Labs Recruiting Graduate Students for Fall 2022

Applications for graduate school are due December 1. All applicants must fulfill requirements of the MU Graduate School and show likelihood of successfully completing the departmental program. For more information about graduate admission to the Division of Biological Sciences, click on the button below. 

The faculty listed below are recruiting graduate students to work on projects in their labs, starting fall 2022. Click on each faculty member's name to read about the lab and projects. 

Dr. Norman Best - Genetic and hormonal control of plant architecture

The Green Revolution altered plant architecture to improve yields. However, this was primarily accomplished in wheat and rice. The Best Lab investigates the role of phytohormones in controlling maize growth and development to improve plant architecture. We utilize a variety of techniques to test complex biological questions in maize, including forward and reverse genetics, quantitative genetics, molecular biology, secondary metabolite analyses, and developmental biology approaches. Through our studies we have identified candidate genes and motifs that are direct targets of hormones. Our main focus is on the role of brassinosteroids and gibberellins and how they interact to regulate maize development. We are striving to improve plant form by reducing plant height, reducing tassel branch number, increasing leaf angle, and improving root architecture. Utilizing genetic modification techniques and natural variation, we are altering gene function to change maize architecture and increase yield. 

The Best Lab has several projects underway that the prospective student could contribute to. We are currently conducting experiments utilizing maize standing variation to identify loci responsible for response to exogenously applied plant growth regulators. In addition, we are also conducting reverse genetic approaches that alter the function of transcription factors that are involved in brassinosteroid and gibberellin signaling to identify direct targets that regulate plant development. There are also possibilities of undertaking novel avenues to achieve a greater understanding of hormonal regulation of maize development. We are developing techniques to quantify endogenous phytohormone levels in-house that could be applied to several projects ongoing in the lab. 

Dr. James Birchler - Chromosome evolution and function in plants and fruit fly

The Birchler Lab focuses on genetics and genomics of maize with specific interests in developing synthetic chromosomes and new transformation techniques, the molecular basis of genomic balance, the molecular mechanism of the drive mechanism of the supernumerary B chromosome, and the molecular basis of heterosis, using maize as the model organism.

There are currently nine lab members consisting of technicians, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates. We have previously established foundational minichromosomes for genetic engineering and are currently developing procedures for gene stacking of individual genes and large segment additions on the minichromosomes. With regard to genomic balance, we are pursuing the molecular basis of why the addition or subtraction of a chromosome has a much more severe effect on an organism than changing the dosage of the whole set of chromosomes. These studies involve RNA-seq and chromatin analyses using the genetic tricks of maize. Our lab was involved in determining the sequence of the B chromosome of maize, which has properties to perpetuate itself despite that fact that it is a dispensable chromosome. CRISPR-Cas9 editing of candidate genes involved in this drive mechanism is being conducted to dissect their function in conjunction with genetics and cytological analyses. Heterosis is the increased biomass and vigor of hybrid plants, which has been used in agricultural practices to improve yield. We are using genetic and genomic tools to gain new insights into the molecular basis.

Students typically choose a project in which they are interested and are encouraged to develop it creatively within the context of the lab.

Watch video 

Dr. David Braun - Genetic control of carbon partitioning in plants

The Braun lab studies how plants distribute sugars produced in leaves to the rest of the plant (termed carbohydrate partitioning). We use genetics, genomics, cell biology, biochemistry, and other approaches to characterize the functions of genes important for this process. Through identifying and studying how these genes control carbohydrate partitioning, we are elucidating pathways that are critical for plant productivity and essential for food and energy security.
I welcome interested students to contact me to discuss potential projects and opportunities to join our team. Projects will involve a combination of lab work, greenhouse and growth chamber studies, and field work during the summers.

Dr. Pamela Brown - Molecular basis for polar growth in Agrobacterium tumefaciens

Brown lab is a research community comprised of research technicians, undergraduate students, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars. Dr. Brown is committed to investing in the success of her trainees and develops a customized mentoring plan for each individual. We welcome all individuals with an interest in microbial cell biology to learn more our research and lab environment. 

Research overview: The Brown lab is interested in understanding the principles that govern bacterial morphology, a readily observable facet of microbial cell biology. Bacteria exhibit an amazing diversity of shapes and sizes that are precisely reproduced at every generation, indicating that morphology plays an important role in the life of these bacteria. Yet, we are still very far having a comprehensive understanding of how bacterial morphologies are generated. The Brown lab uses methods including bacterial genetics, quantitative cell biology, and microscopy to study growth patterning in the bacterial plant pathogen, Agrobacterium tumefaciens

We invite you to meet some members of the lab and learn a little bit about our research projects by watching our LabBlitz 2020 video:

Brown lab in the greenhouse


Dr. Elizabeth Bryda - Generation and characterization of animal models to study genetics and disease

I am a molecular geneticist with >30 years of experience in the characterization of genes involved in human disease, the generation and genetic/phenotypic characterization of animal models and the development of various molecular tools for genetic testing of laboratory animals and cell lines. I am the Director of the Rat Resource and Research Center (RRRC), Director of the MU Animal Modeling Core (AMC) and co-Director of the Comparative Medicine Program. My research lab as well as the RRRC and AMC are located in a state-of-the art facility at the Discovery Ridge Research Park.  Our team consists of a highly collaborative group that includes junior faculty, veterinarians, graduate students, undergraduates and research technicians. My lab develops and uses genetically modified rodent and zebrafish models to characterize genes and proteins relevant to a variety of diseases including hereditary deafness, polycystic kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and epilepsy. In addition, we study the impact of the microbiota and a variety of therapeutic agents/interventions including dietary/probiotic supplementation on disease phenotypes in animal models.

Examples of recent projects include making and characterizing green and red fluorescent rats, generating and characterizing rat models for the study of COVID-19, studying the effect of probiotic supplementation in zebrafish under stress and rats with Alzheimer’s Disease, analyzing the effects of dietary supplementation with plant-derived extracts on physiological measures in a rat model of obesity and diabetes, and developing methods for performing in vitro fertilization using fresh and frozen rat sperm.  

Learn more about the Rat Resource and Research Center 

Dr. Yves C. Chabu - Mechanisms of cell-cell communication during development and tumor progression

Overview: We are interested in understanding 1) how growth control signals are integrated in developing tissues to generate mature organs with predictable size and 2) how some of these signals are corrupted in EGFR/RAS-driven tumors to promote tumor overgrowth and drug resistance.   
Developmental Organ Size Control: Drosophila has been an invaluable model for elucidating broadly conserved mechanisms of organ size control. Pioneering studies in Drosophila led to the discovery of Hedgehog (Hh)morphogen proteins, which we now know are critical for developmental patterning and organ size regulation across organisms, including vertebrates. In the developing Drosophila wing epithelium, Hh is produced posteriorly and diffuses anteriorly with decreasing concentration, leading to the formation of a Hh protein gradient. We now know from theoretical and empirical observations that the amplitude and length scale of the Hh gradient fundamentally control the patterning and the size of the adult wing. We also know that the transporter-like protein Dispatched (Disp) and the Hh receptor Patched (Ptc) concertedly shape the Hh gradient by controlling Hh secretion and diffusion, respectively.  How Disp and Ptc are regulated to shape the Hh gradient and thus control organ size remains unclear. We previously identified the small G-protein ARF6 as a regulator of Hh signaling in Drosophila and mammalian cells. More recently, we found that ARF6 differentially regulates Disp and PTC in Drosophila. We are investigating the underlying mechanisms. This work will provide broader mechanistic insights into how morphogen gradients are regulated to control organ size during development.  

One mechanism by which Hh promotes the growth of the developing wing tissue is by activating Yorkie/YAP, a broadly conserved tissue size regulator. Yorkie/YAP is activated at posterior-anterior boundary of the developing wing (where Hh activity is the highest) and it drives cell proliferation throughout the whole tissue. The mechanisms underlying this long-range Yorkie/YAP activity are unknown. Similarly, how tissues oppose this Hh/Yorkie-mediated pro-growth effect to generate a properly sized was unclear. We recently discovered that the JNK-interacting protein Syd (MAPKIP-8 in vertebrates) modulates Yorkie/YAP-driven wing tissue growth by controlling the stability of Diap-1, a Yorkie/YAP target and cell survival molecule. Syd/MAPKIP-8 stabilizes Diap1 during Yorkie/YAP-mediated rapid tissue growth, leading to minimal overall cell death. Near the end of the rapid growth phase, wing tissues downregulate Syd/MAPKIP-8, which leads to a decrease in Diap1activity and a corresponding increase in overall cell death in the tissue. 
EGFR/RAS Tumor Growth and Drug Resistance: Oncogenic activation of the EGFR/RAS pathway activates a complex network of intracellular and intercellular signals that cause aggressive and drug resistant cancers. While we have made significant advances in our understanding of EGFR/RAS intrinsic signaling mechanisms, we know much less about intercellular EGFR/RAS signals and their role in cancer progression and drug resistance. Our laboratory and others have found that oncogenic EGFR/RAS activity triggers the release of extracellular vesicles (EV), which are known mediators of intercellular signaling. Further, it is known that EV mediate diverse pathologies, including nephropathies and cancers. Our most recent data using patients’ plasma EV and human cancer cells show that cancers-derived EV trigger mTOR/AKT activity, leading to resistance to EGFR-targeted therapies and chemotherapies. These findings and the current literature point to EV as potential targets for eliminating tumors and sensitizing patients to existing therapies. We have developed experimental tools and platforms to first understand the basic biology of EV-mediated cell-cell signaling (EV biogenesis, cargo loading, EV uptake in recipient cells, and the relevant cellular responses). These studies will potentially reveal a new class of molecular targets that can be exploited for therapeutic interventions.   

Dr. Anand Chandrasekhar - Mechanisms regulating neuronal development and physiology in vertebrates

My lab investigates the mechanisms that regulate an evolutionarily conserved neuronal migration in the vertebrate brain and the functional consequences of defective migration. We identified the first gene (Vangl2) that controls the initiation of facial branchiomotor neuron migration and discovered the first and only gene so far (Celsr1), that controls the direction of migration. We are currently examining the cellular and molecular mechanisms of how Celsr1 inhibits the function of a chemoattractant Wnt5a to suppress inappropriate neuronal migration in mouse. My lab examines the behavioral consequences of defective migration by evaluating the functional output of the branchiomotor circuits that drive jaw movements in zebrafish. These studies address a long-standing question in the field: does the position of a neuron within a circuit influence its output? Since dendritic inputs could be affected by the position of the neuronal soma, it is inferred that changes in neuronal position will affect circuit output, but this assumption has not been tested. We are using various strategies to rigorously test for a causal link between neuronal position and circuit output. Our studies employ several techniques including CRISPR, live imaging, conditional knockouts, mutant analysis, and biochemical analysis.

There are opportunities for students to work on the mouse or zebrafish project based on their interests. I welcome questions from interested students about our research and projects.

Dr. D Cornelison - Signaling and activity of skeletal muscle satellite cells

Interested students are encouraged to contact Dr. Cornelison to discuss projects.

Dr. Sherry Flint-Garcia - Genetics and consequences of maize domestication and breeding

The processes of domestication and breeding have had serious consequences on modern maize, particularly for the genes that are directly responsible for the transitions from the weedy teosinte ancestor to landrace (heirloom) populations to modern corn.  These genes are often involved in kernel size and composition, as these traits were targets of selection during domestication and breeding.  In addition, the focus on yield as the primary trait of interest in the private sector for the last century has resulted in a loss of variation for food quality traits.  

My lab uses a combination of genetic and breeding methodologies to explore and utilize the incredible phenotypic diversity in seed traits in heirloom corns from across the Americas.  Ongoing research projects focus on:  food quality traits such as flavor, texture, aroma, and nutrition; breeding improved varieties for improved whiskey flavor; increasing anthocyanin and other phenolic compounds in the kernels for antioxidants and natural food dyes; characterization of 1000 heirloom corns from the United States and Canada; and many other projects at the intersection of seed traits and genetically diverse maize germplasm.

harvest day


harvest day


Dr. David Kang - Influence of insect-associated microbes on host phenotype

The Kang laboratory is a part of the USDA Agricultural Research Service Biological Control of Insects Research Laboratory and is affiliated with the Division of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri. We investigate the utilization of microbiomes in the control of insect pests. Our interests are the environmental influences and within community interactions of microbiomes, host-microbe interactions, and their downstream impact on host immunity, metabolism, reproduction, and survival. We value diversity and inclusion, honest communication, and aim to foster an environment focused on the development and success of our students.

Our laboratory focuses on a multidisciplinary approach. First, we capture microbial and host variation in the wild. Next, we use statistical modeling to generate hypotheses.  We then use the genetically tractable model organism Drosophila melanogaster to test and refine these hypotheses. The knowledge gained from these experiments is then utilized to control agricultural pests, such as the berry pest, Spotted Wing Drosophila (Drosophila suzukii. Current research efforts include

1. Microbial influence on Drosophila suzukiifitness.

  • Testing which microbes and what genes they possess are responsible for changes in the host.
  • Testing transcriptional changes made in the host by the microbes.

2. Microbial ecology of insect pests

  • Computational modeling of the wild Drosophila suzukii microbial assembly.
  • Testing microbial priority effects.

3. Investigation of the role of prostaglandins in fly innate immune response and resistance to pathogens.

Our ultimate scientific goal is to combine these efforts to enable tailor-made microbial control of agricultural pests and enhance existing methods.

Dr. Elizabeth King - Genomic approaches to the study of life history evolution

Research in the King Lab addresses fundamental questions in evolutionary genomics, seeking to understand how genomes change when phenotypes evolve. We integrate computational methods with large-scale empirical studies, with a primary focus on understanding the evolution of complex traits, particularly sensory and life history traits, using the fruit fly model system. Current specific research areas include: 

Experimental Evolution: We often use the approach of evolving flies under controlled conditions to observe how phenotypes evolve in concert while also tracking the genomic changes that occur during adaptation. For example, we can produce populations of flies adapted to different diets, or populations with extremely high flight performance, or populations that can withstand high temperatures.

Development of Models of Genome-wide Evolution: Past development of models of evolution often either model only a few locations in the genome or focus on how phenotypes evolve without considering specific genomic loci. We are developing models of evolution that track full genomes to produce better predictions for allele frequency changes over time.

Genotype to Phenotype Mapping of Complex Traits: Our lab takes a systems approach using established mapping panels to study several complex phenotypes (e.g., lifespan, fecundity, learning, memory, thermal tolerance, dispersal) with the goal of understanding how traits are interrelated from gene expression to physiological traits to high-level traits.  

Our lab culture is centered on inclusion, diversity & equity, anti-racism & anti-oppression, collaboration & community, the well-being of our members, and open science (see for more info). Training new scientists (broadly defined) is one of the main goals of our lab, and we welcome prospective students interested in either computational or empirical projects.  

Dr. Rose Li - Nutrition intervention on human diseases through epigenetic mechanisms and gut microbiome

We welcome students who are passionate about women’ health research, especially studies on prevention and treatment on obesity, breast cancer and female reproductive cancers. We are also interested in studying how nutrition and diets influence women’s health and reduce the risk of the diseases later in the baby’s life.

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Dr. Ai-Ling Lin - Precision health approaches to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia

The mission of the Lin Brain Lab is to prevent Alzheimer’s disease (AD) by identifying effective pharmacological and nutritional interventions using neuroimaging, gut microbiome and multi-omics analyses, and machine/deep learning methods. The ultimate goal is to provide individualized solution with precision medicine via gut-brain axis. Dr. Lin is a well-known expert on translational neuroimaging of brain vascular and metabolic function in aging, AD, stroke and traumatic brain injury (TBI). She developed and applied magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and spectroscopy, and positron emission tomography (PET) to test nutritional and pharmacologic approaches for protecting the brain from aging, TBI and AD. She is also an expert in artificial intelligence (AI) and multi-omics (such as metabolomics and gut microbiome). She has applied AI to identify markers that are highly predictable for AD development and progression, and applied gut microbiome analyses to study gut-brain interaction underlying AD. 
Graduate students join the lab will have opportunities to participate in dietary intervention studies with animal models or human participants. Students will work side-by-side with Dr. Lin and other lab members and receive training on applying various technologies, including operating MRI/PET scanners, processing brain imaging, and analyzing multi-metrics data using advanced statistical methods and AI.  

Dr. Mannie Liscum - Molecular basis of high light stress in plants

The Liscum lab is interested in how plants perceive, integrate and respond to environmental cues, especially changes in the light environment. In collaboration with Ron Mittler’s lab in Plant Science, we are exploring the roles phytochrome B (phyB), one of the red/far-red photoreceptors in plants, in high light induced ROS production, signaling and responses (rapid acute and long-term adaptive). We have found that phyB is the dominant photoreceptor mediating acute ROS production in response to high light, either white or red light, both as local and systemic responses. PhyB also appears to be necessary for longer-term acclimation to high light stress. The phytochrome photoreceptors can be found in the cytoplasm and/or nucleus depending upon light condition, with red inducing the movement of the receptor from the cytoplasm to the nucleus. Once in the nucleus, phy’s interact with transcriptional regulators to mediate changes in gene expression. As such, phy-dependent responses are generally understood to be mediated through nuclear-regulated events. While the phyB-dependent acclimation response to high light stress appears to indeed by mediated through nuclear-localized phyB, the acute ROS response to high light, which requires plasmamembrane-localized RESPIRATORY BURST OXIDASE HOMOLOG (RBOH) enzymes, is stimulated by cytoplasmic phyB. We are now exploring the mechanistic bases for the cytoplasmic response, as well as elucidating the nuclear responses that lead to high light stress acclimation. A new PhD student is sought to take on these challenges.

Dr. Paula McSteen - Genetic regulation of meristem function in plants

The McSteen lab uses a genetic approach to understand plant development. We start by screening for mutants in maize with defects in tassel and ear development and then identify the genes that are mutated and study how they work at the physiological, biochemical, cellular, genomic, genetic, molecular and even evolutionary level. Through this approach, we have identified genes involved in auxin biosynthesis, transport and response, nutrient uptake and stem cell signaling. Graduate student projects are available in multiple areas, all driven by our goal of understanding how meristems give rise to organs.

Project 1) The McSteen lab is best known for research on the plant growth hormone, auxin. See for more information on our current NSF Plant Genome project. Our long-term goal is to understand how such a simple molecule as auxin has such diverse developmental effects in different tissues.

Project 2) The McSteen lab is currently funded by an internal grant to study the intersection between meristem development and environmental stress – in particular, nutrient deficiency. We have collaborative projects on the role of boron and iron in maize root development. 

Project 3) The McSteen lab is just starting a collaborative project on vesicle trafficking in maize. We have identified multiple mutants defective in trafficking through their effects on auxin transport and plan to develop tools to study the role of vesicle trafficking in development, nutrient uptake and immunity. 

Project 4) The McSteen lab also has an “EvoDevo” project on the evolution of inflorescence architecture in the grasses. Our graduate student on this project recently graduated so we have openings to pick up this project at a very exciting stage.

The lab is characterized by its team approach to maize genetics. Team McSteen is currently made up of two graduate students, a post-bac student and five undergraduate students. Check out some lab pictures at

McSteen lab in front of the columns
Dr. Enoch Ng'oma - Systems approaches to the study of aging in ecological settings

We are broadly interested in the variable rate of life history evolution among populations and species. We focus on understanding the molecular mechanism underlying differential rates of aging, and how aging influences or is influenced by other life history traits. We use systems approaches to follow the flow of genetic information from genes to affect the pace of aging, and how environmental factors modulates the rate of genetic change in return. Using a combination of field observations, semi-controlled setups, and laboratory experiments, we aim to discover new processes that play into the aging process in the wild, and potentially derive novel testable hypotheses.  

We seek graduate students who are interested in understanding aging from an ecological-evolutionary perspective. Our working hypothesis is that aging proceeds somewhat differently in free-living populations (compared to inbred populations), and that investigating aging in natural populations should uncover new molecular players in the process. Students will work with the African turquoise killifish and fruit flies to integrate inquiry across scales of biological organization, across species/populations, and across environmental conditions. There is opportunity to grow skills in the wet lab (whole-genome and transcriptome sequencing and analysis) and bioinformatic/modeling aspects of systems biology.

Dr. Johannes Schul - Evolution and neuroethology of acoustic communication systems in insects and amphibians

The Schul lab studies the evolution of novel traits using the acoustic communication of Neoconocephalus katydids as model. Over the last 20 years, our work focused on the evolution of female preferences in response to rapidly diversifying male signals. While sensory work continues in the lab, our focus shifted over the last few years towards the evolution of novel call patterns: we aim to understand the genetics underlying changes of neural networks that result in new call patterns. 

Males of Neoconocephalus triops have developmental plasticity of their calls: depending on the conditions experienced during maturation, two call morphs develop which differ for two call parameters at species defining levels; indeed, the two call morphs were initially described as different species. We can produce full siblings with different call morphs in the lab, indicating that these species level differences are due to gene expression. This allows us to study the divergence of these call traits integratively at behavioral, neurobiological, and transcriptome level within one species. This system will provide unique insights into the processes initiating the evolution of new signal traits and ultimately speciation. Other projects in the lab include aspects of sensory processing (e.g., the detection of change).

These projects provide ample opportunity for dissertation projects that integrate multiple approaches and methods (e.g., neurophysiology, transcriptomics) and allow students to develop their own projects. We are looking for one or two students who are excited about studying important evolutionary questions in an integrative way using this powerful system.

Dr. David Schulz - Neural network plasticity as a result of injury and disease

Our lab focuses on how plasticity and stability are balanced in individual neurons and neural networks by studying natural network outputs as well as responses to injury and removal of network inputs. Using a combination of single-cell electrophysiology and molecular biology techniques, we study regulation of channel and receptor proteins and how this influences neuronal excitability. Using this approach, we can investigate not only the effects at the single cell level, but also the influence that changes in single neurons has on the network activity as a whole. This work has implications not only for understanding how networks maintain functional output, but also what goes wrong when these networks fail, as is the case with some diseases and injuries that affect the circuitry of the brain and spinal cord.

We are interested in adding talented scholars who want to tackle these questions in a way that complements their long-term goals. We have room to delve deeply into single-cell sequencing analyses and fundamental molecular pathways involved in neuronal plasticity. We also have room for students who want to understand systems neuroscience from the “ground up,” and look at these interactions in both invertebrate models (crustaceans and leeches) as well as rodent models of injury and disease. We have ongoing work in impacts of spinal cord injury and multiple sclerosis on bladder function as well as deep mechanistic investigation of fundamentals of circuit plasticity in the crustacean stomatogastric ganglion. 

Dr. Keith Slotkin - RNA biology, chromatin modification, epigenetics, transposable elements

We investigate how plant cells determine which fragments of DNA to “silence” the expression from. These regions of the genome that are commonly targeted for repression (“silencing”) are Transposable Elements (TEs), which are mobile ‘jumping genes’ that cause mutations when they jump. The overarching question driving our lab is how plant cells understand which regions of the genome are TEs to target silencing to.

In a broad sense, what the Slotkin laboratory aims to determine is how self-perpetuating feed-forward cycles in the cell are initiated. The cycles we work on are RNA interference (RNAi), RNA-directed DNA Methylation (RdDM) and maintenance epigenetic silencing. We have learned that these cycles all work to silence TEs, and can feed into each other. Our current goal is to determine how the first cycle of RNAi is triggered by TE transcripts.

Projects in the lab vary from proteomics to genomics, bench-work to purely computational. The majority of our research is done on the powerful reference plant Arabidopsis, while through collaborations we have also concentrated on maize, soybeans and aphids, and bioinformatically on many other genomes. Our expertise are in: Transposable Elements, Plant Epigenetics, RNAi, RdDM, small RNAs, DNA methylation and the Bioinformatics of multi-copy regions of the genome.

Visit the Slotkin Lab homepage at:

See what the lab has recently published:

Learn more about the Danforth Plant Science Center:

Dr. Jacob Washburn - Understanding and predicting the genetic and physiological basis of plant phenotypes

Imagine a world where one could predict the phenotypes of a plant (or other organism) grown in any location around the world (or even on Mars) before ever testing it there. Such predictions would revolutionize agricultural productivity and sustainability, climate change mitigation, conservation, and more!

The Washburn lab studies how plants interact with their genetics and the environments they are placed in. We use traditional phenotyping, drones, robots, physiological instruments, and other methods to evaluate plants in the field, greenhouse, and growth chamber. We apply quantitative genetics, physiological modeling, machine learning, deep learning, and artificial intelligence to understand and predict biological, evolutionary, and agricultural systems.


Dr. Manuel Leal
Director of Graduate Studies