REU Biology Program
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. The program is held onsite at AMNH, housing at nearby International House 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: January 31, 2024
For assistance with application process, contact [email protected]
Summer 2024 Biology Project Titles
Dental wear and development in African pigs as a model for hominins
Mentors: Deming Yang and Ashley Hammond
Humans have slow dental developmental schedules that are linked to our slow life history and longevity. However, our refined modern diet and low dental wear rates often cause problems with our wisdom teeth (third molars) that often need to be surgically removed. Warthogs also have slow dental developmental schedules, but their high dental wear rates with mesial drift in the tooth row resolve the problem of having long and tall third molars. A good comparison is with the Giant Forest Hog and the Bush Pig with shorter third molars. To complete this project, you will first take digital photographs of upper and lower jaws of different dental wear stages among extant African pigs (Mammalogy collections). You will score the dental wear stage from the photographs, then use dental landmarks to track the progression of dental mesial drift and dental wear. You will also receive training in dental anatomy and development in mammals, photographic methods for data collection, 2-D dental morphological data collection using the FIJI software, coding for statistical analyses and data visualization in R. This study will help us understand the role of dental use, dental wear, dental development, and evolution of specialized dentition, and how they are related to our own dental problems.
Phylogenetic Graph Optimization
Mentor: Ward Wheeler
The project will center on the optimization of model parameters for use with genomic and quantitative data phylogenetic analysis. The goal is to apply techniques of expectation-maximization to phylogenetic models used in the reconstruction of historical relationships. Test cases will include arthropod, linguistic, and viral data sets.
Mentors: Lacie Newton and Jessica Ware
The insect order comprising dragonflies and damselflies, Odonata, contains ~6000 species with a multitude of different morphological traits, ecological traits, and geographic ranges. Variation in these traits make odonates ideal systems to investigate various biological questions, specifically evolutionary relationships, character evolution and adaptation, and biogeographical hypotheses. This project focuses on using the untapped potential of historical museum specimens for gathering not only morphological/ecological data but also molecular data to answer ecological and evolutionary questions. We will work with odonate taxa, for which we have already generated anchored hybrid enrichment sequence data. This subgenomic data, in conjunction with morphological and ecological data, will be used to answer questions regarding evolutionary relationships and biogeographical hypotheses within odonate taxa and what factors may have influenced diversification within this group (e.g., character evolution related to color and flight behavior).
Plecoptera (stonefly) systematics
Mentors: Anna Eichert and Jessica Ware
Out of the millions of species of insects that exist on our planet, only 5 groups are known to display ice-walking capabilities, with stoneflies exhibiting the highest species diversity. Stoneflies are most diverse in mid- to high-latitudes and many species are able to survive in below freezing temperatures and in aquatic habitats that are frozen for a significant portion of the year. Nemoura arctica is one of these stonefly species that has been found to have antifreeze proteins that run in its blood to allow it to survive in the Arctic. It has a circumpolar distribution and is prominent in the United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Norway. During the last interglacial period (130,000-16,000 years ago), ice caps existed in the northern paleo Arctic that could have facilitated gene flow between populations of N. arctica. To uncover the evolutionary story of these populations, we will be performing population genetics on specimens from Alaska, Canada, and Sweden. These data will help us understand the dynamic forces that shaped existing populations and the true genetic diversity among them. This research will result in a better understanding of how aquatic insects adapt to extreme temperatures which is crucial in predicting how they may respond to ongoing environmental and climatic changes.
Utilizing historic collections to uncover Apoid wasp diversity in Argentina
Cicada Killers, Mud Daubers, Beewolves, Jewel Wasps, these are just a few of the many names occupying the diverse group of Apoid wasps. Given such titles due to their behavior of hunting and paralyzing prey across arthropods, and their array of morphologies, these wasps are a paraphyletic superfamily spanning nearly 10,000 species, and ranging in size from 2 to 50mm. Despite their fascinations, Apoid wasps have long remained understudied with few experts on working on them. This results in patchy understanding of their diversity on a global let alone regional level, and in turn limits them from further biological study and discussions related to conservation. We can utilize the treasure troves of insect collections to better understand the historic and current patterns of Apoid wasps. In this project we will create a species level checklist of Apoid wasps from Argentina, due to the excellent representation of specimens from this region at the AMNH. We will harvest online resources and collections material to database the diversity of Apoid wasps in Argentina. We will also collaborate with researchers from the country, and aim to publish in translation, so that the checklist can serve as a relevant body of work for future studies there. This research spans topics in taxonomy, nomenclature, morphology, collections, global collaboration, and museum ethics, and is critical for setting a foundation to grasp the diversity of this unique group.
Prey specificity and it’s role in camouflage in Nudibranchs
Mentors: Lina Raubold and Jessica Goodheart
Most gastropod molluscs (snails and slugs) possess a hard, calcified shell that among other functions serves as a refuge to protect them from predators. However, there has been a reduction or complete loss of this shell in multiple groups of marine gastropods, including a group of sea slugs called nudibranchs (Nudibranchia). In the absence of a protective shell, nudibranch sea slugs have evolved a fascinating diversity of both defensive mechanisms and color patterns that either help them to signal their defensiveness or to blend in with their background. Nudibranchs are hypothesized to have highly specific prey preference oftentimes narrowing down to only one species. Interestingly, some nudibranchs that try to blend in with their background don’t necessarily blend in with their prey organism but show cryptic coloration on their prey’s substrate. This project seeks to characterize trophic specificity and its role in camouflage in nudibranchs. To reach the proposed objectives, the REU student(s) will use DNA metabarcoding techniques to identify food organisms in the gut content of cryptic nudibranchs. Secondly, the student(s) will describe the morphology of cryptic nudibranchs using histology and µCT scans to analyze defensive stinging-organelle storing structures in nudibranchs and compare it to descriptions in the literature.
Analyzing dinosaur growth rates through bone histology
Mentors: Zoe Kulik and Roger Benson
Dinosaurs evolved from small, bipedal animals over 200 million years ago and diversified throughout the Mesozoic to give rise to the largest terrestrial animals to have ever existed. However, avian dinosaurs (birds) weigh 20 million times less than the largest estimates for sauropods, indicating exceptional phenotypic diversity. The fossil record allows paleontologists to study these phenotypic changes but many more biological details relating to growth and metabolic rate are available in the microstructural details of fossils when looked at in thin-section. This is because bones fossilize at the cellular level, making it possible to study bone tissue structures in animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago with a level of precision comparable to what we can obtain from living organisms. Using bone histology, this project aims to understand the pattern of evolution of dinosaur growth rates and the varieties of bone tissues that reflect changes in body size. The REU student will learn how to interpret bone tissue composition of dinosaur thin sections and their close relatives, take high-resolution photomicrographs, measure vascular spaces, and record the number of growth marks present in each thin section. They may also assist in thin-section preparation. The project will provide experience in bone histology, dinosaur evolution, and microscopy skills.