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Alert Posted on March 21st, 2018 at 8:25 pm

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GRCS: Biology – Faculty Mentors and Labs

Faculty-Student Research Labs – with current and/or past Gateway Scholars


Dr. Luke Butler, Physiological and Behavioral Ecology of Birds

We study the ecology and evolution of molt, the process by which birds replace their old, worn feathers with new, fully functional feathers. Different species, populations, and age classes of birds vary greatly in when, where, how rapidly, and how extensively they molt, but little of that variation is described or understood. We describe molt dynamics and interpret differences among species and populations using contrasts in ecology, behavior, and morphology. In a related line of inquiry, we also study the ecology and morphology of the feathers that cover birds’ bodies. Body plumage serves numerous functions but we know little about how different feather functions are served by different feather structures. We are also interested in how birds respond behaviorally and physiologically to environmental disturbance. We work with live birds in the field, and with research specimens in the lab.


Dr. Gary Dickinson, Physiological Ecology of Marine Invertebrates

Our group employs an integrative and highly interdisciplinary approach to study biological adhesion, biomineralization, and larval behavior in barnacles, crabs and bivalves. We are especially interested in assessing how environmental stressors, such as ocean acidification and global warming, will affect the mechanical, structural and biochemical properties of invertebrate shells and glues.


Dr. Kathryn Elliott, Bacterial Genetics

Dr. K.T. Elliott and her students conduct research in bacterial genetics. Her research group studies genomic rearrangements, particularly large genetic duplications, amplifications and deletions. Such rearrangements occur much more frequently than point mutations and have been implicated in environmentally important problems such as herbicide and insecticide resistance. These rearrangements also play a key role in evolution, facilitating the reductive evolution of genomes in obligate symbionts and the evolution of novel genes from duplicate copies. Projects will use the genetically tractable soil bacterium Acinetobacter baylyi ADP1 as a model organism to investigate the formation and early remodeling of these large genetic rearrangements from both an evolutionary and molecular perspective.


Dr. Jeffery Erickson, Developmental Respiratory Neurobiology

To ensure survival, all mammals must begin life outside the womb with the ability to breathe on their own and respond appropriately to external stimuli that require an adaptive change in breathing pattern. The part of the nervous system that controls breathing must therefore be sufficiently developed at the time of birth to support effective breathing behavior. However, the transition to the outside world during birth is relatively sudden and although breathing is initiated almost immediately, it typically takes some time for the breathing pattern of the newborn to become regular and stable. In addition, abnormalities in nervous system development can result in defective breathing behavior after birth and are thought to be the underlying basis for developmental respiratory disorders such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and congenital hypoventilation syndrome. My lab is interested in both the genetic and environmental factors that are responsible for the normal development of the respiratory control system, and to the stabilization of breathing behavior after birth. In addition, we are interested in understanding how abnormal prenatal developmental can lead to breathing disorders after birth. We currently employ a multi-level approach to these problems that combines physiological and anatomical techniques, in conjunction with a genetically engineered “knockout” mouse strain, to study the role of the neurochemical serotonin in the development of breathing behavior.


Dr. Tracy Kress, Gene Expression and Cell Biology of Yeast

Dr. Kress’s lab investigates how RNA splicing and transcription are coordinated using Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yeast) as a model organism to answer a fundamental question relevant to all organisms: how do cells regulate the expression of their genes? A key step in eukaryotic gene expression is RNA splicing, whereby the non-protein coding introns are removed from RNA by the spliceosome.  Splicing must occur efficiently and with nucleotide precision or risk the production of non-functional, potentially deleterious protein, which can lead to developmental defects or disease. The coupling of RNA splicing with transcription provides a mechanism to increase the efficiency and precision of gene expression, yet little is known about how the two processes are coordinated. Yeast as it is an ideal organism; it is easy to manipulate and facilitates projects with multi-faceted approaches. Undergraduate projects will provide students with broad training in genetics, and cell/molecular biology while exploring the development of a tractable yeast model system.


Dr. Donald Lovett, Osmoregulation in Crustaceans

The central focus of Dr. Lovett’s research program is to understand how crabs are able to survive and thrive in an environment that would be lethal to most organisms. Crabs that live in estuaries are exposed to particularly stressful environmental conditions, including a continual change in seawater salinity. Specifically, the Lovett lab examines changes in the activity of the ion-transporting enzyme sodium-potassium ATPase and in levels of the hormones dopamine and hormone methyl farnesoate.  Recent projects have studied potential triggers for initiating changes in each of these products and for modulating osmoregulatory responses in the crab. In particular, experiments have examined how changes in the concentrations of either calcium or magnesium in the seawater (and the concomitant changes in levels of these ions in the crab bloodstream) trigger changes in the crab. Available student projects will investigate changes in the gene expression levels of ATPase or hormone synthesis pathway enzymes, which allow crabs to adapt to acute and chronic changes in seawater salinity.


Dr. Janet Morrison, Plant Ecology and Biotic Interactions

Dr. Morrison’s lab is conducting a multiyear, manipulative experiment to learn how invasive plant species and white-tailed deer interact in suburban forests. The goals are to identify main drivers of plant community structure and plant invasion, while testing the ‘invasional meltdown’ hypothesis and the ‘passenger’ vs. ‘driver’ models of invasion. The experiment consists of 240 plots (16 m2 each), arrayed across six forests in central New Jersey, in which two important non-native plant invaders were introduced alone, together, or not at all, along with deer excluded by fences or allowed access. The invaders’ population growth and changes in the herb layer community are being followed for five years and analyzed with structural equation modeling. Students participate in mentored teams to collect a wide variety of plant and environmental data, and develop their own shorter-term side projects within the experimental structure. They also discuss the invasion literature, with attention to both the ecology and evolution of invasive species.  


Dr. Amanda Norvell, Cell Biology and Gene Expression in Fruit Flies

Dr. Norvell’s laboratory studies the maternal control of embryonic development in Drosophila melanogaster. Proper development requires precise spatial and temporal expression of the TGF-alpha like protein Gurken (Grk) during oogenesis. They are investigating how post-transcriptional mechanisms, more specifically poly-adenylation of the grk transcript, contribute to control of Grk expression. Preliminary experiments suggest that active deadenylation is necessary to prevent ectopic Grk protein accumulation during oogenesis. Current projects in the lab include identification of the proteins required for grk polyadenylation, and analysis of how modulation of grk mRNA poly-A tail length contributes to spatial and temporal Grk protein expression. 


Dr. Marcia O’Connell, Zebrafish Developmental Biology

Dr. O’Connell’s lab investigates gene regulation during development in vertebrates, focusing on events during oogenesis and embryogenesis. They study proteins in zebrafish that are involved in a mechanism of translational control called cytoplasmic polyadenylation and are currently analyzing two families of genes, the CPEB family, and the zebrafish squid-like family. The zsquid genes are a primary focus due their homology to a key patterning gene in flies, called Squid. In Drosophila, the Squid protein is maternally provided, and required for proper dorsal/ventral patterning. Dr. O’Connell’s lab has shown that the mRNAs for the four zebrafish squid-like genes are maternally provided, and that at least one of these transcripts is regulated by cytoplasmic polyadenylation. Available research projects will analyze the regulation of the synthesis of the four zebrafish Squid proteins and their roles during embryogenesis.


Dr. Nina Peel, Cell Biology and Genetics

Microtubules are essential cellular components required for cilia growth, cell division and neuronal development. Using C. elegans, Dr. Peel’s lab investigates how the post-translational modification of microtubules impacts their function and contributes to organismal development. Such studies are also relevant to a number of genetic disorders, such as Joubert Syndrome, that to date have yet undefined causes and few treatment options. To this end, her main project asks the following question: How does ablating a particular modification, specifically glutamylation, impact germline, embryonic and neuronal development? This work is especially conducive to undergraduate research, as it will give students the opportunity to use a well-known, easily tractable C. elegans model system and learn confocal microscopy techniques while providing a multi-disciplinary component that intertwines both evolution and development.


Dr. Leeann Thornton, Plant Biochemical Responses to Stress

Dr. Thornton’s lab studies the role of cytochrome P450 enzymes (CYPs) in regulating plant responses to stress. She, along with her current students, analyze evolutionary relationships between similar CYPs from different plants to guide the biochemical characterization of the role the enzyme family plays in all plants. Currently, they are using Arabidopsis as a model system for characterizing the role of CYPs in stress responses at different stages of development. This characterization will be guided by phylogenetic relationships between CYPs from different crop species. Future projects will be aimed at screening for corn mutants to characterize the role of CYP enzymes in crop plants, an important question related to agricultural processes. Students on this project will benefit from studying both crop plants and the Arabidopsis model system, a useful tool for a variety of genetic studies and exploration of evolutionary processes.


Dr. Matthew Wund, Evolutionary Ecology

Dr. Wund is broadly interested in how populations respond to novel environments over successive generations, including from the perspective of individuals expressing altered morphology and behavior (phenotypic plasticity). To investigate whether and how phenotypic plasticity influences evolutionary processes, Dr. Wund’s lab takes advantage of the threespine stickleback fish model, an invaluable model system in ecology and evolution. Using this system, they can simulate freshwater colonization events in the lab, directly evaluating the developmental responses of “ancestral” stickleback, and make inferences about how these responses may have influenced subsequent adaptive evolution. Research projects in his lab will seek to answer the following questions: How did plasticity influence the repeated evolution of benthic and limnetic ecotypes that occur in shallow and deep lakes, respectively? How might behavioral plasticity allow stickleback to cope with the introduction of novel predators?


Click here to see all the faculty-student research areas in Biology at TCNJ

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