Bridging the Gap Between Developmental Genetics and Paleontology


Our laboratory studies patterns of evolution through time and variation among living populations of the threespine stickleback fish. Undergraduate students have always played an important role in our research. Some have done projects that led to major new research projects (e.g., brain and behavior evolution). Others have completed honors theses and been coauthors on publications. A number of our undergraduate research students are now biologists at universities and conservation agencies.

Current projects include analysis of patterns of change through time in fossil stickleback from a 10 million-year-old lake deposit in Nevada with annual layers and in annual samples from modern stickleback populations in Alaska. Our lab is studying variation in brain structure in relation to spatial learning, feeding in stickleback with contrasting diets, evolution of gene expression and resulting changes in skeletal development, and evolutionary relationships of individuals within and among populations.

Most students become involved with ongoing projects by helping feed and maintain live fish, counting and measuring structures under a dissecting microscope, capturing digital images of specimens and digitizing landmarks on those images, maintaining collections of preserved fish, and preparing DNA and fossils for data collection. All students are given reading to orient them to work in our lab. They usually begin by working on an existing project, but as their skills develop, they are encouraged to undertake a project that could become an undergraduate honors thesis (students must meet other academic requirements for an honors degree) or a publication in the scientific literature. Most work is on campus during the academic year and students must register for research credit. Students who have done well in our lab may be invited to join field projects in Alaska (modern populations, genetics) or Nevada (paleontology). Biology, Biochemistry, Geology, and students in other majors can make important contributions to research in our lab and earn academic credit for their efforts.