Feature Stories 2022: Honors biology majors present undergraduate research at national ecology conference

Collecting specimens on rocks
Isabella Mancini '22, Sophia Maloney-Buckley '22, and Haleigh Nogueira, an undergraduate research assistant in Dr. Michael Sheriff's lab, collect specimens on Castle Rock in Marblehead, MA.
Feature Stories 2022: Honors biology majors present undergraduate research at national ecology conference
Honors biology majors present undergraduate research at national ecology conference

Professor Michael Sheriff leads student research projects that provide early evidence linking risk-induced trait responses to species’ survival during predator exposure

As a Carnegie-designated, national doctoral research university, UMass Dartmouth’s commitment to undergraduate student research is evident in every college and is supported by the Office of Undergraduate Research. For three senior biology majors, their Honors Apex research projects exposed them to the many facets of academic research, including conference presentations and scholarly writing.

All Honors College students must complete The APEX (Academic Project or Experience), that culminates their Honors education. The APEX is an original, independent project or experience that builds on all Honors students have learned as undergraduates. It represents an opportunity to demonstrate critical thinking and communication skills, as well as the ability to work independently.

For their APEX Project, senior biology majors Olivia Aguiar, Sophia Maloney-Buckley, and Isabella Mancini worked with Dr. Michael Sheriff, associate professor of biology, in the Sheriff Lab, which integrates the study of physiology and ecology in wild animals living in Massachusetts, Alaska, Texas, and Canada. According to Sheriff, the students’ research examined how predation risk altered prey morphology and behavior and how these changes may influence their individual fitness. Each student examined their own independent aspect of this hypothesis. Overall, they showed that predation risk increased risk-adverse behavior and that those that had the greatest risk-adverse behavior had the highest survival. Further, they showed that food availability greatly altered these responses.

“Their study provides some of the first empirical evidence supporting the assumption that risk-induced trait responses increase survival during predator exposure, but it comes at a cost to their growth. These results add to our growing understanding of predation risk effects and to predator-prey ecology generally,” added Sheriff.

Aguiar and Mancini presented their research at the Benthic Ecology Society’s annual conference in Portsmouth, NH, last spring that was attended by more than 500 biologists, researchers, faculty, and graduate students. The trip was funded by the Honors College and the Office of Undergraduate Research. Feedback was very strong and many of the attendees were surprised that the students were undergraduates.  

“As an undergraduate, being able to attend a conference like this is fairly rare and really gave me insight into the professional world of biology,” said Mancini. “Along with presenting my own work as a poster, I was able to discuss my work with others, including the very people I had cited in my paper, which was amazing. I also loved working with Dr. Sheriff and being part of a collaborative effort to publish our work in a peer-reviewed journal, which is another invaluable experience for an undergraduate.”

The students hope to publish their research in two academic journals.

Presenting poster at biology conference
Isabella Mancini '22 presents her research poster to Associate Professor David Kimbro of Northeastern University (left), an expert in intertidal predator prey interactions, while Olivia Aguiar '22 and Eleanor DiNuzzo, PhD candidate, listen.

Students experienced different aspects of research

Mancini’s project, “How food availability influences prey risk responses,” examined how food availability influenced the decision making and ability of prey to respond to the risk of predation and the costs of such decisions. “We found that when prey had access to high food availability they were more likely to hide from predators than when they had no food available,” Sheriff said. “This is likely driven by the fact that those individuals with more food grew more and had more internal resources (body tissue) that they could burn while hiding from predators. Those individuals that had no access to food did not have any body reserves and had to continually search for food, regardless of the risk of being eaten by a predator.”

In addition to presenting at a national conference and writing for an academic journal, Mancini enjoyed the opportunity to use facilities at the School for Marine Science and Technology in New Bedford while working with a PhD student to assist in her research. “This experience showed me the realities of working in research and allowed me to learn how much really goes into it. I was also able to work with another graduate student on the statistical analysis of my data, which was something I hadn’t done before. It really opened my eyes to the amount of work that follows once the experiment is done.

“Learning to analyze and organize behavioral data is a skill that I don’t think many biologists, especially undergraduates, get to learn, so I was happy to be able to do so,” said Mancini.

Aguiar’s project, “How risk-induced trait responses influence prey survival” tested a long-held assumption that while prey responses may be costly to prey growth and reproduction, they reduce predator exposures and increase prey survival in the face of predation. This is the first study to empirically test such assumptions, according to Sheriff.

“In this project, we found that individuals that were less likely to make risky behavioral decisions were less likely to die from being eaten, however, this came at the cost of reduced growth,” he explained.

Aguiar said the graduate students in the lab gave her a lot of guidance and support for her research. Learning more about the research process “will have a big impact on my skills and confidence as a researcher, and I am very thankful for the opportunity to work on an APEX project,” she said.

She chose this topic because “I am interested in how species interact with each other. Predation risk is a newer field in ecology with many exciting directions for the future. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to carry out a project that contributes to this field.”  

Maloney-Buckley travelled along the MA coast to collect organisms for her project, “Risk-induced morphological responses and their influence on prey survival.” “The people in our lab were so knowledgeable and always willing to help. I learned so much from this whole experience,” she said. “I found the intertidal system very interesting. We found some knowledge gaps in current research and decided to try to fill those gaps.”

“Predators are one of the two major driving forces in ecology and evolution, and these projects test fundamental hypotheses in predator-prey ecology and help us to better understand how predators may shape prey populations and ecological communities,” explained Sheriff. “Such knowledge is critical in the current climate where we face large predator extirpation and extinctions, re-introductions of predators, and invasive predator species.

 “The students gained actual hands-on experience as if they are graduate students; the ability to work independently and the preparation and responsibility associated with scientific research,” said Sheriff.

Sitting on a rock collecting specimens
Sophia Maloney-Buckley '22 works on her APEX research project along the Massachusetts coast.

Future plans include graduate school in biology and medicine

Aguiar will continue working with Sheriff this summer, learning how to conduct hormone assays on southern mountain caribou in British Columbia. This fall, she will continue researching predation risk as a doctoral student at Oklahoma State University’s Integrative Biology PhD program and hopes to work in wildlife management and conservation research for a nonprofit organization or government agency.

Mancini plans to attend graduate school to become a physician’s assistant in obstetrics and gynecology after first working as a medical assistant. Maloney-Buckley also plans to attend physician’s assistant school.

Presenting at ecology conference
Olivia Aguiar '22 presents her research at the Benthic Ecology Society’s annual conference. She will continue researching predation risk as a doctoral student at Oklahoma State University’s Integrative Biology PhD program this fall.

Sheriff recognized by the Honors College

By unanimous vote among Honors faculty, advisors, and students, Sheriff was named the first Honors College APEX Mentor of the Year at the annual awards banquet. “I was very flattered and humbled,” said Sheriff, “To be nominated by your own students—it’s one of the best awards I have received.”