REU Biology Program

Bio REU page pic
Biology Research Experience for Undergraduates

The Research Experience for Undergraduates Program in Systematics and Evolutionary Biology is funded by the National Science Foundation and has been in place for 30 years. Our program brings approximately ten students to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City each summer for a ten-week experience working with our curators, faculty, and post-doctoral fellows.

Research projects span diverse fields of comparative biology including paleontology, genomics, population biology, conservation biology, and phylogenetics and taxonomy. Students have access to the Museum's immense natural history collections as well as state-of-the-art equipment for advanced imaging (CT scanner, SEM, TEM) and genomics (Sanger and pyrosequencing platforms).

Students receive a $6,000 traineeship stipend, as well as per diem costs for housing and meals, relocation expenses, and transportation subsidies. Pending COVID pandemic conditions, and assuming the program is held onsite at AMNH, housing at nearby Columbia University is made available. In addition to conducting original research projects throughout the summer, students also participate in formal instruction in systematics and evolution, and receive training in ethics, networking, communication, and other career-building skills.

Who Should Apply

All students in the program must be U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals or permanent residents of the United States. Students must be entering or continuing in an Associates or Baccalaureate degree program following their summer internship. As part of the National Science Foundation's commitment to broadening participation in STEM fields, we especially encourage students who come from community colleges, undergraduate-only institutions, and minority-serving institutions to apply. For questions with application process, contact [email protected]

 

Application Deadline: Closed for Summer 2022

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2022 Project Titles 

Sexual dimorphism in carnivoran jaw morphology

A diagram illustrating the degree of change in carnivoran jaws.
Diagram indicating sexual dimorphism in carnivoran jaws
Chris Law

Mentors: Chris Law and John Flynn

The evolution and maintenance of sexual dimorphism has long been attributed to sexual selection. Under sexual selection theory, sexually dimorphic traits evolved as a result of intrasexual competition, providing some individuals greater advantages in contests and/or attracting the opposite sex for breeding opportunities. An alternative hypothesis for the maintenance of sexual dimorphism is intersexual niche divergence. Under the niche divergence hypothesis, differences in phenotypic traits such as trophic morphologies reflect intraspecific differences in resource use, thereby reducing intersexual competition for resources in the environment. The goal of this project is to examine how sexual selection and niche divergence influenced the evolution of sexual dimorphism in the mandibles of carnivoran mammals. To accomplish this goal, we will generate a database of 3D scans of mandibles from specimens held at the AMNH, quantify sexual dimorphism in mandibular morphologies, and use evolutionary modeling to test the effects of sexual selection and niche divergence on mandibular sexual dimorphism. The student will learn to 3D scan jaws and collect morphological data from osteological specimens, perform statistical analyses using command-line approaches in R, and contribute to presentation of the results in the form of scientific presentations and/or papers.

 

How to kill a survivor: Late Cretaceous ammonoid diversity dynamics

 

A picture of two fossilized ammonoids

Mentors: Christopher Whalen and Neil Landman

Cephalopods (e.g., squids, bobtail squids, cuttlefish, octopuses, nautiloids, ammonoids) are among the most complex invertebrates and key components of global marine ecosystems. Ammonoids flourished in Mesozoic oceans, but their diversity was catastrophically reduced during the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction. A few ammonoid species survived the K-Pg impact, but these do not appear to have diversified. It is unclear why the K-Pg was so devastating for ammonoids when they had survived numerous previous mass extinctions. In order to understand the relevant macroevolutionary dynamics, we need to understand the interrelationships and diversity trajectories of the various Late Cretaceous cephalopod taxa. Through examination of AMNH fossils and literature surveys, the student will help assemble a new ammonoid database to address these and other macroevolutionary questions regarding cephalopod evolution. The student will also have opportunities to examine microCT data of extant and extinct cephalopods, and the project could involve fieldwork and visits to other nearby museums, such as the Yale Peabody. Given the literature component, the student will be able to produce results even if museum access is limited by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Morphology and evolution of the perissodactyls; new contributions from the petrosal bone and inner ear

An image depicting the petrosal bone and inner ear of a perissodactyl.

Mentors: Jeremy Tissier and Jin Meng

Perissodactyls were one of the major and largest group of herbivorous mammals during most of the Tertiary period. Although nowadays most of its representatives are greatly endangered (rhinoceroses and tapirs), they were once very diverse. To reconstruct their phylogenetic relationships, and to better understand their macroevolutionary dynamics through time, we need to investigate their fossil record. The AMNH collections are among the most important collections in the world for perissodactyls, as they were especially diverse in North America. The aim of this project will be to study and compare morphological characters from the petrosal bone and inner ear of selected extant and extinct perissodactyls. These characters need to be observed through X-ray microtomography and reconstructed in three dimensions. If time allows, the project can be expanded to include more specimens. A phylogenetic analysis could then be calculated based on the incorporation of these new characters into an existing morphological matrix, which will be included in a larger scale study. The student will then learn how to observe and score morphological characters, as well as how to process and use tomographic data and 3D models. In addition, and if possible, the student may also learn how to run and interpret a phylogenetic analysis.

Mining museums for historic DNA

A photograph of a round amphibian (Rhombophryne testudo) in a terrestrial setting.
Rhombophryne testudo (photo C.J. Raxworthy)
A photo of the chameleon Furcifer lateralis, perched on a stick.
Furcifer lateralis (photo C.J. Raxworthy)

Mentors: Alexander Salis, Christopher Raxworthy and Brian Smith

Natural History Museums have massive potential to yield genetic information about past populations and extinct species. Typical museum specimens (e.g., skins, skeletons, and fluid-preserved specimens) have long been considered poor sources of genetic material but are now being recognised as an unrivalled source of historic DNA (hDNA) for studying changes to biodiversity over the last 200 years. Largely, ancient DNA methods have been applied when sampling museum specimens for hDNA without regard to the differences associated with techniques used to preserve museum specimens. This project focuses on using the vast herpetology and ornithology collections at the AMNH to identify optimal tissue sources and extraction methods of hDNA, identify the damage patterns of hDNA from specimens of different preservation types, and explore the utility of hDNA in phylogenetic inference and biodiversity analyses. The REU student will be involved in various aspects of the project, including sampling museum specimens (frogs, lizards, and birds) for different tissue types, extracting DNA and building NGS libraries, enrichment of libraries for genetic loci, processing sequencing data, and phylogenetic analyses. Prior experience with pipetting techniques and analyzing sequence data would be beneficial.

Evolutionary analysis of human language, culture, and whole genome sequences of IndoEuropean-speaking peoples

A close-up image of the globe, focused on Northern Europe.

Mentors: Ward Wheeler

The project will work to integrate databases of linguistic, cultural, and whole genome sequence information of IndoEuropean-speaking peoples. The goal is to test hypotheses of historical migration patters in europe and whether these different sorts of information have followed the same or different routes. The summer researcher will be using software tools developed at AMNH within a computational approach to create a unified view into this chapter of human history.

Evolutionary dynamics of phenotypic evolution in Andean birds

An image of the phenotypic evolution of Andean birds, including a bird perched on a hand

Mentors: Elkin Tenorio and Brian Smith

During the Cenozoic, birds diversified in a vast variety of shapes, colors, and songs. The timing and rate of diversifications, and the evolutionary and ecological factors promoting the differentiation among species across time are still uncertain. For example, the coexistence of species in the same area may promote phenotypic divergence due to ecological interactions that reduce competition. The increased resolution of the avian tree of life now allows for direct testing of the role of ecological interactions in driving phenotypic evolution. However, the phenotypic information, specifically in traits related to acoustic and plumage characters are scarce for most of the most diverse groups of birds. Using Andean birds as a study system, this project will evaluate I) the relationship of the rate of phenotypic evolution with the diversification rates and II) how competition between closely related species promote the species differentiation. Using the bird collection at the AMNH, the student will learn how to 1) imaging bird specimens using digital photography to collect color measurements, 2) analyze bird vocalizations, 3) collect external morphological measurements from specimens, and 4) perform phylogenetic comparative methods. The student will gain experience in R, Python, Macros programming, and machine learning-based approaches to analyze the information collected during their residency.

Insect molecular phylogenetics

Close up image of a dragonfly with a focus on its gossamer wings

Mentors: Rhema Uche Dike, Aaron Goodman, RJ MilennaEthan TolmanJessica Ware

This project involves working with preserved insects as well as insect samples such as eDNA. Aquatic insects or eDNA samples will be extracted for DNA, and sequenced. Students will learn DNA extraction, barcoding, PCR, library preparation and downstream phylogenetic and biogeographical analyses.

Insect Morphology

A close up picture of two termites

Mentors: Rhema Uche Dike, Aaron Goodman, RJ MilennaEthan TolmanJessica Ware

This project will involve working with preserved insect specimens. The student will use Hitachi SEM techniques to image insects to collect morphological data. These data will be evaluated in the context of insect evolutionary history, and students will learn dissection, SEM microscopy, morphological data collection and biogeographical and phylogenetic analyses.