University of Central Florida, Department of Biology

National Science Foundation REU Site: Conservation, Restoration and Communication

Dr. Linda Walters and Dr. Kate Mansfield (PI, co-PI)

Faculty Mentors: Dr. Chase Mason, Dr. Eric Hoffman, Dr. Eric Goolsby, Dr. Lisa Chambers, Dr. Kelly Kibler (Engineering), Dr. Geoffrey Cook, Dr. Patrick Bohlen, Dr. Anna Savage, Dr. Michelle Gaither, Dr. Robert Fitak

Program Dates: May 22 to July 29, 2022
Application Dates: March 1 – March 25, 2022

This Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) site award to the University of Central Florida, located in Orlando, FL, will support the training of 10 students for 10 weeks, starting in late May, during the summers of 2022- 2024. It is anticipated that a total of 30 students, primarily from schools with limited research opportunities or from under-represented groups, will be trained through this program. The program focus meets a critical national need to train students in the fields of conservation and restoration using cutting-edge tools and techniques. Interwoven into the experience will be science communication training. Students will learn how research is conducted, and many will present the results of their work at scientific conferences. Students will be tracked after the program in order to determine their career paths.

Application

Application Dates: March 1 – March 25, 2022
You will be notified by April 20, 2022

Apply Now on the NSF ETAP Application Portal

Applications include:

  1. Resume/CV, transcripts (unofficial is acceptable)
  2. Two reference letters with one from a faculty member at your current institution, and one from a person within your circle of support. Family members cannot write the second letter, but it can come from a current or past teacher, coach, clergy member, employer, etc.
  3. Personal statement describing yourself. This statement may include descriptions of one or more of the following: your background, experience, program eligibility, motivations for applying, career goals, and any challenges faced in the past, present or future related towards attaining your career goals. Please also describe which UCF faculty mentors (up to three individuals) and their research that most appeals to you and why.

Type of student we are looking for:

  • We are interested in students from outside of central Florida who are not currently attending UCF and meet some or all of the criteria listed here.
  • We seek to support undergraduates who are under-represented in STEM, have just completed their freshman or sophomore years at an institution of higher education and are working toward a 4-year undergraduate degree, have had limited or no previous experience in conservation/restoration field or laboratory research, and who are very excited about the possibility of a career in conservation/restoration.

What students receive:  Award includes $6,000 stipend, food allowance, dorm-style housing, and round-trip travel to Orlando


Faculty Mentors & Research Areas


Mentors Accepting STudents for Summer 2022

Dr. Patrick Bohlen

Research in the Bohlen lab focusses on urban ecology, with an eye towards understanding of factors that affect biodiversity in urban systems and using that understanding to increase biodiversity and enhance ecosystem services in urban environments. Current projects in this lab focus on invertebrate ecology in urban systems, including pollinator ecology and landscape and local scale effects on ground beetles. Students will participate in a multidisciplinary research project located in a new suburban development that is interesting in increasing the use of native plants in their eco-themed residential development. The research will be centered on experimental plots established by the developer at their base camp to investigate the impact of different water regimes and soil amendments on the establishment and growth of native plants, and the associated pollinator and ground beetle communities. Students will gain experience:

  1. Sampling invertebrate populations in the field using standardized sampling protocols
  2. Processing, identifying and archiving collected invertebrate samples
  3. Working with native plants with potential use in the landscape industry
  4. Understanding experimental design and data analysis.

Dr. Lisa Chambers

The Aquatic Biogeochemistry Lab focuses on understanding natural chemical cycles occurring in wetlands and coastal ecosystems. Through analyzing the properties and processes in wetland soils and shallow sediments, we contribute knowledge on how ecosystems can:

  1. Serve to mitigate global climate change through soil carbon burial
  2. Reduce the nutrient pollution that causes harmful algal blooms through microbial transformations.

A 2022 REU student will develop a project to investigate how coastal marshes and mangroves process excess nitrogen pollution and how different soil types and vegetation communities may impact nitrogen removal. The student will gain field skills collecting soil samples in wetlands along Florida’s Gulf coast and laboratory skills conducting bench-scale experiments on denitrification.

Dr. Robert Fitak:

The Fitak Integrative Genomics Lab applies next-generation DNA sequencing and bioinformatic approaches to understand the incredible array of biodiversity and the specific adaptations, physiology, and behavior that make species unique. For Summer 2022, the REU student will work with the mentor to design a project related to one of two key active research areas:

  1. Genomics of infectious diseases in wildlife
  2. Understanding the relationship between animal movement/navigation and geomagnetic changes.

The REU students will learn how to perform basic molecular assays such as DNA/RNA extraction and sequencing and to analyze data with both bioinformatic and statistical approaches. Although work in the Fitak Lab does not generally involve field work, the technical skills involved in genomic and bioinformatic analyses are rapidly becoming an essential component of interdisciplinary conservation research and management.

Dr. Michelle Gaither

Lionfish were introduced from the Indo-Pacific into the western-central Atlantic in 1990’s probably as aquarium releases. Since then, they have spread across the region and form dense populations in some areas. Lionfish are generalist predators that prey upon native wildlife with few natural predators in the Atlantic. The first record of lionfish in the biodiverse Indian River Lagoon (IRL) was in 2010 and their tolerance for low salinity is thought to facilitate their movement into estuarine, however, the extent of their dispersal in the Indian River Lagoon is not known. While traditional survey methods are expensive and time consuming, environmental DNA (eDNA) can be an efficient means of determining the extent of their presence in coastal systems without direct observation. The Gaither Lab is seeking a student to optimize an eDNA assay for the detection of lionfish in coastal water. The student will optimize an existing molecular assay for lionfish detection and then apply this protocol to samples from the IRL. The project will involve some eDNA field collections and the student will learn molecular techniques including primer design, DNA extraction, and real-time PCR.

Dr. Eric Hoffman:

The main research focus of the Hoffman Lab is to investigate levels of genetic variation present in natural populations and to utilize this information to address hypotheses about the molecular ecology/population genetics of the focal organism. In this way, the Hoffman Lab addresses a fundamental aim of evolutionary biology, to understand why and how genetic diversity found in plants and animals exhibits the patterns observed in natural populations. This theme has manifested into an array of research avenues that share this common goal. Within population genetics, my research falls into three general categories investigating:

  1. The evolutionary history of plants and animals;
  2. Conservation genetics & genetics of captive-bred populations;
  3. The evolution of invasive species.

Recent projects in my lab have focused genomic diversity of Florida scrub jays, American alligators, African katydids, and captive-bred Hippos housed at local zoos. Summer REU students will work on collecting and analyzing genetic and genomic data on one these or other active research projects taking place in the Hoffman Lab.

Dr. Kelly Kibler

The Kibler Ecohydraulics laboratory conducts research related to flow-biota interaction in aquatic ecosystems and applies this basic science to the design of green infrastructure for climate adaptation. During the summer of 2022, REU students will develop individual projects related to characterizing flow and sediment transport in biological canopies (mangrove forest, seagrass beds and/or oyster reef) and discovering key hydrodynamic thresholds in habitat suitability for these organisms, which are commonly applied as ‘ecosystem engineers’ in aquatic restoration. Students will make observations in the field using cutting-edge hydrodynamic instruments, perform experiments in a sediment recirculating flume, and create numerical hydrodynamic models. Depending on the student’s interest, research questions may range from the basic science of life in moving fluids (how does roughness of an oyster reef create turbulence cues that influence larval dispersal and settlement?) to highly applied and design-oriented questions (design of a habitat mosaic to mitigate erosion and flood hazards).

Dr. Kate Mansfield:

The Marine Turtle Research Group at UCF focuses on sea turtle biology, ecology, behavior, and conservation across all sea turtle life stages—from eggs to adults. The lab has three main field- and laboratory-based research programs including

  • A long-term sea turtle nesting beach monitoring program along the central Florida Atlantic coast focusing on sea turtle reproductive biology on the most important sea turtle rookery in the Western Hemisphere, the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge;
  • A long-term in-water netting project examining foraging ecology and demographics of large juvenile turtles in the Indian River Lagoon;
  • An offshore tracking and sampling project focusing on young, oceanic stage sea turtles (the sea turtle “lost years”) including sea turtle diet/foraging ecology, health, and movement ecology.

One summer 2022 REU student will have an opportunity to participate in the MTRG’s coastal field activities (nighttime sea turtle nesting beach surveys and in-water sampling of wild juvenile turtles) and interact and work with a field team made up of undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff. The REU student will learn field sampling techniques including handling, measuring, tagging, and sampling multiple life stages of sea turtles. Field training will be provided in use of All Terrain Vehicles and boat safety. The student will also gain experience in laboratory techniques including stable isotope sample preparation, blood slide preparation, and protein assays and will develop an independent project based on one of two research topics:

  1. Diet determination in oceanic stage sea turtles using stable isotope analysis of archived tissue samples. This research topic will provide additional laboratory training in stable isotope analysis and diet modeling.
  2. Understanding sea turtle health using plasma protein levels in loggerhead and green sea turtles across life-stages and habitats. This research topic will provide skills in preparing standard spectroscopy curves, interpreting Lowry Assay results, and regression modeling.

Both projects would introduce the student to R programming and bio-statistical analyses, and the student will be encouraged to present their final study results at a future national or regional sea turtle scientific meeting.

Dr. Chase Mason

Research in the Mason lab centers on plant evolutionary ecophysiology and genetics in crops and crop-wild relatives, with consequences for sustainability in agroecosystems and conservation of crop genetic resources. For summer 2022, REU student will develop a project working with one of two research areas:

  1. Phenotyping photosynthetic physiology in a genus-wide garden collection of >45 species of wild Helianthus
  2. Documenting variation in inducible chemical defense responses within diverse genotypes of cultivated sunflower (Helianthus annuus).

Based on interests, the REU student will develop a project focused on documenting variation in either photosynthetic physiology or inducible chemical defenses. Depending on the project, the student will gain skills in at least two of the following areas:

  1. Assessment of photosynthetic response curves through measurement of gas exchange;
  2. High-throughput hyperspectral reflectance spectroscopy and multivariate statistics for analysis;
  3. Analytical chemistry of volatile and nonvolatile plant secondary metabolism with capillary electrophoresis or GC-MS;
  4. Use of phylogenetic comparative methods and other statistical analyses.

Dr. Anna Savage

Research in the Savage lab utilizes genetic and evolutionary approaches to advance knowledge of amphibian and reptile immune systems, particularly in the context of emerging infectious diseases. REU student(s) joining the lab in summer 2022 will develop a project in one of the following research areas:

  1. Pathogen infection dynamics in central Florida amphibian communities to identify drivers of disease outbreaks;
  2. Conservation genetics of coastal Florida leopard frogs threatened by sea level rise;
  3. Immune gene evolution in vertebrates (turtles, frogs, or snakes);
  4. Experimental tadpole infections to understand susceptibility to the pathogens Bd, Ranavirus, and/or Perkinsea.

Depending on the specific project, students will gain skills in field sampling, lab experimentation, PCR and qPCR, DNA sequence analysis, and/or bioinformatics.


The scientific focus of this REU Site is the conservation and restoration of diverse taxa (e.g., sea turtles, oysters, mangroves, frogs, honeybees, wading birds, captive bred species in zoos, etc.) and ecosystems (oceans, beaches, estuaries, wetlands, etc.) with a focus on Florida. Human activities often seek to improve natural systems through conservation and restoration. Limited understanding of these processes, however, makes success difficult. University of Central Florida’s Biology Department is home to many experts in these ever-expanding fields. Our REU mentors combine field data collection with cutting-edge laboratory research (e.g., eDNA, metabolomics). This REU program focuses on inquiry-based research projects developed by students with support from their mentors. Directly connected to both conservation and restoration is communication. Students participating in this REU will enhance their communication skills with the goal of each student developing a science identity by the end of summer. Professional development training is designed to remove common barriers to success; workshops include ethics and responsible conduct of research, career choices and job shadowing opportunities, how to navigate graduate school admissions, and time management.

More information about the program is available by visiting https://academicsuccess.ucf.edu/reu, or by contacting the PI (Dr. Linda Walters at linda.walters@ucf.edu) or the co-PI (Dr. Kate Mansfield at kate.mansfield@ucf.edu).