Current Faculty Research
The faculty of the Department of Biology are nationally recognized for their research programs and publications in prestigious journals. Faculty research is regularly supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, or similar state and national organizations. Research and teaching facilities are equipped with such state-of-the-art equipment as liquid scintillation and gamma counters, spectrophotometers, and a digitized HPLC system. We also have access to a FEI environmental scanning electron microscope, a FEI transmission electron microscope, and Reichart ultramicrotome.
The Biology Department also manages a USDA certified (NIH approved) animal care facility,
the 20,000 specimen William Darlington Herbarium, and 100 acre Robert B. Gordon Natural
Area for Environmental Studies.
Research opportunities for graduate students are particularly strong in three areas:
- Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology;
- Physiology, Development, and Cell Biology; and
- Molecular Genetics, Immunology, and Microbiology.
Faculty in each of these programs have ongoing research projects and welcome serious student investigators into their laboratories.
Dr. Josh Auld (1)
Dr. Auld's research focuses on the evolutionary ecology of mating systems and life-history traits, primarily in hermaphroditic freshwater snails. He studies the expression and evolution of reproductive traits and the role of intra- and interspecific interactions such as competition and predation in these processes. Research projects are motivated by trying to understand how reproduction takes place under natural (variable) environmental conditions. Thus, the role of phenotypic plasticity in these processes is major theme of study. Research opportunities typically involve field, experimental and analytic work.
Dr. Sharon E. Began (1)
Dr. Began's research focuses on comparative developmental studies designed to analyze the patterns underlying the structural features of early land plants, particularly the bryophytes (liverworts, mosses, and hornworts). Information gathered from these investigations is utilized to clarify phylogenetic relationships among contemporary land plants and provide clues as to their ancestral origins. In addition, Dr. Began collaborates in international and national floristic studies intended to determine bryophyte distribution patterns and clarify plant relationships. Methodologies employed include light and electron microscopy as well as experimental culture techniques.
Dr. John T. Beneski (1)
Dr. Beneski's research emphasizes the evolution and adaptations of primitive terrestrial vertebrates. Current projects under investigation include the ontogeny, kinematics and functional morphology of prey capture and intra-oral transport, the biomechanics of tail autotomy, the evolution and functional significance of tooth shape, and the ecomorphology of amphibian populations. Primary analytical techniques include scanning electron microscopy, image analysis, and computer modelling. Suggested areas for student research include problems involving evolutionary mechanisms, herpetology, systematics, or image analysis.
Dr. S. Anne Boettger (1,2)
Research in Dr. Boettger's lab examines environmental effects, whether they are biological (disease, resource competition), physical (hydrodynamic pressure, temperature changes) or chemical (salinity, anthropogenic pollutants, acidification) on the anatomy, physiology and development of invertebrate animals. Research projects typically utilize marine animals or biomedical models and involve field experiments, laboratory maintenance of experimental animals, cell and molecular techniques and microscopy to examine positive and detrimental environmental impacts.
Dr. Giovanni Casotti (1,2)
Dr. Casotti's research examines how birds osmoregulate in different environments. His research focuses on the functional morphology and physiology of the avian kidney and the lower gastrointestinal tract. He has conducted research in arid and mesic environments on different bird species, and is particularly interested in how birds handle nitrogenous waste. Projects with Dr. Casotti would include use of transmission and scanning electron microscopy and light histology.
Dr. Jennifer Chandler (1)
Dr. Chandler’s research interests lie in the general areas of plant ecology and disturbance ecology, with a focus on the multidimensional responses of herbaceous plants to both natural and anthropogenic disturbances. Recent research has investigated the response of the medicinal plant, American ginseng, to both timber harvest and natural canopy disturbances in the eastern deciduous forest, as well as the response of a dominant tundra sedge, cottongrass, to climate change in northern Alaska.
Dr. Teresa Donze-Reiner (3)
Dr. Donze-Reiner is interested in studying the genes involved in plant defense against plant insect pests and pathogens. Her current focus is analyzing the RNA transcriptome of susceptible and resistant lines of switchgrass throughout a time course of greenbug aphid feeding. Insect herbivory induces several internal signals from the wounded tissues, including calcium ion fluxes, peroxidases, and salicylic- and jasmonate signaling. These are then perceived in undamaged tissues, which reinforce their defense by producing different, mostly low molecular weight, defense compounds. Research projects in her lab include: 1) studying which genes are involved in defense against insects and other plant pathogens like viruses, 2) Molecular characterization of genes with unknown functions identified through RNA transcriptome sequencing and 3) Understanding the genetic and molecular components of gender determination in turf grass. She enjoys working students and training them to become successful both inside and outside classroom and laboratory. In addition to her interests in research and teaching, she enjoys doing educational outreach activities with the surrounding community and K-12 education.
Dr. Xin Fan (3)
Dr. Xin Fan's research examines pathogen-host interactions. Her current research focuses on using and Listeria monocytogenes as model systems to study virulence mechanisms of pathogenic bacteria. Cutting edge molecular microbiology tools and animal experiments are involved in the research to unravel virulence factors and their contributions in the disease processes. Dr. Fan hopes that by understanding bacterial virulence strategies during the infections will help develop effective treatment and vaccines against pathogen infections.
Dr. Frank E. Fish (1)
Dr. Fish uses the fields of functional morphology and ecological physiology in the study of the dynamics of locomotion in animals. His focus has been on the energetics and hydrodynamics of vertebrate swimming, with particular regard to propulsive modes and the evolution of aquatic mammals. This research is accomplished by examination of biomechanics with motion analysis and computer digitizing, and by measurement of metabolic performance though oxygen consumption. Dr. Fish is responsible for a course in Functional Animal Morphology (Bio 457). Specific projects open to students as thesis research include dolphin swimming, morphology and kinematics, energy conservation by formation swimming, biomechanics of maneuverability, jet propulsion in fish, and functional design of propulsive structures in aquatic mammals.
Dr. Erin E. Gestl (3)
Dr. Gestl's research focuses on the mechanism and regulation of DNA polymerases on a molecular level. He combines current molecular technology with cell culture systems and the model organism, Zebrafish (Danio rerio) to help address questions related to cancer. Current projects include: (a) In vitro analysis of polymerases switching which is currently hypothesized to occur when one polymerase can synthesize past damaged DNA, (b) In vivo analysis of expression levels of various DNA polymerases in Zebrafish and their altered expression levels when exposed to chemotherapeutics, and (c) Ex vivo analysis of alternative splicing of DNA polymerases in human breast epithelial cell lines. Some of this work and future research is in collaboration with the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Dr. Gestl also teaches upper level courses in Molecular and Cell Biology (Bio421) and Gene Expression (Bio443).
Dr. Jen Maresh (1)
Dr. Maresh is a physiological ecologist whose research focuses on animal bioenergetics and, in particular, how marine mammals work in comparison to their terrestrial counterparts. Her current research seeks to understand - from an energy optimization perspective - the decisions animals make while foraging in both intact and disturbed ecosystems, and to place that in the context of their ecologies and evolutionary histories. A large component of her work is in developing models that map energy flow from ingestion of prey up through the building of an animal and its offspring, and in understanding the resilience (or sensitivity) of that energy balance to climate change and other environmental perturbations. Dr. Maresh uses a combination of tracking instrumentation, modeling and lab work in her research, and enjoys mentoring students in the development of these techniques as well as their careers in biology.
Dr. Gustave M. Mbuy (3)
The research program of Dr. Mbuy's laboratory in molecular virologyi and immunology has two main areas of interest. One area is concerned with the discovery of antivirals compounds fgrom ethnomedicinal plants. To this end, several biological products are isolated from medicinal plants and tested for their antiviral effect, using herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2 as indicator viruses. the second reseaarch area is focused on on understanding in greater detail the molecular mechanisms of virus replication. Dr. Mbuy is actively studying the mechanism by which herpes simplex virus type 2 establishes latency in infected animals and in infected tissue culture cells. Students in this laboratory are exposed to a wide range of modern techniques in virus.
Dr. Oné R. Pagán (2)
Planarian flatworms show a lot of promise in neuropharmacological research; they have a well-developed nervous system, including a rudimentary brain, which use every major neurotransmitter system described in mammals, including humans. Additionally, its nervous system shares many structural similarities with vertebrate nervous systems. Many abused drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines and nicotine affect this organism; interestingly, in a way reminiscent of their effects on humans. In our research, we use planaria as a model organism to screen for naturally-occurring or synthetic compounds capable of reversing acute and long-term effects of abused drugs. Our eventual objective is to discover substances capable of preventing the behavioral and toxic effects of abused drugs in humans.
Dr. John Pisciotta (3)
Dr. Pisciotta's primary research aims to develop microbial platforms for converting wastes and abundant natural energy sources, like sunlight, into useful fuels and electricity. He is currently investigating electrically-directed CO2 fixation in microorganism. Systems and methods used include photobioreactors, bioelectrochemical systems, optical and light microscopy, molecular biology and experimental culture techniques. Dr. Pisciotta is also interested in pathogenic microbiology and antibiotic drug discovery.
Dr. Jessica Schedlbauer (1,2)
Dr. Schedlbauer’s research interests are in the areas of ecosystem ecology and plant ecophysiology, with a focus on carbon storage and cycling. Her research occurs principally in ecosystems affected by human activities, and she is interested in research questions related to climate change, land use change, and ecosystem management. Current focal areas of research include (1) investigations of carbon cycling and plant water relations in Mid-Atlantic serpentine barrens, (2) tracking environmental service restoration in experimental reforestation plots at Delaware’s Mount Cuba Center, and (3) studying plant physiological responses to a warming climate in Alaska’s Arctic tundra. Students working in Dr. Schedlbauer’s lab will have the opportunity to work across scales, from the leaf to the ecosystem level, to examine topical ecological questions.
Dr. Jessica Sullivan-Brown (3)
Dr. Sullivan-Brown is interested in studying the cellular and molecular mechanisms of embryonic development and how defects in development result in disease. Her current focus is analyzing the genetic and environmental factors underlying neural tube defects. Neural tube defects, like spina bifida, are common and severe congenital defects affecting about 1 in 1000 live births each year. She uses different animal model systems to study neural tube defects including the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans and the frog Xenopus laevis. Research projects in her lab include: 1) studying how folic acid and folic acid metabolism genes affect early developmental processes, and 2) analyzing the expression of neural tube defect genes during neural tube closure. She enjoys mentoring students, and hopes that students will have active roles in designing research projects in her lab. In addition to her interests in research and teaching, she enjoys communicating science to a broad audience through science outreach activities.
Dr. Eric Sweet (2,3)
Dr. Sweet is a neuroscientist and electrophysiologist interested in neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease. His current research focuses on the cognitive and emotional symptoms of Parkinson’s disease that go along with the more well-known motor symptoms such as essential tremor and shuffling gait. Up to 80% of Parkinson’s disease patients will experience depression, dementia, or cognitive decline, making the disease much more difficult for the patients. Dr. Sweet uses the mouse as a model system to investigate the role that genetic and environmental factors have on learning and emotion in Parkinson’s disease. Students working in his lab will have the opportunity to study behavior in mice and directly measure the signaling between neurons with electrophysiology.
Dr. Harry M. Tiebout III (1)
Dr. Tiebout is a vertebrate ecologist whose primary research interests include foraging behavior and energetics, community structure and dynamics, ecotoxicology, and conservation biology. His current research projects are (a) investigating the impact of timber production on the herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) of the endangered Florida Sand Pine Scrub ecosystem, (b) developing standardized methods for using articifical refugia to monitor herpetofauna biodiversity, and (c) theoretical issues in ecotoxicology and ecological risk assessment. Potential areas for student research include field-oriented studies of (a) terrestrial vertebrate ecology and (b) the impacts of human disturbance on native vertebrate assemblages.
Dr. Greg Turner (1)
Dr. Turner's research focuses on mycorrhizal fungal responses to anthropogenic factors and natural variability in soils and topographic features. In particular, he is interested in the influences of nitrogen and heavy metals on ectomycorrhizal (ECM) fungal communities associated with oak and pine tree hosts. Dr. Turner is also interested in how exotic plant species affect fungal and native plant community structure. Students, both undergraduate and graduate, can focus on these projects or related projects that they may wish to design.
Dr. Jack Waber (2)
Dr. Waber's research interests lie in the general area of physiological effects of environmental stress. His work has recently concentrated on the metabolic responses of cyanobacteria to osmotic shock induced by high concentrations of NaCl. Using radioactively labeled precursors, stress-induced changes in protein and RNA synthesis have been studied. On-going research will attempt to identify and characterize the specific protein(s) and RNA molecules associated with the adaptation process, as well as to determine the specificity of the effect (i.e., is it specific for NaCl or is it a general response to osmotic stress?). The techniques used in this research include spectrophotometry, liquid scintillation counting, and electrophoresis. Dr. Waber is also interested in the application of computer technology to teaching.