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Biology Research Fellows

Hector E. Acaron Ledesma, Class of 2013
Research Interests: Biomaterials, Cellular Biology, Polymers, & Nanotechnology


I am currently a senior in biological engineering at Cornell University. I was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. During my years in high school I was involved in many activities, including Boys Scouts of America, volunteering for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and conducting research at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras. My scientific interests include biomechanics, drug delivery systems, biological sensing, and the synthesis of novel materials for biomedical applications. As an undergraduate research assistant at the Luo Lab, I have had the opportunity to study nucleic acids as engineering materials for the development nanostructures that possess biotechnological applications. My projects in the lab focus on using DNA nanostructures in techniques aimed for pathogen detection, single-cell assays, and emulsion microfluidics. I have participated in summer internships that have allowed me to explore other interesting fields. For example, at Weill Cornell Medical College, I explored the field of computational biology by working in the Elemento Lab developing a gene regulatory network for Human Umbilical Vein Endothelial Cells. Also, at Columbia University, I was able to gain experience in polymer physics by studying the crosslinking of collagen gels with the purpose of developing mechanically improved biomaterial scaffolds. In the future, I would like to pursue a career as a research scientist and plan to attend graduate school next fall. In my free time, I enjoy traveling, live music, and fine dining.

 

Camilo Acosta, Class of 2013
Research Interests: Neurobiology and Behavior.

I am a senior majoring in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Neurobiology and Behavior in the college of Arts & Sciences. I was interested in science from a very young age and I believe I had a lot of influence from my parents. My dad is a licensed urologist in Colombia and my mom practiced as a dentist there, so it is evident that I was exposed to a science-oriented and health-focused environment from the start. I was born in Bogota, Colombia and lived there for the first few years of my life. At the age of 7 years old, I moved to the United States with my mom, dad and sister. Here in the U.S., I lived first in Connecticut, but later moved to Florida where I went to high school for all four years. Throughout high school, I really cemented the idea in my head that I wanted to do science for the rest of my life and that a scientific career was the one for me.

My experience now at Cornell has further helped me orient myself in this direction. In addition to majoring in Biology, I have become involved in the campus community by doing research in the DeVoogd Lab, partaking in groups on campus such as PorColombia, MEChA, and Public Health Brigades, and continuing my volunteer service. I feel that all of this has enriched me as a person and as a professional and I wish to continue on this path. After graduation, I would like to enroll in an MD/PhD program but as of now I will be working towards the completion of my honors thesis. Studying the effects of pollutants known as PCBs on female zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata), my experiment looks at specific brain areas in the birds related to song. By gathering data on particular characteristics of these brain nuclei, such as cell counts and dendritic spines, exposed bird brains can be compared to those of control finches in the hope of attaining a greater understanding of PCB sublethal effects.

 

Korie Bush, Class of 2014
Research Interests: Genetics

I am a junior majoring in Biological Sciences within a concentration in Genetics and Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.  Although some may respectfully disagree, I have personally found the study of genetics to be an amazing field of science. Genetics and genes are analogous to computers, in my mind. The basic building code for computers is binary code: a series of zeros and ones, which specify for various functions. Essentially, these functions can be used to create complex programs and to bring unique ideas to life.  In biology, this code is composed of A,T,C and G base pairs, rather than zeros and ones, which code for proteins and other molecular material. All of which, is used to give each organism a unique makeup.  As time advances, scientists will be able to manipulate this code in order to do anything from cure diseases to creating proteins and this is what I find amazing. Something that appears to be so simple serves as the basis for all life on earth. Eventually, my ideas and love of biology landed me here, at Cornell. It has been bumpy along the way, but many flights are filled with some turbulence. I currently work in the Perry lab, where I study viral systems and their effects on plants.  More specifically, I am studying a newly discovered plant geminivirus that affects grape vines. Hopefully, my work now will lead me deeper into the field of genetics, inevitably enabling me to accomplish great things.

 

Sandy Chan, Class of 2015
Research Interests: Neurobiology and Biomedical Engineering.

I grew up in Queens, New York City and went to Stuyvesant High School before coming to Cornell University. I am currently a sophomore, majoring in Biological Sciences. When I am not researching, I enjoy traveling, writing, listening to good music and spending time with the family. Over the summer, I worked in Dr. John Parks’ lab in the Department of Lipid Sciences and Pathology at Wake Forest Baptist Health Medical Center in North Carolina. My research project involved studying atherosclerosis, using mice as a model organism. Previous studies have shown that fish oil is atheroprotective and my project examined botanical oils such as Echium oil and Borage oil that could serve as an alternative to fish oil, because fish is usually not included in American diet and fish oil supplements are costly. Currently I have returned to Cornell and am working in Dr. Chris Schaffer’s lab in Neurology and Biomedical Engineering. I am examining the effects microhemorrhages have on surrounding brain tissue and neuronal activity. My goals in the future involve pursuing a MD/PhD dual degree.

 

Kayla Garcia, Class of 2013
Research Interests: Invertebrate ecology and animal behavior


I am a senior studying Natural Resources with a concentration in Applied Ecology and a minor in Entomology. Growing up in Florida and North Carolina, I spent as much of my time outside as possible. Some of my favorite activities as a child included watching birds, catching spiders to keep as pets, and observing the wild alligators in a lake near my home. I’ve known since childhood that I wanted to work with animals, but it was not until I actually made it to college that I realized how important and influential scientific research could be.

Currently, I am studying intertidal juvenile lobster (Homarus americanus) ecology at Shoals Marine Lab at Appledore Island, ME under my research advisor, Dr. Robin Hadlock Seeley. Some of the topics I am researching include juvenile lobster abundance in the intertidal zone, diurnal juvenile lobster behavior, and the degree of association between lobsters and brown algae such as Ascophyllum nodosum.  Lobsters living in the intertidal zone are not as well studied as lobsters living in deeper waters, especially juveniles. It is believed that intertidal areas may serve as a significant lobster nursery, while also being most susceptible to human interference such as A. nodosum harvesting, coastal development, and pollution runoff.  Learning more about this sensitive habitat holds implications for improving both knowledge of lobster ecology and sustainable management of this economically important fishery species. For the rest of the year, I plan on analyzing the film I took over the summer of in situ lobster behavior, analyzing intertidal population surveys, and working with lobster ecology data collected by past students.


Hudin Jackson, Class of 2014
Research Interest: Neurobiology

             
I am currently, a junior majoring in biology with a concentration in molecular and cell biology. My family is originally from Sierra Leone, West Africa and we immigrated to the United States when I was three years old, where I grew up in New Jersey. I developed an interest in science at an early age due to my mom, who is a Registered Nurse. I am intrigued by science because it provides a way to understand ourselves as well as our surrounding environment. While at Cornell, I have been able to explore this interest further through research, coursework, and on campus organizations. I am currently working in Dr. Ron Harris-Warrick’s lab, which focuses on understanding the changes that occur in the spinal cord following spinal cord injury. In the lab, I utilize immunohistochemistry and microscopy to label and visualize components of the spinal cord, specifically the serotonin transporter and astrocytes. My project focuses on identifying whether astrocytes, a type of glial cell, express the serotonin transporter. Additionally, I would like to elucidate whether this glial SERT undergoes changes following spinal cord injury.

 

Nikki Kimura, Class of 2014
Research interest: Brain scaling and evolution


My name is Nikki Kimura and I am from Long Island, NY. I’m currently a junior in CALS majoring in Biology and concentrating in Neurobiology and Behavior. My research interest is in the field of developmental neuroscience, with a consideration for the evolutionary principles underlying the development of diverse nervous systems. This past summer I worked in Dr. Finlay’s lab, which was the perfect place to delve into this field of study. As a member of the Finlay lab, I examine the origins of brain structure and function, and seek to shed light on the evolutionary rationale behind what makes human brains different from those of other species. My summer project focused on the patterns of gene expression and the diffusive properties of key transcription factors in the development of mouse and human cortices. The drastic differences in cortex size seen across species have implications for the diffusive mechanisms and molecular gradients which serve to pattern the cortex. My hope is to provide insight into what those implications are, and relate those differences to observed variation in cortical layout. In the coming year, I hope to continue my research on this topic, while gaining more experience in image-measuring/quantifying techniques. Special thanks to the Biology Research Fellowship for their assistance in providing the materials I need to expand my research skill-set, and for the invaluable guidance and support.  


Paige Kulling, Class of 2014
Research Interest: Evolutionary Genetics

I am a junior biological sciences major and dance minor in the College of Arts and Sciences.  I have lived in several states in the Northeast and Midwest, but I am currently living in Indiana.  I am a member of the Biology Scholars Program and Biology Research Fellowship Program.  I spent the summer of 2012 conducting my own research in the Hairston Lab.  I have been a researcher in this lab since the end of spring semester of my freshman year.

The Hairston Lab does a variety of research projects, but its primary focuses are ecology and evolutionary biology.  For my research project, I chose to study evolutionary genetics, a topic I hope to continue to pursue in graduate school.  Using Daphnia melanica (a freshwater zooplankton) as my model organism, I study the photolyase gene that is responsible for repairing ultraviolet radiation-damaged DNA. I am currently looking at what wavelengths of light cause the upregulation of the photolyase gene. I am also investigating differences in the expression of this gene between two clonal lines of Daphnia melanica that were historically exposed to different amounts of ultraviolet radiation.  After completing my undergraduate studies here at Cornell, I plan to pursue a PhD in human evolutionary genetics. Specifically, I am interested in studying how viruses (such as influenza) and bacteria (such as Staphylococcus) evolve and become resistant to treatments.

 

Nelson LaMarche, Class of 2014
Research Interests: Immunology, Developmental Biology


I am a junior Biological Sciences major in the College of Arts and Sciences concentrating in Molecular and Cell Biology. I was born and raised on the Jersey Shore, and growing up with two parents in the healthcare field sparked my interest in using basic biological research to understand human disease. My main research interests include immunology and developmental biology, and I have been lucky enough to perform research in both fields during the course of my scientific training. I currently conduct research in the laboratory of Avery August at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. There I am working to elucidate the role of eosinophils in regulating allergic airway inflammation. Last summer I worked in Jennifer Zallen’s lab at the Sloan-Kettering Institute studying the molecular mechanisms that drive axis elongation in the developing Drosophila melanogaster embryo. In addition to conducting research I am a Crew Chief in Training for Cornell University Emergency Medical Service and a Study Group Leader for BIOMG 2810: Genetics and Genomics. In the future, I plan to pursue an MD-PhD degree and combine two careers that I once believed to be mutually exclusive.


Sandy Mattei, Class of 2014
Research Interests: Genetics & Development


I am a junior majoring in Biology and concentrating in Genetics and Developmental Biology. I’m from Westchester, NY and have loved science from a young age. My interest stems from my mother, a professor of Evolution and Ecology, who introduced me to many different scientific fields. It was only after working at an aquarium for two years and then working in a neuroendocrinology lab for two summers that I finally settled on the field of Genetics & Development. I am most fascinated by the genetic mechanisms that control an organism’s journey from a single cell to a fully developed organism. I am currently working in the Wolfner Lab with Jessica Sitnik, where I study sperm retention in female flies and the effects of seminal fluid proteins on the female Drosophila’s physiology and behavior. This research ultimately might lead to new insights in controlling mosquito vectors of disease by manipulating their reproductive biology. It also has human applications in that it could lead to an enhanced understanding of the complex physiology that controls fertility.

 

Ashley Odai-Afotey, Class of 2015
Research Interest: Molecular and Cellular Biology & Cancer Biology


It was my AP Biology course that first sparked my interest in disease. The idea that the smallest error or malfunction in one of the human body’s proteins could result in the acquisition of disease was both fascinating and horrifying. During my first experience doing theoretical cancer research, I became fascinated with the question of finding the exact cause of cancer’s resilience and recurrence. It was the desire to search for the answer to this question that led me to decide to work in a collaborative research lab to discover the mechanism of cancer initiation and progression.

I am a biology major in the college of Arts & Sciences, concentrating in molecular and cellular biology. My research interests span from disease research to genetics; however, my main interest is cancer biology. I currently work in the Nikitin Lab in the Veterinary school researching ovarian cancer in humans. I have been in the Nikitin lab since spring semester 2012 and my research focuses on reducing the proliferation of epithelial ovarian cancer cells, the source of the most malignant form of ovarian cancer, by using molecular inhibitors that impede pathways crucial for cell growth and maintenance. The molecular inhibitors I use obstruct Wnt pathway signaling, a pathway that is important in stem cell maintenance. Using the cancer stem cell model, we believe that by reducing the growth of these “cancer stem cells” we can decrease tumor recurrence and increase survival rates.  

Jonathan Rubin, Class of 2013
Research Interest: Neuroscience, Computational Biology


I am a senior biology major concentrating in computational biology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.  I was born in New York City and moved to Puerto Rico when I was 2 years old.  As part of Chris Schaffer’s lab, I work on spinal cord injury using a mouse model.  We use a two photon microscope to image mouse spinal cord tissue in vivo. My research project focuses specifically on quantifying the effects of an occlusion of the posterior spinal vein on blood flow rearrangements and pressure changes.  First, we remove tissue and bone to expose the spinal cord.  Then, images used for measuring blood flow are taken before and after an occlusion using ferric chloride, a chemical which irritates the endothelium causing a clotting cascade.  We have thus far observed increases and decreases in global pressure and blood flow following our injury model dependent on clot location in relation to points at which the posterior spinal vein branches.  We hypothesize that these branches act as major drains and that the largest change in pressure will be observed when clotting near one of these branches.  This study has several implications both clinically and in a research setting.  Clinically, physicians must monitor spinal cord injury patients carefully.  If a clot were to form in a section of the vein without noticeable symptoms, a physician could easily ignore the possibility of an occluded vessel, however a clot may move and clot at a more impacting place causing spinal cord damage.  In a research setting, studies must now standardize the location of injury be it crush or impact model.  In addition, we have observed hemorrhaging distal to an occlusion implicating a possible pressure surge as the cause of hemorrhages.  Our next steps will seek to quantify incidence rate as well as size and location of these hemorrhages.



Reyn Yoshioka, Class of 2014
Research Interests: Marine Ecology


I am a Biological Sciences major with a concentration in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and currently a junior in the class of 2014.  I was born and raised in Hilo, Hawai‘i, located on the Big Island.   Growing up in the local natural environment instilled in me a great love and appreciation for nature.  From a young age I found the diversity and complexity of life extremely interesting and enjoyed exploring both Hawai‘i’s reef environment and its lush rainforests.   Living in the islands made me realize how limited natural resources and habitat are and how much we need to work to protect them.
Although I left Hawai‘i and its reefs to study in Ithaca, my courses and research goals focus on the marine environment.   My personal interests are in marine invertebrates and the anthropogenic impacts that affect their ecology.  I am a member of Dr. Drew Harvell’s Lab in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, which studies the ecology of marine disease.  Our current focus on disease in corals with a sub-focus of our lab is studying how impacts of climate change influence the dynamics of coral disease.  Currently, I am working on a number of projects with other members of our lab such as Courtney Couch and Colleene Burge.  These studies include surveys of growth anomalies in Porites lobata corals, Sea fan (Gorgonia ventalina) bleaching response, and the synergy of Labyrinthulid pathogens, ocean acidification, and warming in G.  ventalina.

 

Swati Sureka, Class of 2015
Research Interests: Molecular Biology

I am a sophomore biology major in the College of Arts & Sciences, from Jacksonville, Florida. My research career began in the spring of my freshman year, in the Flecker lab of ecology & evolutionary biology. Working with Trinidadian guppies, I studied the effects of evolutionary predation levels on nutrient metabolism and demonstrated boldness in foraging behavior. Currently, I work in the Luo lab in biological engineering. My lab team’s research goal is to develop novel DNA-based materials and structures for use in a variety of applications. My main research focus is to create what are called “DNA birdnests” for cell-free protein expression and eventual use for directed evolution of gene sets. In addition, I’m on the Genetically Engineered Machines project team, which uses synthetic biology, or the design of novel genetic circuits, to create useful functions in cells. This year, we’re building a field-deployable electrochemical biosensor for arsenic and naphthalene using an electroactive bacterium called Shewanella oneidensis MR-1. I hope to pursue an academic research career in the future.

 

Olivia Walton, Class of 2013

Research Interests: Marine Biology and Ecology


I am a Cornell senior from St. Croix, USVI majoring in Natural Resources and working as a Biology Research Fellow. As a research fellow, I conduct field work and research in marine biology and ecology. I spent the summer of 2012 working on my thesis project, where I teamed up with the Department of Natural Resources’ Lab in St Croix, USVI. For my project, I am working on the invasive Pacific Lionfish, Pterois volitans. I am doing a gut content analysis for the invasive lionfish on the south shore of St. Croix, and I am looking at the effects that the presence of P. volitans has on the local biodiversity and abundance of reef fish species. I hope to further my study this winter by continuing my diet and census studies, but also including a potential study on a possible new local predator for the invasive lionfish. During the summer, I also spent time working with the DPNR on outreach that I will continue with this winter. Specifically, I am designing and participating in youth outreach programs that will educate the public on the dangers of the invasive lionfish to the local reef fish communities and the entire marine ecosystem in general. While I am very interested in field science, I also have a passion for community outreach and scientific education of young students, and I hope to use my time with DPNR to further this interest.

 

Caleb Arellano, Class of 2013

Research Interests: Ornithology, Conservation Biology & Genetics

Growing up surrounded by woods, birds, and prairie reserves in the small village of Grand Detour, Illinois, fueled my passion for conservation. My parents readily encouraged my love for nature by teaching me the life histories of the birds in our woods and gardens, letting me explore local parks, and cultivating within me a respect for wild animals. As a result, I am very interested in learning about the breeding biology and social behaviors of endangered species and applying them to conservation programs. Currently, I’m working in the Fuller Evolutionary Biology Program with Dr. Irby Lovette and Yula Kapetanakos. I’m looking at the prevalence of infidelity and the rates of extra-pair paternity (EPP) within a population of Ospreys along the Westport River in Westport Massachusetts. With the help of Dr. Alan Poole, I’m taking blood samples from adult and chicks and using next gen sequencing to analyze paternity within the population.

 

Crystal Grant, Class of 2013

Research Interests: Behavioral Genetics and Epigenomics

It all started in my AP Psychology class: I had never before heard of the subject of neuroscience but was quickly fascinated with the concept that our behaviors are biologically based. I began researching in a behavioral neurogenetics lab and after working in the lab a year saw a video about topics in genetics. I watched the video and heard with amazement that a famine many years ago had led to the children of the children in utero at the time to have higher rates of disease—they explained that this was an example of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. I found the concept of epigenetics really interesting and began working on an epigenetics related project in another lab.

I am interested in the genetic and evolutionary basis of behavior as well as non-genetic modes of inheritance and their influence on the behavior of offspring. Some questions I’ve explored in my research in Dr. Deitcher’s and Dr. Clark’s labs include: (1) how, when and where a gene that influences a behavior acts in an organism and the effect of knocking this gene down on the animal’s neurobiology and the behavior (2) how the environment of parents can alter the gene expression and chromatin state of offspring, and (3) how the location of genes (in regions of heterochromatin compared to euchromatin) contribute to their expression and how their expression is altered by drugs (4) natural variation in genes that contribute to chromatin states and the variation in genetic loci associated with these genes within and across populations. I’m currently addressing the question of how individuals in a population differ in response to the same dosage of a chromatin-modifying drug and the genetic loci involved in the differences in chromatin state.

 

Sharon Guzman, Class of 2013

Research Interests: Genetics, Physiology

I am a senior majoring in Biological Sciences with a concentration in Animal Physiology in the College of Arts and Science and minoring in Biomedical Engineering. I have always loved science since childhood and managed to narrow it down to biology in High school. I love learning about human physiology the most where we are able to understand the intricate workings of the body with tiny molecular changes having bigger biochemical cascade reactions with huge outcomes like neuronal messaging and muscle contraction. The idea of working in a laboratory, collaborating with brilliant minds, applying all the knowledge you learned thus far, making use of the surrounding hi-tech lab equipment, taking record of your progress in advancing science as you sit on a small bench asking yourself one tiny yet puzzling science question whose fate to be answered remains in your hands is one of the most thrilling experiences I could ask for.

I was part of the MHIRT program in the summer of 2011, where I conducted a few bioassays as a preliminary study (testing antimicrobial activity, cytotoxicity and phototaxis effects in brine shrimp and antiproliferative activity in sea urchin eggs) on five different endemic plants in the Dominican Republic to test for possible anticarcinogenic chemistry.

I will work in Professor Weiss’ lab where I will take part in studying the sirt5 gene and its effects on lung tumor development in knockout mice.

 

Jillian Lyles, Class of 2013

Research Interests: Marine biodiversity & Conservation

I am a Cleveland, Ohio native, born and raised, and my interests lie in the ocean. Though Lake Erie is far from an ocean, ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated with how the ocean works; I am currently majoring in Science of Earth Systems with a concentration in Ocean Sciences. During the summer of my freshman year, I began working with the Harvell Lab. One of the lab’s primary focuses is studying the affect a particular co-infection involving the fungus Apergillus sydowii and a newly isolated Labyrinthulid (SPX) has on the common purple sea fan, Gorgonia ventalina. These coral infections are becoming increasingly common. The detrimental effects that these co-infections pose to the coral reef ecosystems is considerably large, therefore making coral reef diseases an important research topic. In June of 2011, I journeyed to Puerto Rico with the lab to collect sea fan samples for my project. Currently I am studying the reproductive effects that SPX may have on G. ventalina. Apergillus sydowii has been found to have a negative impact on the reproductive success of sea fans; therefore, SPX is thought to have a similar affect.

 

Maya Madhavan, Class of 2013

Research Interests: Biomedical Engineering & Cancer Biology

I am a junior majoring in Biological Engineering and minoring in Biomedical Engineering. I grew up in a household that caused me to develop an interest in medicine, and I really became fascinated with engineering applications to medicine after writing a research paper in high school about nanotechnology and medicine. Currently, my research is in Dr. Claudia Fischbach-Teschl’s lab in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. One focus of our work is investigating the role of the tumor microenvironment in breast cancer progression. The tumor microenvironment includes not only the tumor cells themselves but the extracellular matrix, stem cells, adipose, stromal and endothelial cells that surround the tumor.

The focus of my project is to determine what effects the extracellular matrix has on tumor progression and properties, as well as the effects the tumor has on the matrix. I collect media in which cells from the breast cancer line MDA MB-231 have been cultured. This media thus contains chemical cues secreted by the tumor. I am looking at what effects these chemicals produce on a matrix secreted by stromal cells, such as increased secretion of fibronectin or other matrix proteins. In turn, I am studying whether or not these changes in the matrix induce effects such as increased tumor cell growth and increased vascularization, which is important since when tumors can vascularize, they can metastasize, which often leads to decreased patient survival. Eventually, I will work on inhibiting certain factors present in the tumor conditioned media and matrix to more specifically determine what mediates the observed effects.

 

Samuel Moijueh, Class of 2013

Research Interests: Computational Biology & Bioinformatics

 

Victoria Morgan, Class of 2013

Research Interests: Marine Biology, Coral Reef Organismal Biodiversity

I was born and raised in Miami, FL and my earliest memories are of the sea. From family reunions along the shore to frequent field trips with my elementary school to the Miami Seaquarium, the ocean has been integral to my development, not only as a scientist but also as a human being. I’ve always been fascinated with all things biological, and I’ve known from a very early age that I wanted to do something that would both put me out in the field, getting my hands and feet dirty, and would also expose me to really cool science. My senior thesis has allowed me to do just that.

My project focuses on measuring coral reef biodiversity in the Coral Triangle. Through Drew Harvell’s lab at Cornell, I work with Nancy Knowlton and Chris Meyer, at the Smithsonian Institution in DC to conduct biodiversity surveys in Indonesia (my two study sites are Bali and Sulawesi). Specifically, I’m looking at cryptic speciation patterns in the group of caridean snapping shrimp family Alpheidae. By measuring how these shrimp are diversifying, my group is hoping to devise a proxy methodology to calculate marine biodiversity. We are also hoping to examine how these speciation patterns differ between different eco-regions within the Coral Triangle. After graduation, I’m planning on taking a year off and then I’m hoping to go on to get my PhD in marine biology.

 

Odis Ponce, Class of 2013

Research interests: Genetics & Biochemistry


I’m a junior Biology major concentrating in Molecular and Cell Biology. I was born in El Salvador where I grew up excelling in my science courses. I fell in love with genetics while taking a biotechnology class in my junior year of high school. In this class, I had the opportunity to introduce a plasmid containing the GFP gene into E. coli, this genetic modification allowed the bacteria to glow green under UV light. I am interested in how small changes at the molecular level can have a significant impact on the phenotype of all living organisms. I work in a proteomics/biochemistry laboratory with Dr. Smolka in the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics. We study the proteins involved in DNA damage signaling using Saccharomyces Cerevisiae (budding yeast). Inaccurate replication of DNA leads to genomic instability, which is a major factor driving the onset of cancer. Eukaryotes have evolved a highly conserved signaling network called the replication checkpoint that maintains the integrity of the replication fork. We use molecular tools such as western blot, mass spectrometry and genetic modification of yeast to analyze the roles of specific proteins during DNA replication under genotoxic stress conditions. My work on yeast can help us understand how replication checkpoint signaling can maintain genomic integrity and prevent tumorigenesis in humans.

 

Olufunmilayo (Funmi) Agunloye, Class of 2012

Research Interests: Biochemistry, Epidemiology & Metabolic Basis of Diseases

I am a senior biology major concentrating in Nutrition and Animal Physiology. Currently, I work in a molecular nutrition lab with Professor Patrick Stover in Nutritional Sciences. We work on the cellular metabolism and genetics behind the role of folate and folic acid (Vitamin B9). The goal is to understand how folate metabolism is linked to neural tube defects, cardiovascular disease and other diseases. By mutating genes coding for folate enzymes of the mouse genome we can observe chemical changes in the cells and physiological defects like exocephaly. Folate plays a critical role in the cell and is the precursor for DNA nucleotide bases and methylation reactions.

I am studying the localization of MTHFD1, a trifunctional enzyme that is already known to be active in the cytoplasm. However, it is also found in the nucleus of human cervical-cancer cells and mouse liver cells but its function there is unknown. I am currently using fluorescence microscopy to observe the enzyme and understand whether its presence in the nucleus is cell cycle regulated, suggesting a function in DNA replication. I am also using immunoprecipitation to determine whether MTHFD1 is attached to a modifier protein that targets it for the nucleus. Ultimately, I hope to find out the function of MTHFD1 in the nucleus as well as how and when it gets there.

 

Michael Augustin, Class of 2012

Research Interests: Paleobiology & Extinction Risk and Body Size

Growing up in the small, coastal farming community of Black Bay on the island of Saint Lucia, I was surrounded by an amazing and diverse environment teeming with life. As the only son and the oldest child by seven years in a family of four, I often ventured out into the lush forested areas and the beaches nearby alone or with my cousins to explore and hunt. From swamps to dry-land forests and underwater gardens of coral reefs, I could not help but be fascinated by the living world, which captivated my young and sometimes all too vivid imagination. I was always curious as to what made the living world tick. 

After a very eventful journey that culminated at Cornell, I realized that understanding the past is the key to unlocking the mysteries of the present and shaping our future. For example, we live in a period that has been suggested to be the advent of the sixth mass extinction event. This raises many questions, one of the most prominent being, who will survive? My interest in the natural world led me to seek out these answers by studying paleobiology, and more specifically, by examining extinction risk as it relates to body size. I recently concluded two fascinating research projects, one in Hawaii last spring and the other at Stanford University this past summer, the former focusing on ecological succession and the latter on using brachiopods as a case study to evaluate extinction risk. I will be working with Dr. John Cisne of Cornell University, in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Payne of Stanford University, to address my research question. In answering this question, we may be able to address conservation issues that we now face amid the uncertainties of a rapidly changing world. 

Michael Augustin passed away in June 2012 while in Stanford, California continuing his research on extinction patterns.  The Michael C. Augustin Memorial Scholarship Fund has been established at the Paleontological Research Institution. For more information, please visit: www.museumoftheearth.org/memorial

 

Alessandro Bailetti, Class of 2012

Research Interests: Genetics & Neurobiology

I spent most of my childhood in Peru, where my father was in charge of the family farm. I saw him manipulate genetics to get better crops and cattle; this led to my own interest in genetics. In 2004, I came to the United States. After high school, I attended Pensacola Junior College and transferred to Cornell University in fall 2009.

For the past year, I have been working in Dr. Lin’s lab, which studies the olfactory system in the brain. Recently scientists discovered that neurons are still being generated in the adult mouse brain, especially in the olfactory bulb. In the Lin lab we are studying which genes are involved in adult neurogenesis. My research focuses on the role of the jagged1 gene. The jagged1 protein binds to notch1, which is important in neural development. In studies done on mice without notch1 or jagged1, the fetuses die before birth. Since we want to study the role of jagged1 in neuronal development, we created conditional mutant mice. These mice lack a functional jagged1 protein in specific tissues. We are using western blots to confirm the changes in jagged1 expression in the mutant mouse; haemotoxylin and eosin staining to see the broad effect of the deletion on the mouse’s brain; and PCNA or BrdU staining to see the difference on neuron proliferation.

 

Chinedu Dominic Eleanya, Class of 2012

Research Interests: Microbiology & Genetics

I was born in Nigeria but moved to New Jersey in 2003. I have always been interested in biology, but it was not until I took AP Biology during my senior year of high school that I began to consider a career in biological research. I work in the lab of Dr. Rodrigo Bicalho in the Department of Population Medicine & Diagnostic Sciences. We are interested in developing a bacteriophage therapy for common diseases that affect food animals. Currently, one of the most common problems in medical treatment is the issue of bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics. As a result, our lab and others around the world have begun to explore alternative options to antibiotics. We believe that the use of bacteriophages in combating bacterial infections have several advantages over conventional antibiotics for reasons such as the fact that phages co-evolve with their bacterial host, making it a bit more difficult for the bacteria to develop resistance. I am currently working on isolating lytic phages against E. coli and testing them in order to determine their activity levels, mostly through the use of spot assays and plaque assays. After I have completed these tests, I plan on extracting the viral DNA in order to determine their genetic diversity and identify some of the virulence factors.

 

Rachel Genova, Class of 2012

Research Interests: Neurophysiology & Pharmacology

Drawn to the bewildering complexities and delicate balances that define biological systems, I have a fascination with biology that predates my memory of the initial attraction. Over the past few years, however, I have developed a specific interest in neuroscience, and since my sophomore year, I have had the daily opportunity to feed my curiosity in the Bass Lab.

With images of fish dangling from the ceilings, plastered on posters, and magnetized to freezer doors, walk into the lab and perhaps you will note the coincidence of the principal investigator’s surname. Indeed, the Bass Lab studies fish, specifically the “singing” midshipman fish (Porichthys notatus), collected from natural populations along the northern coast of California. With this piscine nervous system as a simple model, the lab investigates questions concerning regulation of central (i.e. neurons) as well as peripheral (i.e. vocal muscle) components involved in the production of sound through a multidisciplinary, neuroethological approach combining field and laboratory studies.

Focusing on peripheral tissues, I investigated steroid signaling pathways in “humming” and “non-humming” territorial male midshipman with the help of lab director Margaret Marchaterre and post-doctorate Daniel Fergus. This work was accepted as my honors thesis in January 2012 and was recently submitted for publication. Through hormone assays and molecular techniques such as real-time quantitative PCR, the study provides supporting evidence for the hypothesized divergence in steroidogenic enzyme and steroid receptor expression between the two groups of males.

Under the mentorship of post-doctorate Kevin Rohmann, I am currently involved in a neurophysiology project investigating the role of two calcium-activated potassium channels in the inner ear of zebrafish (Danio rerio). I will continue neurophysiological research in an MD/PhD program studying mechanisms of pain.

 

Alexis Mychajliw, Class of 2012

Research Interests: Evolution, Genetics, Conservation

I am from Port Washington, NY. I fell in love with biology as a child going on hikes in the woods and wading through streams in the Catskill Mountains of upstate NY. I think my inspiration as a scientist ultimately draws from my continual appreciation for animals, as I hope to protect their habitats and to discover the deep ancestry that ties all living creatures together.

My honors thesis on the genetic diversity and colonization history of an island muskrat population (at the Shoals Marine Lab) is through the Harrison Lab in the department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. I am using population genetic and phylogeographic methods to understand how and when muskrats were introduced to these isolated islands. I hope to measure signals of population differentiation, degrees of gene flow and levels of inbreeding to understand the demographic history of these rodents and to compare the genetic evidence of colonization to our knowledge of human impacts on the islands that has been gleaned from archaeological studies. 

I will be attending Stanford University for a PhD in Biology in Fall 2012, working in the Hadly lab. My future research will likely involve the use of ancient DNA, niche modeling and phylogeography as tools for understanding how past and present small mammal communities have been impacted by climate change. I hope to project this information into the future  under varying climate and land use policies for conservation implications on wildlife preserve design. Ultimately, I am interested in uniting evolutionary biology and conservation in new ways for a more holistic approach to both fields. 

 

Gabriela Nieves, Class of 2012

Research Interests: Ornithology, Wildlife Behavior and Health & Conservation Biology

I am interested in the behavioral impacts of fluctuating environmental stress on avian species. Currently I am working in the lab of Professor Adkins-Regan’s, who studies reproductive endocrinology in birds. I am working closely with a postdoc, Dr. Cécile Schweitzer, and I am learning to accurately perform stress tests, take blood samples and conduct hormonal assays. We are studying the variations in the levels of corticosterone, a stress- dependent hormone, in zebra finches. By quantifying the corticosterone levels in a female’s blood, her eggs, and in the blood of her offspring it can be possible to identify the hormonal input of the mother towards the behavior of the hatchlings. It is known that zebra finches form monogamous life-long relationships inside their community; and this behavioral characteristic will be the key to producing the environmental stress on the females.

The experiment will also quantify fluctuations in sex-hormone levels (testosterone, progesterone, estrogen) both in blood and egg yolk samples. By doing this, we’ll be analyzing the effects of stress-induced hormonal changes during mating and reproduction on the mating/reproductive behavior of their offspring. If we find a relationship, it could be possible that there is an inter-generational adaptive response to environmental stress.

 

Kevin Toomer, Class of 2012

Research Interests: Epidemiology

As a child I was fascinated by books about animals, both living and extinct. Growing up in the tropical climate of Miami, Florida provided me with a strong regard for the beauty and majesty of nature. As my education introduced me to concepts like the genetic code and evolution, I was stirred by the idea that the enormous variety of life forms on Earth were united by a common origin, and functioned in accordance with a common set of principles. This notion was my primary inspiration to major in biological science at Cornell. 

I consider laboratory research to be one of my most rewarding pursuits as an undergraduate. All of my research experience lies with my current project, which pertains to the biology of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (organisms which form indispensable, mutualistic associations with plant roots). More precisely, I study an enigmatic bacterial lineage, which resides within the fungal cytosol. Having successfully amplified both ribosomal DNA and a putative protein-coding gene from these microorganisms, I am in the process of collecting bacterial sequence data from fungal spores. These data encompass both natural fungal communities and cultured lines, and will be used as the basis for several types of phylogenetic analysis. The ultimate goal of this investigation is to provide evidence for the nature of the interaction between bacteria and fungus; the patterns of molecular evolution that are discovered should help determine whether the bacteria are parasites or mutualists. 

I am most interested in research questions in the area of epidemiology, because they combine a holistic understanding of population structure with the cutting-edge techniques of molecular biology and statistics. After graduation, I will pursue an M.D./Ph.D. dual degree, and apply my interest in this diverse and exciting field to the medical challenges facing human societies.  

 

Adriana Gata Garcia, Class of 2011

Research Interests: Disease Ecology & Evolution

Infectious diseases have been increasing in prevalence and emerging at alarming rates among all types of living organisms due to recent anthropogenic global changes. One such case is chytridiomycosis, an amphibian disease caused by the fungal pathogen Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). I am interested in studying the spatial patterns of emergence and dispersal of Bd in Panamá.

Bd is causing an epidemic loss of amphibian species worldwide and little is known about the mechanism of death, mode of dispersal, or the origin of the disease. Studying the biology and history of this pathogen may help us develop ways to approach the epidemic and prevent further loss of biodiversity. The spatiotemporal patterns of population decline in Central America have led to the spreading pathogen hypothesis (SPH): a model based on a wavelike movement pattern, where the pathogen is introduced in an area and moves directionally. I want to test the SPH by comparing Bd genetic diversity within localities, from a temporal perspective (emerging vs epizootic vs enzootic), and between emerging and epizootic sites and enzootic sites in Panamá. To do this, I have extracted DNA from frog swab samples collected in Panamá (2007-2008) and done PCRs to identify presence of Bd. I am processing the same samples using QPCRs to identify infected samples and measure zoospore loads. I will use molecular DNA markers to identify genetic diversity loss in the various locations, sequencing 8 Bd variable loci. Furthermore, I want to see if there is a genetic correlation between strains of Bd and the frog species that it infects. I am carrying out this research under Prof. Zamudio’s and grad-student Ana Longo’s mentorship. The Zamudio lab focuses on the study of different aspects of amphibian life that not only include disease but also the effect of environmental fragmentation on amphibian populations, evolutionary history of amphibians, and amphibian life traits.

 

Sean Griffin, Class of 2011

Research Interests: Honey Bee Behavior & Ecology

During my time at Cornell I have worked on a number of projects relating to honey bee behavior with Professor Tom Seeley in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.

Over this past summer, I conducted a project at Cranberry Lake Biological Station with Professor Seeley and a graduate student on the precision of the waggle dance communication for food sources at distances under 50 meters from the nest. This work will be used for my honors thesis and the results will be written up for publication. I have applied to graduate school to study pollination ecology and interactions between species of pollinators.  

 

Joel Harris, Class of 2011

Research Interests: Aquatic Ecology & Fisheries

Fisheries are in charge of managing fish populations for recreational, biological, and aesthetic reasons. My primary research interests involve the experimental freshwater ecology aspects behind the management process; specifically interspecies interactions within fish communities. I find trophic webs, predator-prey interactions, population dynamics, trophic cascades, life history trade-offs, and ecological disturbance all quite interesting and wish to study how these environmental factors and ecosystem interactions affect fish populations in freshwater systems. I am also interested in utilizing this information in the management of these environments. This summer I will be joining Cliff Kraft and his lab staff Kurt Jirka and Justin Chiotti with one of their current research projects conducted out of the Adirondack field station. Their research focuses on brook trout and an introduced species called the smallmouth bass. Currently, I am measuring brook trout eggs to determine factors that control egg size and variation within broods, populations, and between lakes in the Adirondacks. It is likely I will be hatching and raising fry this summer to measure growth rates and survivability of the different size eggs. This information will help identify the causes of current issues that are plaguing Adirondack fish populations in different lakes like small mature fish size, low population density in some lakes, and low survivorship of fish larvae.

 

Alex Lebron, Class of 2011

Research Interests: Ecology, Evolution, Behavior & Herpetology

My research interests range from animal behavior and cognition, sociobiology, ecological diversity, and evolution with specific topics in anti-predator responses and phenotypic plasticity in organisms. I am fascinated with the factors that cause variation in some species and a stable phenotype in others, and how different ecological strategies expose organisms to selective forces that further “shape” or reinforce an existing phenotype. The research I will be conducting at Cornell involves a possible cryptic mimicry system in the Eastern Hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos). This is a medium size, stocky snake well known for its behavior repertoire, which includes bluffing as a dangerous snake and feigning death. I hope to examine how Heterodon’s ecological traits, distribution, and morphology allow it to be a good candidate for viper mimicry, and how mimicry changes over its range in relation to an abundance of sympatric models. For this project I will be working with Dr. Harry Greene of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) Department. Well known for his herpetological studies, Dr. Greene’s research includes species diversity, behavior, biogeography, evolutionary relationships, ecology, and conservation. I will look at specimens from museum collections to measure length, quantify dorsal patterns, and to use GIS technology to show biogeographic interactions.

 

Christina Li, Class of 2011

Research Interests: Behavioral Genetics & Biochemistry

I am interested in the subcellular mechanisms that underlie the visible behaviors of organisms. I am studying the effects of pumilio, a gene known to regulate neuron excitability, in the commonly studied fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Previously, the Deitcher lab has shown that decreasing pumilio levels causes an increase of seizures in bang-sensitive Drosophila. My project involves manipulating the pumilio gene using RNAi and the GAL4/UAS system to observe how this affects seizures. I am varying pumilio levels at different stages of the fly life cycle and in different areas of the brain and measuring how this alters seizure behavior. The effects of decreased pumilio expression in various parts of the brain can be examined through the use of various GAL4 drivers and the effect of increasing and decreasing pumilio expression at various stages in the life cycle can be investigated by heating the flies or introducing RU486 at different times and observing the seizure behavior afterwards. The effects of pumilio on neuron morphology can also be visualized using confocal microscopy. Further understanding of the function of pumilio in Drosophila melanogaster in the regulation and suppression of seizure behavior can contribute to future developments of anti-epileptic drug targets.

 

Donna Molfetto, Class of 2011

Research Interests: Wildlife Conservation

The international trade in wildlife is a multibillion dollar industry that removes millions of animals from their natural habitat every year. The complex rules of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the top international treaty concerning the international wildlife trade, present many problems for law enforcement. For example, species may be legally traded if bred in captivity, but may not be caught in the wild or species may be legally traded from one country, but not from another. The purpose of my study is to investigate stable isotope analysis of hydrogen as a potential tool for law enforcement of international wildlife trade laws. Abundances of a heavy isotope of hydrogen, called deuterium, vary predictably across the globe and can be used to determine the origins of biological materials. I will collect samples, primarily feathers, from wildlife coming into the port of Miami to run stable isotope analyses of their hydrogen to determine their origin. I will also look at the variance in deuterium between captive-bred and wild-caught animals to see if they differ significantly. My pilot study involves investigating if deuterium values have changed significantly over the last hundred years using Cornell’s Museum of Vertebrates specimens.

 

Jamie Moore, Class of 2011

Research Interests: Genetics, Development & Behavior

I am interested in genetics and the impact of genes on particular phenotypes. Currently, I am studying the genetics of mating behavior variation in the fruit fly D. melanogaster. Mating behavior variation in D. melanogaster plays a large part in differential reproductive success, as during mating the amount of reproductive proteins transferred by the male to the female can profoundly impact fecundity as well as post- mating behavior in the female, making it less likely for her to remate. I am working to isolate a phenotype in 39 different wild- derived strains of D. melanogaster provided by Trudy Mckay of NCU. I have been examining variation in copulation length and have collected preliminary data for each of the 39 lines. If the patterns I found are reproducible, I will conduct ELISA assays to measure the amount of SFPs that males make and transfer during mating. This will allow me to relate the amount of specific reproductive proteins transferred to copulation length. I will then quantify the amount of reproductive proteins produced in the male reproductive tract and determine whether there is any correlation between this and the length of mating. I am conducting research with Mariana Wolfner, a member of Cornell’s Graduate Field of Genetics & Development. Currently, there are two research foci in her lab: the effect of insect seminal fluid proteins on female’s reproductive behavior and physiology and how Drosophila eggs are “activated” to begin development.

 

Christine Wilkinson, Class of 2011

Research Interests: Ecology & Animal Behavior

My primary research interests involve ecology and animal behavior. I am interested in many aspects of animal behavior, such as decisions and communication, and how they relate to the ecology of the species and the area around it. This summer I am working on Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) reproductive success at Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island, Maine, under the direction of Dr. Julie Ellis of Tufts University and Dr. David Bonter of Cornell University. The main goal of the project is to compare the reproductive success of Herring Gulls that choose to live in colonies and Herring Gulls that choose to live in more individual settings. This will be done while taking into account the nearest Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus, a predator of Herring Gull chicks) to each nest, the habitat surrounding the nest, and food provisioning rates for each nest. We will also begin to study the effect of invasive fire ants on nest survival, since anecdotal evidence suggests the ants have a negative effect on nest success. During Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 I will be the leading collaborator in charge of organizing and writing a paper on these topics to be submitted for publication.