There are two types of research experiences available for students interested in collaborating with me. During the summer field season, I work closely with 1 or 2 students in research assistant positions. Field research is a team effort, often involving long hours of strenuous physical activity (sometimes during inclement weather), frequent mid-course corrections of best laid plans, and brainstorming sessions that begin at a chalkboard and continue in the aisles of hardware stores. Research assistants are active participants in all phases of these projects, to the point of being co-authors of papers that grow out of the research. These assistants are typically supported through the Hackman Scholars Program, and housing at field sites is provided.
During the academic year, students can conduct independent research in my lab by enrolling in 1 or 2 semesters of Biology 390 (for juniors)/Biology 490 (for seniors). In the early stages of the project, we work together to identify a research question of interest. These questions typically grow out of my own research program, but are strongly influenced by ideas generated during a review of the relevant literature. From this point on, the student takes the initiative to refine the questions into testable hypotheses, designing experiments to test these hypotheses, and then collecting, analyzing, and interpreting data. My role as an advisor is to offer suggestions, help with experimental design (including acquisition of necessary equipment and supplies), and serve as an assistant when necessary.
If you are interested in collaborating, please know that it's never too early to contact me. For example, the deadline for Hackman Scholarship applications is in February. Therefore, fall semester is a good time to start talking about research opportunities the following summer.
Ultraviolet Radiation and Fish
Fish are most susceptible to the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation (UVR) during the egg and larval stages, when behavioral avoidance capabilities are limited and high surface area to volume ratios increase the proportion of cells at risk of exposure. Prolonged exposure to UVR damages DNA, which can cause mutations, reduced physiological performance, or death. Like many other organisms, fish can repair DNA damage caused by UVR through two mechanisms: nucleotide excision repair and photoenzymatic repair. Working in collaboration with David Mitchell of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Research Center, we are conducting experiments in a UVR lamp phototron to examine variation in the effectiveness of these repair mechanisms among different species freshwater fishes (see Olson & Mitchell 2006).
In natural systems, the timing and location of spawning can play an important role in determining levels of UVR exposure. We have been evaluating potential UV-induced mortality risk in bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) and largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides) using a combination of field experiments and estimates of UVR exposure in active nests in Lake Giles, a highly transparent lake in the Pocono Mountains (see Olson et al. 2006). This project takes place during the bluegill spawning season (May-July) and is based out of the Lacawac Sanctuary and involves a lot of time in the water using snorkels and/or SCUBA.
Ultraviolet Radiation in Alpine Lakes
Due to their optical clarity and high elevation, alpine lakes receive some of the highest levels of UVR exposure of any systems in the world. Zooplankton communities in these systems tend to be composed of a small number of endemic species that are highly adapted to UVR exposure. We are studying the role of UVR in structuring these communities as well as the potential implications of elevated temperatures and changes in UVR exposure as an indirect consequence of climate change. This research is being conducted in collaboration with Janet Fischer of F&M, Craig Williamson of Miami (Ohio) University, and Rolf Vinebrooke of the University of Alberta. This project takes place during the ice-free season (typically starting in mid-July) in a set of high elevation lakes in Yoho National Park, British Columbia, Canada.
Nutrient Loading by Migratory Snow Geese
Population sizes of snow geese (Chen caerulescens) have increased dramatically in the past 20 years due to the restoration of wetlands along migratory routes, reductions in hunting, and climate warming . One consequence of this increase involves the role of snow geese as nutrient vectors. Through their daily feeding migrations, geese are capable of transporting significant quantities of nutrients from agricultural fields where they feed to wetlands where they roost. We have been studying nutrient loading by snow geese at the Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Each spring, Middle Creek serves as a staging ground for over 100,000 geese before they migrate to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. Our research focuses on the implications of this loading for patterns of nutrient limitation and food web productivity (see Olson et al. 2005).