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MU Biology students shine in 2016 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship competition

April 13, 2016

Two graduate students, R. Shawn Abrahams and Kiristin R. Budd, and two undergraduate students, Kevin Bird and Wade Dismukes, from the Division of Biological Sciences were awarded three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships to carry out their dissertation research.

In addition, two graduate students, Adam Northcutt and Levi Stork, and a recent MU graduate Jessica Kettenbach, B.S. ’14, received honorable mentions for their proposals.

R. Shawn Abraham

R. Shawn Abrahams

R. Shawn Abrahams was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship for his proposal to investigate the co-evolution of plant-insect interactions within the mustard family. A recent study found the co-evolution between white cabbage butterflies and cabbage plants was driven by two ancient genome duplication events. Genome duplication, or polyploidy, is the ability of some organisms to accommodate more than two paired sets of chromosomes. The idea is that some duplicated genes are co-opted for new or more specialized functions over time, leading to new traits. In the case of cabbage and white cabbage butterflies, the research suggests that duplication led to modifications in glucosinolates, a natural chemical defense used by the plant to deter predation by the butterflies, in cabbage and in the ability to detoxify glucosinolates in the butterfly. Abrahams will be using various omics approaches to explore additional genetic changes that occurred in the glucosinolate pathway following a more recent polyploid event in cabbage. The research will add to our basic knowledge of the mechanisms of co-evolution and may inform efforts to boost plant immunity. Abrahams carries out his research in the lab of J. Chris Pires, an associate professor of biological sciences and an investigator in the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center.

Kiristin Budd

Kiristin R. Budd

Kiristin R. Budd was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship for her proposal to determine the genetic structure of Asian elephants in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or Laos. Laos is home to one of the largest elephant populations in Southeast Asia. Elephants and people are coming into greater in contact as urbanization expands and as elephant habitat is destroyed or fragmented. The ability to measure population dynamics of difficult or dangerous to study animals, such as elephants, has improved in the past decade with the use of molecular genetic techniques and of non-invasive sampling techniques. In this project, Budd will conduct genetic analyses on DNA extracted from elephant dung samples to describe gene flow, structure of maternal lineages, and genetic diversity within and across protected regions. The research, which will be done in collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, will provide a “genetic census” of these elephants as well as information about vital migration corridors and areas of potential human-elephant conflict. Budd carries out her research in the lab of Lori Eggert, associate professor of biological sciences.

Kevin Bird

Kevin A. Bird

Kevin A. Bird was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship for his proposal to uncover the genetic basis of micronutrients and the phytonutrient glucosinolates in kale (Brassica oleracea subsp. acephala). There is evidence to suggest that consuming vegetables rich in phytonutrients may help prevent disease. Glucosinolates, a phytonutrient found in cruciferous vegetables (B. oleracea) like kale, cabbage, and broccoli, are believed to offer some degree of prevention against certain cancers. In this project, Bird will combine quantitative genetics and computational modeling approaches to identify molecular pathways and specific genes important in determining the diversity and abundance of glucosinolates and other micronutrients in kale. The research will contribute to our basic knowledge of the genetic basis of complex quantitative traits and, ultimately, may inform breeding efforts to enhance nutritional quality. Bird will carry out the research after completing a Fulbright Fellowship next year at the University of Ghent, Belgium.

Wade Dismukes was awarded the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship for his proposal to develop and test a statistical model for studying genetic discordance between two co-evolving phylogenies. It has long been assumed that two groups of organisms that interact very closely, like a parasite and its host, share a similar evolutionary history. However, recent molecular data suggest that co-evolution may be the exception to the rule and that, in most cases, two co-evolving phylogenies are not identical. One hypothesis for this so-called phylogenetic discordance is host-switching, which occurs when a symbiont shifts to a new host due to host extinction and this switch alters the selective pressures on the species. In this project, Dismukes will develop a statistical model using open-source software to understand the extent to which host-switching accounts for phylogenetic discordance and will test the method using both simulated and real datasets. The research will contribute to our basic knowledge of evolutionary mechanisms and provide a new open-source statistical method for examining selection in the context of host switching. Dismukes will carry out his research in the lab of Tracy Heath at Iowa State University.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program is a highly competitive federal fellowship program. It recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees. This year, nearly 17,000 students applied for a total of 2000 fellowships awarded nationwide.

Read the NSF press release here and view the full list of winners here.


Written by: Melody Kroll


Related categories:
Awards, Graduate Studies, Undergraduate Studies