what is happening in the department as well as students who are on campus. David C. Heins, Professor & Chair

EEB is in the School of Science and Engineering. The Department office is located in the Boggs Center for Energy and Biotechnology, Suite 400. Faculty offices and labs are also located in Stern Hall and the Israel Building.

Department Awards Undergraduate Awards

Lauren A. Pettigrew was awarded the Gerald E. Gunning Memorial

The Fred R. Cagle Memorial Prize Sarah L. Gutman was selected for the Fred R. Cagle Memorial Prize on the basis of her academic achievement and commitment to a career in environmental biology. In addition to maintaining a high GPA, Sarah participated in a field course in South Africa through the Organization for Tropical Studies. She later returned to South Africa as a research assistant. This fall, she began a dual masters program in Environmental Science/Public Affairs (University of Indiana).

Mary Grace Lemon was given the Senior Scholars Award for excel-

The Newcomb Zoology Prize Melissa L. Sweeny was awarded the Zoology Prize for finishing her undergraduate career with the second highest GPA of any of our undergraduate majors, 3.766. She performed particularly well in all of her EEB courses, demonstrated enthusiasm and dedication to her studies, and maintained an excellent academic record while participating in numerous extracurricular activities both on and off campus. Her enthusiasm for ecology and evolutionary biology is reflected in the fact that she has chosen to participate in the 4 + 1 MS program with the Department. The Gerald E. Gunning Memorial Award, for two recipients Stephanie M. Fitch received the Gerald E. Gunning Memorial Award due to her high GPA in the Environmental Biology major, her excellent capstone study of conservation issues of the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, and her sustained focus on environmental issues in general while at Tulane, including a study-abroad semester in South Africa her junior year.

Award for her outstanding performance as an undergraduate student majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She completed her undergraduate career with the highest GPA of any of our undergraduate majors, 3.907. She performed particularly well in all of her EEB courses, demonstrated enthusiasm and dedication to her studies, and maintained an excellent academic record while also majoring in and receiving honors in Music. The Senior Scholars Award

lence in the Honors Program. She maintained a GPA of 3.6 or higher and completed an honors thesis, Effects of Hurricane Katrina on the Abundance and Biodiversity of Breeding Birds in Honey Island Swap, Louisiana.

graduate Awards Teaching Assistant Awards, for two recipients Ray C. Schmidt has an interest in all African freshwater fishes but his research focuses on the phylogeography of West African fishes. He is currently studying catfishes and minnows from high elevation streams in the Fouta Djalon highlands in Guinea, West Africa.

Ashley M. Peele researches the role of habitat and climate condi-

tions on the population regulation of migratory warblers, specifically the American Redstart, which spend the winter in Jamaica. She uses point-count survey techniques and intensive mark-recapture/territory mapping methods to track annual population changes in a variety of habitats and to assess the population response of migrants to various endogenous and exogenous factors encountered during the winter.

Meet the Newest EEB Faculty Member Dr. Sunshine Van Bael Ecology and Evolutionary Biology looks forward to welcoming Sunshine A. Van Bael in the Spring 2012 semester. Dr. Van Bael earned B.A. with Honors in Biology from the University of Chicago in 1996. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2003. Her Ph.D. research on bird-insect-plant interactions took her to Panama, where she has since continued to live and do tropical research at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. During her time as a researcher, she has travelled widely throughout Central and South America, as well as in Asia and Australia. Sunshine is a community ecologist who is interested in how plants, animals and fungi interact and how symbioses with other organisms contribute to nutrition and defense. Her laboratory and fieldwork involves microbial ecology, particularly plant-insect-

EEB Degree Used as Stepping Stone Towards Dual Masters By Dr. Cori Richards-Zawacki Sarah Gutman graduated from Tulane with a major in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Spring 2011. During her junior year, Sarah took advantage of Tulane’s membership in the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), participating in a semester-long African Ecology and Conservation program in South Africa. Some of the highlights of this experience for her were learning about the area’s unique savannah ecosystem and the conservation challenges with which it is faced. She later returned to South Africa to participate in research being conducted by one of her OTS professors.

fungal interactions. She is also interested in avian ecology and is involved in studies on how to improve human agricultural and pastoral systems to conserve greater levels of bird diversity in tropical areas. At Tulane, Sunshine is looking forward to teaching Tropical Ecology and Entomology. She would also like to use her long experience and deep knowledge of Panama to design field courses that bring Tulane undergraduates to the Smithsonian in Panama. Another interest of Sunshine’s is the communication of science and development of resources for K-12 audiences. She has actively used new technologies, such as video-conferencing, to bring the excitement of tropical rainforests into temperate classrooms. When she is not working, she enjoys reading, reading to her kids, and making music. She also loves to camp and kayak and is looking forward to exploring lakes, rivers and bayous in Louisiana. This fall Sarah started a dual degree program at Indiana University, which will lead to degrees in Public Affairs (MPA) and Environmental Science (MS). Her program is interdisciplinary, ranked 2nd in the U.S. News and World Report rankings of graduate/professional programs in its category. Sarah will be focusing on environmental policy for her Public Affairs degree and applied ecology for her Master of Science degree. Sarah was attracted to this program because she says that “in this day and age, to make progress in either environmental policy or in research attempting to contribute to conservation, an understanding of both policy and environmental science are critical.” Certainly she is right! Sarah reflects upon her experiences in Tulane’s EEB program as having “given me an in-depth understanding of ecology and biology.” She is eager to complement that understanding in her masters by adding a focus on environmental policy. Her masters program in Indiana Uni-

Van Bael studies interactions between leaf-cutting ants, a fungus that they cultivate underground, and other fungi in the environment. She also works with families producing cacao (the source of chocolate) in Bocas del Toro, studying on-farm biodiversity of birds and insects.

versity’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs will allow her to pursue both of these aspects equally. “My experience working in Kruger National Park, South Africa was especially important in my decision to enroll in this program,” says Sarah. “After completing an REU [Research Experiences for Undergraduates] research project over the summer, I found it very eye-opening when I presented my results to the park management and scientific staff. Their questions and comments made me realize how my research fit into the park management plans and how difficult it was to take results and apply them in the real world. This caused me to think that I needed a better understanding of how we interpret and manage the environments we live in, and Indiana’s unique interdisciplinary program seemed like the perfect way to capture both of these realms.” We wish Sarah the best in her masters and beyond and are proud to count her among our recent EEB graduates!

A Tulane Teaching Revolution By Dr. Elizabeth Derryberry

For the past two summers grad student Ray Schmidt has traveled to Kenya along with Dr. Hank Bart and three undergraduates for the purpose of assessing the freshwater fish biodiversity. In Kenya they were joined by collaborators from the University of Nairobi and the National Museums of Kenya. They sampled in the central highlands in the summer of 2010 and this past year they focused on the Lake Victoria drainage.

Did you know a week’s worth of The New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century? It is estimated that 4.0 exabytes (4.0 x 1019) of unique information will be generated this year. The amount of information EEB majors are exposed to is increasing exponentially every year. How do we prepare them to sort out accurate and valuable ideas from this information wave? 21 of the top 25 paying jobs are in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Out of 65 developed countries, the US ranked 23rd in science. Some of the best jobs await EEB graduates, but how do we best prepare them for these jobs? Peer-reviewed, published research in science education across the STEM disciplines has demonstrated that students learn best and retain information the longest when they acquire this information through active learning. Because of this overwhelming body of evidence, the National Academy of Sciences and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute are leading a national movement to revolutionize teaching in sci-

entific disciplines in American universities. This movement is centered on the Summer Institute, a workshop designed to teach faculty tested approaches in active learning. To bring this revolution to Tulane, three members of EEB faculty, David Heins, Donata Henry and Elizabeth Derryberry, attended the Summer Institute workshop at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in June. By the end of the week, the EEB faculty had blackbelts in active learning buzz words and led a teaching unit on stickleback evolution that incorporated all of the active learning concepts. The teaching unit was a great success and will be incorporated in our new skills-based introductory class for EEB majors, beginning the fall of 2012. This new course will focus on the core competencies of our discipline, (1) applying the process of science, (2) using quantitative reasoning, (3) using modeling and simulation, (4) encouraging communication and collaboration, and (5) understanding the relationship between science and society. The course will use active learning approaches to best prepare our EEB majors for the wealth of information that they will be exposed to and will help to create in the coming decades. ¡Viva la revolución!

Two Students, Two Paths, One Passion: EEB Keeley Briggs is happily continuing to pursue her EEB interests in life after Tulane. She has been working at the University of Michigan Herbarium, handling various collections and databases. Over the summer she worked on a project funded by the Mellon Foundation involving the digitization of type specimens. The project included scanning and databasing not only Michigan’s own massive collection, but also loans from other, smaller herbaria, which was Keeley’s primary focus. These days she is back working on Euphorbia PBI (, which is overseen by her EEB master’s adviser. She has been compiling and uploading Euphorbia-related publication info, protologues and photos for a database called TOLKIN ( Her hope is to eventually become involved in other types of collections as well. To top it all off, Keeley recently started pursuing a certificate in Museum Studies. She is one of only a few students with a background in science. Part of what makes the program interesting for her is the contrast between the way the science students and art students think of a museum. Way to represent EEB, Keeley!

Ryan Felice is in his second year of pursuing a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology at Ohio University. His research focus is on the evolution of the avian tail. This past summer, he conducted paleontological field work in southwestern Tanzania as part of the Rukwa Rift Basin Project ( The rift has really well-exposed fossiliferous Cretaceous-Neogene continental sedimentary sequences. The Cretaceous and Oligocene terrestrial and freshwater vertebrate and invertebrate fossils collected here are studied to get a better understanding of environmental change over time. Ryan and his team spent their time collecting fossils in an under-explored region. This semester, Ryan is a teaching assistant for the gross anatomy and the neuro anatomy labs at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. In November, he will be presenting a poster at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting entitled “Crocodyliform Aquatic Locomotion and Axial Flexiblity: Comparative Vertebral Anatomy of Mesoeucrocodylians.” Finally, Ryan is very proud that his first publication is in press and will be out in 2012.

Make a Gift, Make an Impact

The generosity of alumni, parents and friends enables the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EE Biology) to provide outstanding educational programs for undergraduate and graduate students at Tulane University. Unrestricted gifts to EE Biology will be credited directly to the General Endowed Fund of the Department, unless otherwise specified. The General Endowed Fund was established in 2007 with a generous gift from Katherine S. Giffin (BA, 1925). The Fund is used to support a variety of programs including the Undergraduate Fellows. Contributions may be sent in care of the Chair of the Department. Checks should be made out to “Tulane University” with the note “EEB General Endowed Fund, #050195.” Restricted gifts may be given to initiate fellowships to support undergraduate or graduate research in the summer, graduate fellowships to support completion of dissertations during the academic year, or undergraduate awards for research or achievement. You may contact the Chair of the Department to discuss restricted giving. Thank you for considering a gift to EE Biology in support of the educational programs of the Department.

Alaskan Summer Stickleback Research By Merideth Kurz Collecting a couple thousand fish for research is both a lot more exhausting and a lot more fun than it sounds. The amount of fun that I had doing so was directly related to the location: Alaska. It is difficult to call working in a beautiful place actual work. Over the course of two weeks and many long car rides, Dr. Heins and I collected essentially all the stickleback we needed for our respective projects from several lakes. I am focusing on two lakes in particular: Cheney Lake in Anchorage and Scout Lake on the Kenai Peninsula. Both of these lakes were recently poisoned out in order to kill invasive populations of northern pike. The reintroduction of threespine sticklebacks into the two lakes, taken from the same anadromous population, is a unique peek into the past. Oceanic stickleback colonized freshwater lakes as the glaciers receded during the last ice age and adapted to their new environments. I will be studying the life histories of the newly established populations from year to year. Observing how each generation grows and reproduces differently from the previous one could reveal a lot about what may have occurred thousands of years ago. In addition to collecting for that project, we trapped yearly samples from several other lakes, focusing on populations that were infected by the Schistoceph-

alus parasite. By bringing together genetic data from stickleback hosts and parasites from several lakes in this system, more can be understood about how the birds that carry Schistocephalus move from lake to lake, as well as about the parasite itself. Luckily for us, the annual meeting of the American Society of Parasitologists was held in Anchorage while we were there. Naturally, we took a break from our own research to learn a little more about what is going on in the modern world of parasitology. This project took us all over the Matanuska-Susitna valley north of Anchorage, hopping from lake to lake in search of infected fish to be preserved and shipped back to Tulane. Over the course of these travels we saw Mt. McKinley looming at us from one hundred miles away, as well as several moose, glaciers, and the headquarters of the historic Iditarod sled dog trail. The weather was mostly beautiful, the scenery majestic, and the fish almost totally cooperative.

Undergraduate Dual Major A Tulane Renassaince Woman By Dr. Tom Sherry Laura Matthews is one of the most highly motivated and focused undergraduates to major in EE Biology at Tulane in recent years, beginning as a freshman not only to get the very most out of her education, but also to take advantage of academic strengths specific to Tulane. Coming from Portland Oregon, she is a dual major (Anthropology in LAS and EE Biology in SSE), and she claims to love math and engineering—including Calculus and programming in C++. She is near the top of her cohort of EE Biology majors with an overall GPA of 3.88. She has developed a variety of skills while at Tulane that will serve her well as she pursues graduate studies on the history and biology of human history and evolution. For example, she has worked for almost two years in Dr. Hank Bart’s lab completing and trouble-shooting the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) sequencing of the Growth Hormone I gene for the Cypriniform (minnow) Tree of Life (CToL) project, and is working on a manuscript with Dr. Bart and his post-doc Dr. Paulette Reneau on this topic. These lab techniques are highly applicable to studies of human genetics. In addition, she will spend a month this summer in Kenya as part of a NSF-funded project in Dr. Bart’s lab to sample fishes (genetically and morphologically) in a variety of rivers, with one objective being to describe new species in this relatively poorly studied region ichthyologically speaking. She’s also taken advantage of Tulane’s summer program through the Stone Center for Latin American Studies to Costa Rica. Building on her coursework in Anthropology, she has begun working on a senior thesis project in Dr. Caz Taylor’s lab (EE Biology) on “Exploring Human Migration: A Simulation Approach,” which takes advantage of Dr. Taylor’s computational and quantitative modeling skills. While developing this project she attended a seminar given by Dr. John Novembre, a scientist at the forefront of research on pre-historic population expansions of humans, which led to Laura’s finding (through the Newcomb Foundation) Dr. Novembre’s lab at UCLA this August, where she’ll learn state-of-the-art techniques to simulate genetic aspects of populations with migratory behavior. Besides her impressive interdisciplinary academic pursuits, Laura has for more than ten years been involved as an instructor, mentor, referee, and judge at FIRST LEGO League competitions. She served the EE Biology Department as an Undergraduate Fellow, helping teach in the Diversity of Life lab. Laura is also delightfully well-rounded, having taken advantage of many arts programs, both at Tulane and in New Orleans, including glassblowing, music, and social dancing. She’s really worth getting to know as a genuinely nice, downto-Earth human, but also because she makes “killer” jam cookies.

Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology Tulane University 400 Lindy Boggs New Orleans, LA 70118-5698

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Henry L. Bart 4054 Percival Stern Hall (504) 862-8283 Mike Blum 304 Environmental Science/Israel Bldg. (504) 862-8295 John Caruso 430 Lindy Boggs (504) 247-1553 Steven Darwin 428 Lindy Boggs (504) 862-8286 David C. Heins 432 Lindy Boggs (504) 865-5563 Jordan Karubian 306 Environmental Science/Israel Bldg. (504) 865-5549 John McLachlan TMC SL-3 Ctr Bio/Evr Rh (504) 988-6910

Cori Richards-Zawacki 308 Environmental Science/Israel Bldg. (504) 862-8288

Thomas W. Sherry 4024 Percival Stern Hall (504) 862-8296 Caz Taylor 426 Lindy Boggs (504) 865-5172 Sunshine Van Bael

LAB SUPERVISORS Bruce Fleury 4030 Percival Stern Hall (504) 862-8290 Donata Henry 431 Lindy Boggs (504) 862-8299

Fall 2011 Newsletter  

Tulane EEB newsletter fall 2011