Biology Faculty Research

From partnering with the Highlands Biological Station to researching ecological communities, battling the altering environmental landscape of the mountains, evaluating traditional Cherokee remedies derived from plants native to the Southern Appalachians, and participating in countless other research projects, WCU’s biology department faculty members have established a long and proud tradition of research focusing on a broad field of study.

Current faculty research projects and fields of interest


Barbara Ballentine, Ph.D., Evolution and Behavioral Ecology
Broadly, I am interested in the evolutionary mechanisms underlying phenotypic variation and population divergence in animals, primarily birds. I use highly integrative and experimental approaches with both field and laboratory studies to specifically addresses 1) how sexual selection favors reliable mating signals, 2) how natural selection constrains the expression of mating signals, and 3) mechanisms of phenotypic (morphological and behavioral) variation between populations.

Indrani Bose, Ph.D., Cell Biology
Molecular biology of Cryptoccucus neoformans virulence.

Kefyn M. Catley, Ph.D., Invertebrate Zoology and Science Education
My research revolves around the difficulties of understanding evolution and how these difficulties interact with peoples' perceptions of the natural world, i.e., how they impact the effectiveness of environmental and ecology education. In particular, I am examining ways to enhance learning in these disciplines across several age groups from middle school students to pre and in-service teachers. My biological research focuses on the systematics and biology of spiders, especially south temperate and basal groups.

Heather Coan, Ph.D., Regenerative medicine and genetics related to diseases of bones and joints.
My research interests are multifaceted. One aspect of my research is centered in the field of regenerative medicine, a field of study designed to meet the growing need for organs and tissues by replacing or repairing damaged tissue to restore function. My interests in this field lie in the manipulation of cells (stem cells, progenitor cells, and various other cell types) for use in regenerative medicine strategies, particularly those related to the musculoskeletal system. To this end, I use a combination of biochemical, molecular, and genetic techniques to investigate cell response to a variety of external factors. Another area of interest in my lab is the utilization of large biological datasets (typically genomic sequences or transcriptome data) to investigate biological function by tracking large-scale gene expression changes and/or individual sequence variants in response to a disease state or external manipulation, such as would be performed in my cell-based studies.

Students in my laboratory will learn a variety of skills including human/mammalian cell culture, cell-based assays, gene expression quantification, protein characterization, data analysis, literature comprehension, manuscript preparation, and grant writing.

Beverly Collins, Ph.D., Plant Community Ecology
My research seeks to unravel the causes of plant community diversity and dynamics.  I ask questions such as "How are plant communities put together and what causes them to change over time?" I have studied abandoned agricultural fields in New Jersey and Tennessee; canopy gap dynamics in northern hardwoods of Pennsylvania and bottomland forests of South Carolina; seed bank and water level effects on vegetation of Carolina bays and reservoirs; and the impacts of military and forestry activities on mixed pine hardwood forests at Fort Benning. At WCU, my students and I are studying the ecology of endangered species such as the Carolina northern flying squirrel; plants, like the medicinal plant fairy wand, that are used by humans; and the factors, such as land use, that affect invasiveness of non-native plant species. Results from our research can help us learn how to manage, conserve, or restore plant communities and biodiversity in the Southern Appalachian region.

James T. Costa, Ph.D., Director, Highlands Biological Station 
I am primarily interested in the ecology and evolution of social insects, in particular the social Lepidoptera and Symphyta, with a parallel interest in the history and philosophy of social insect biology.

Recent research includes: Trail-marking and foraging behavior of social caterpillars and sawflies, in particular Arsenura armida, a Neotropical saturniid moth we study in Costa Rica, and the North American diprionid sawfly Neodiprion lecontei.

My students and I employ videography, classical experimental techniques, and genetic markers in studies of communication, group foraging dynamics and colony genetic structure. Colony performance experiments using eastern tent caterpillars as a model system to dissect the ecological factors underlying group size effects. Many caterpillar and sawfly colonies enjoy enhanced survivorship and growth as a function of group size, one result of which is that group-merging is favored regardless of genetic relationship between caterpillars of component groups. My students and I are now conducting experiments to document the mechanism, costs and benefits of supercolony formation.

Laura E. DeWald, Ph.D., Ecological Genetics
Conserving biodiversity in managed ecosystems; ecological genetics; restoration ecology.

Jeremy Hyman, Ph.D., Evolution, Behavorial Ecology, Ornithology
My research interests are in the evolution of communication and social interactions in territorial animals.  Current research topics I am pursuing include the interplay of cooperative and competitive interactions in territorial communication, and the causes and consequences of behavioral variation in territorial aggression in birds.

Thomas H. Martin, PhD., Population and Community Ecology
I am interested in the factors that influence population dynamics and community structure in aquatic systems. Much of my early research focused on the role of predation by vertebrates in littoral invertebrate population dynamics and assemblage structure.  More recently, my interests have focused more on habitat availability, quality, and fragmentation as factors that influence aquatic populations.

Current research interests/projects include studies of the distribution, comparative ecology, and conservation of remnant southern Appalachian brook trout populations, the potential for natural recolonization by larval fish of a river recovering from a prolonged history of industrial pollution (Pigeon River), and the potential for development of biomonitoring protocols using meiofauna for mountain streams at risk from sediment pollution.

Kathy Gould Mathews, Ph. D., H. F. and Katherine P. Robinson Professor of Biology
My area of research specialization is plant systematics, which seeks to explain patterns of diversity in various plant groups. I study problems in the taxonomy and evolutionary relationships of flowering plant groups, such as members of the gentian and strychnos families. I focus on southeastern plants; my current research seeks to understand rapid speciation and biogeography in the coastal plain wetland plant Sabatia (swamp pink) and the unusual bog plant Bartonia (screwstem), both of the gentian family. My graduate students are currently studying the systematics of Southern Appalachian saxifrages (genus Micranthes) and growth characteristics of rivercane (Arundinaria gigantea). My research tools include morphological analysis and molecular phylogenetics of DNA sequences. My lab is also involved in an interdisciplinary rivercane research project for which we are characterizing the clonal diversity and flowering behavior of rivercane in western North Carolina using molecular markers known as AFLPs (amplified fragment length polymorphisms). I am interested in supervising undergraduate and graduate students on projects involving the taxonomy and evolution of Southern Appalachian flora.

Jessica L. Moore, Ph.D., Genetics, Cancer Biology
The modern theory of cancer is that it begins with changes to common cellular components
resulting in the accumulation of mutations that lead to the overproliferation and
inappropriate growth known as a tumor. Research in my lab is currently focused on
two main areas of cancer genetics using the small freshwater zebrafish, Danio rerio,
as a model organism for human cancer. One project underway is to map and characterize
several novel mutations in zebrafish that cause genomic instability, the gin mutations
(Moore et al. 2006). The effects of these mutations can be studied from the early
embryonic stages of development to the formation of tumors in adult zebrafish. Adults
that carry only one mutant copy of the genomic instability genes seem to have a dramatically
increased susceptibility to cancer by developing a variety of tumors, with similar
pathology to that seen in humans! A second area of research uses zebrafish as a model
system for testicular cancer. Abnormal testicular masses are extremely frequent in
zebrafish males. We are looking at patterns of differential gene expression and oncogene
activity in zebrafish testicular cancer to better understand human testicular cancer.

Seán P. O’Connell, Ph.D., Microbial Ecology, Diversity of bacteria and archaea in soils and waters.
My research centers on the biodiversity of prokaryotes in their natural environments. Included in these studies are the Bacteria and Archaea that inhabit soils and waters of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Particular emphasis is placed on databasing heterotrophic bacterial species occurrences over time from the same locations and in attempting to culture unusual and difficult to grow microorganisms. Undergraduate and graduate students are a vital help in these endeavors.

Joseph Pechmann, Ph.D., Population and Community Ecology, Herpetology, Wetlands Ecology
Conservation ecology of amphibians; implications of complex life cycles and habitat shifts for ecology and conservation; wetland ecology and aquatic-terrestrial interactions; population dynamics, trend analyses, and demography.

Malcolm (Mack) Powell, Ph. D., Elucidating host – pathogen interactions, with a focus on Chagas’ disease
My research interests can be broadly classified as elucidating host/pathogen interactions. Presently, the majority of my efforts are focused on Chagas' disease. This disease is caused by a protozoan hemoflagellate, which is endemic in much of Central and South America where an estimated 16-18 million people are infected and another 90 million are at risk. Recently, we have found strong evidence that tissue tropism of the pathogen may be influenced by host genetics, a characteristic previously attributed the organism itself. If it can be fully substantiated, this phenomenon could be the key to understanding why 30-40% of infected individuals develop life threatening cardiac damage and the remainder do not.

 

 

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