Editor’s note: Every Tuesday in Sept. from 5:00 pm to 6:15 pm in Weyandt 107, seminars are held on research opportunities by Biology faculty. This is the third article covering the series.
The fall faculty presentations were organized by biology professor Dr. Robert Major as part of the Biology Honors Seminar that are open to all students.
Ecologist Dr. Josiah Townsend was the first speaker. His research focuses on patterns and processes that give rise to biodiversity in amphibians and reptiles.
“I was always fascinated with the idea of species level diversity. Like where do species come from? And also, this concept that you could go out and discover new species that science hasn’t documented before,” said Townsend.
Dr. Townsend has been published more than 200 times, written three books and has discovered 27 new species. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Scholar award that gives funding to professors to conduct research in another country.
Since the start of his career in 1999, Townsend has worked primarily in Honduras, and sponsors study abroad programs there during the summer. Honduras is about the same size as Pennsylvania, but it has four times the number of species of amphibians and reptiles.
Last year, Dr. Townsend worked with honors students to research raccoons that were introduced on the Honduran island of Utila.
“Somebody brought them to Utila and released them, apparently with the idea that initially they wanted to have a petting zoo with raccoons. The raccoons got out pretty quickly, and nobody wanted to pay to pet raccoons. Within about five years, these raccoons seem to have appeared across the island,” said Townsend.
He and his students conducted camera trap surveys across the island with raccoons appearing on every camera. Unfortunately, they are threatening the areas where iguanas nest. There are only about 5,000 estimated iguanas left in the wild with all of them living in about a 10-kilometer square area.
“We’re going to be continuing the iguana projects [this year] but also getting into working on amphibians on all three of the bay islands as well. This coming year, and this is why its of interest to student recruitment, we will be doing radio telemetry on these populations, tracking female iguanas during the nesting season to determine their movement patterns and see if we can identify any concerted nesting areas,” said Townsend.
One thing that makes Townsend’s work unique is his passion for community outreach.
“How do we also come out with an outcome that actually involves and informs conservation at the ground level, the level where these organisms and the threats are existing? I love to find ways to engage people locally. We have had symposiums in 2019 of IUP students presenting their projects to the national universities and returning them to the people in the country where the research was done,” said Townsend.
Townsend is especially looking for help from students who speak Spanish.
“To find Spanish-speaking students is a tremendous commodity here at IUP. I have tons of things for bilingual students to do in my lab, a lot of them directly related to outreach and outreach activities that can be done remotely as well as in-person in Honduras. So, anybody that has picked up Spanish, please come talk to me,” Townsend said.
Dr. Sarah Emel was the second speaker.
“[My lab does] research building genetic and genomic tools for wildlife conservation, which is basically using genetic data to learn about the ecology and how effective forest management and things like that are for species conservation,” said Emel.
The main goal of her research is to come up with solutions to threats to biodiversity, such as global climate change, overharvesting and overfishing, pollution and habitat degradation. She mainly focuses on the effects of habitat fragmentation.
“We use GIS, genetic data and statistics to determine how fragmentation affects connectivity, genetic diversity and local adaptation in plants and animals, and how can we use this information to inform conservation management? This ultimately affects the local extinction risk and leads to reductions in the entire range of a species or even extinction of a species,” said Emel.
Since Emel has gotten to IUP, she has mainly been working on assessing the conservation status of rabbits and hares in Pennsylvania based on the distribution and density of each species. Recently, she has been working with the PA Game Commission on measuring their stress hormone levels.
Since live trapping is traumatic for rabbits, she and her students use noninvasive methods such as analyzing hair and fecal matter.
Dr. Emel also shared advice for students wishing to get involved with research or to go on to graduate school.
“The biggest thing you can do to advance your [future career] is to get involved with research as an undergraduate, whether that’s helping in the field or in the lab, or doing an honors project or your own independent study. Any kind of experience will help you figure out what you are interested in, but also give you something to talk about and some skills that you can bring to future careers or a graduate program,” Emel recommended.
The last to speak was Dr. Daniel Widzowski, associate biology professor at IUP. He is a Neuropharmacologist who studies toxicology, neuroscience, cancer and pharmacology. He is passionate about finding new treatments for human diseases.
His current research areas include the effects of psychotropic and antihistamine drugs on weight gain and metabolic changes. Widzowski’s latest focus is on whether the antidepressant venlafaxine (Effexor) can treat Methamphetamine dependency/drug-seeking behavior in mice.
“For people who smoke or abuse crystal meth, in the short term, they may have a high, some type of relief from some issues that they’ve had in their lives, but over the longer term, it can be really detrimental to both mental health and physical health. Some of the big areas of study both for humans and animal models is how we can deal with the long-term effects and the continuous craving that occurs with drugs of abuse like methamphetamine,” said Widzowski.
One student in attendance who was intrigued by the research possibilities was Maggie Miller.
“The presentations that were given today showed the extensive types of research that are provided here at IUP. There are many hands-on opportunities to do fieldwork studying ecology in addition to working directly in the laboratory based on the student’s interests. In this presentation series , I was very intrigued by the work of Dr. Widzowski who studies neuropharmacology, and his project on methamphetamine dependence,” said Miller (junior, biology).
Stay tuned for next week’s article, and feel free to stop by and listen to the presentations.