Biology Professors Receive NSF Award to Study Biodiversity

Funds support research into ecological, evolutionary processes

Ryan Garrick (left), UM associate professor of biology, and Colin Jackson, professor of biology and associate chair for graduate studies, are recipients of a National Science Foundation award to explore the Earth’s biodiversity. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Two University of Mississippi biology professors have received a National Science Foundation award for nearly $800,000 to explore interactions between microorganisms and freshwater mussels in an effort to better understand the Earth’s biodiversity, focusing on how ecosystems function.

Colin Jackson, professor of biology, is principal investigator for the award, and Ryan Garrick, associate professor of biology, is co-principal investigator. The pair is working in tandem with Carla Atkinson and Jeff Lozier, two University of Alabama biological sciences professors who received their own NSF award.

The $799,456 award to Jackson and Garrick is titled “Processes that generate and maintain phylogenetic, genetic, and functional diversity of the freshwater mussel holobiont across multiple scales.”

Holobiont is the term referring to the idea that animals contain a diverse community of microbes, their microbiome, which interacts with them. To better appreciate how an animal functions in its natural habitat, scientists need to consider not only the animal itself (the host) but also all its associated microorganisms (the microbiome).

What is little known is how variation among hosts influences their microbiome, Jackson said.

“What we will be researching is how different types of genetic variation interact and relate to the microorganisms that are found within an animal – the microbiome – and how these microorganisms affect how the host functions,” he said.

“Freshwater mussels are an ideal group of animals to investigate such questions. In their natural habitats, mussels are constantly taking in water, so they are surrounded by and exposed to many different species of microorganisms.”

Freshwater mussels are important contributors to how aquatic ecosystems function, serving as “ecosystem engineers” as they can modify aquatic habitats to make them more suitable for themselves and other organisms. The Southeastern U.S. is regarded as a global hot spot for mussel species diversity.

Mussels clean water by removing particles; reduce erosion by anchoring themselves to lake or stream beds; provide a location for algae and aquatic insects to attach, creating habitats for fish; and serve as food for aquatic birds, such as herons and egrets, and mammals, such as raccoons and otters.

“Because they filter feed and pass large volumes of water through their bodies, mussels are also great indicators of the health of freshwater environments,” Jackson said. “The presence of a diverse community of mussels usually indicates a healthy aquatic habitat that can support good fisheries and waterfowl.”

But freshwater mussels are imperiled because of changes in river patterns associated with human activities, such as damming and channeling rivers, and increased erosion and runoff from agriculture and urban development.

“Because mussels are important in helping clean aquatic ecosystems and provide habitat for other organisms, understanding their genetic diversity and how mussels function is important for restoration and conservation of these organisms and the ecosystems they inhabit,” Jackson said.

Two UM professors, Ryan Garrick (left) and Colin Jackson (third from left), are working in tandem with University of Alabama biological sciences professors Carla Atkinson (right) and Jeff Lozier on National Science Foundation awards studying the Earth’s biodiversity. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“If the mussel’s microbiome helps the organism function – such as by helping to remove pollutants or helping the mussel acquire nutrients – then conservation efforts can’t just focus on the host organism; they have to consider the whole holobiont, the host and its microorganisms. Even having the increased amount of genetic and ecological data on different mussel species that this research will generate will be helpful in their conservation.”

The researchers also will be training students in approaches to studying biodiversity and creating materials to educate the public about the importance of mussels and freshwater biodiversity in general.

The research will involve a combination of field research and laboratory analyses, with mussels being collected from Southeastern U.S. rivers and streams, mainly within the Mobile and Tennessee River basins in Alabama and Tennessee.

“At UM, we’ll primarily be focusing on laboratory work, using modern DNA sequencing approaches to characterize the microbial community, or microbiome, of mussels that the UA team collects, and to determine the genetics of different mussel species,” Jackson said.

The research team already has some mussel samples for genetic and microbiome work but will begin collecting more mussels in summer 2019. The award, No. 1831531, runs through August 2022 and includes funding for graduate students and a postdoctoral scientist to work with Jackson and Garrick.

The award is among 10 awards from the NSF to fund $18 million in research examining processes in nature and their complex interactions with climate, land use and invasive species at local, regional and continental scales. The awards are funded through NSF’s Dimensions of Biodiversity program in the agency’s Division of Environmental Biology.

The goal of the Dimensions of Biodiversity campaign is to transform how the scope and role of life on Earth are described and understood.

“This research is unique in that multiple dimensions of biodiversity are addressed simultaneously,” said Joanne Tornow, acting assistant director for NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences. “These are novel approaches that intend to get at synergistic roles of critical ecological and evolutionary processes.”

Scientist Invents Device to Improve Fishery Operations

Design being tested by Gulf shrimpers reduces bycatch of untargeted marine life

Glenn Parsons

OXFORD, Miss. – A University of Mississippi marine biologist has created a new device that could greatly improve shrimping operations and is putting the device to the test through partnerships with members of the Gulf of Mexico fishing industry.

Glenn Parsons, professor of biology and director of the UM Center for Biodiversity and Conservation Research, has invented a device that reduces unwanted fish and other creatures caught during the commercial fishing process – also known as bycatch – and thereby significantly increases the amount of shrimp caught.

“Bycatch slows down fishing, requiring extensive sorting to separate shrimp from bycatch,” Parsons said. “I have squatted on the back deck of countless shrimp boats, sorting shrimp from bycatch. It is back-breaking work – sort of like picking cotton.”

About a decade ago, Parsons noticed that previous bycatch reduction devices do not take advantage of flow quality changes that encourage fish to move to a place in the net where they can escape. With that in mind and through collaboration with Gulf Coast shrimpers and scientists at the Pascagoula Laboratory of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Parsons developed an improved version.

A typical catch on shrimp boats operating in the Gulf of Mexico contains many unwanted fish (bottom basket), known as bycatch, creating work for crews and reducing the amount of shrimp caught. Photo courtesy of Mark Kopsvywa

“Called the Cylinder Bycatch Reduction Device, it was developed to increase the amount of shrimp that is retained in the trawl and to eliminate a greater number of bycatch species,” he said. “This BRD creates a flow shadow that draws fish – but not shrimp – to it. The fish are then able to escape.”

Final design modifications of the Cylinder BRD occurred two years ago. The device has been tested by the National Marine Fisheries Service, passing with flying colors.

“A BRD has to deliver 30 percent or more bycatch reduction to be certified,” said Dan Foster, gear development specialist at the service in Pascagoula. “Ours came in at about 44 percent.”

Before administrative certification, Parsons and company decided that it should be placed on commercial shrimp boats to gauge its acceptance. It is being tested on about 10 boats in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

One boat captain using the CBRD gave it rave reviews.

Shrimpers using the Cylinder Bycatch Reduction Device have recorded dramatic decreases in the amount of bycatch (left basket), which means less work and more profitable catches. Photo courtesy of Mark Kopsvywa

“He said that it eliminated about half of the fish from the trawl and lost very little shrimp,” Parsons said. “The shrimp loss is a very important consideration for shrimpers.

“Most shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico are using a BRD called the ‘fish eye,’ and it loses about 10 percent of the shrimp that enters the net. The Cylinder BRD enjoys superior bycatch reduction but only loses 1.7 percent of shrimp.”

The new BRD is fully developed and is being distributed, free of charge, to shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico. While some changes will likely be required, early evaluation of the device by shrimpers has been extremely promising. Parsons will deliver the BRD to shrimpers wherever they are.

“Feedback from shrimpers is very important for gauging the performance of the device in a real-world situation,” Parsons said. “After using the device, we require a short questionnaire to be filled out. As an incentive, we’re offering a $250 honorarium to try the device.”

Parsons’ device is funded under his U.S. Dept. of Commerce, NOAA cooperative agreement No. NA17NMF4720254, “Application of a New Bycatch Reduction Device for Use in the U.S. Shrimp Industry.”

To evaluate the new BRD, contact Parsons at 662-915-7479 or bygrp@olemiss.edu. Learn more about the device at http://www.bycatch.net/.

MOST Conference Offers Unique Insight into College Life, Experiences

Nearly 500 high school seniors participated in UM recruiting and empowerment event

By participating in interactive team building activities, students are empowered and learn valuable lessons during the 2018 Mississippi Outreach to Scholastic Talent Conference. Photo by Marilee Crawford/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – As the University of Mississippi’s 2018 Mississippi Outreach to Scholastic Talent Conference came to a close Tuesday (July 17), high school seniors in attendance raved about their three days of pre-college experiences.

“With 465 prospective students here, this was the largest MOST conference we’ve ever had,” said Alexandria White, assistant director of the university’s Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement. “Because of the increase in attendance, we had to make some changes logistically in order to better accommodate the students.

“We’re very proud that the responses, both internally from participating students and externally from their parents and others following the conference on social media, has been so positive.”

Several participants said that being on campus transformed them in unexpected ways.

Based on the university’s history, Savion Price, of Macon, wondered whether or not  African-American students really would be welcome at the university. The Noxubee High School senior said he was pleasantly surprised by the inclusive atmosphere he experienced.

MOST mentors said they understand why some students may have reservations about coming to campus and volunteered because they want to help alleviate those anxieties.

“After I came to the 2016 MOST Conference and had a great experience because of my mentor, I felt it was important that I give that back to other high school students,” said Trevor Abram, a sophomore mechanical engineering major from Horn Lake. “I want to see other people of color attend this university and to make the same meaningful, positive connections with its staff, faculty and students that I have.”

The attention of MOST mentors was appreciated by the students they guided and has provided helpful information for students as they begin their college search and selection process.

“Since I’ve been here, Ole Miss has definitely moved up on my list,” said Chelsea Smith, a senior from Columbus who plans to major in pre-med and business administration. “The mentors helped us a lot by letting us ask questions and giving us real answers.

The 2018 MOST Conference welcomes 465 high school seniors, the largest group ever, during an academic and activities fair. Photo by Marlee Crawford/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“Because of them, I’m planning to stay focused and be responsible wherever I decide to go to college.”

Activities during the event included informational sessions, panel discussions, a talent show, Greek and campus organization presentations, small-group meetings and a closing awards ceremony. But the conference is far more than just “fun and games.”

“There is definitely real substance to the conference,” said Nicholas Crasta, a sophomore biology and political science major from Vicksburg who volunteered as a mentor even though he’d not attended a previous conference.

“There’s been a balance between empowerment activities for minorities and entertainment. Everything’s just been perfectly constructed for the maximum pre-college experience.”

A MOST Conference reunion is scheduled for Nov. 13. Several students said they are already anticipating that meeting as well.

“This has truly been a wonderful experience that I would recommend to anybody,” said Tyreek Hayes, of Madison, a senior at Germantown High School. “They opened more than just their facilities to us. They opened their hearts and let us know we are wanted and welcomed here.”

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter spoke during a faculty and staff networking dinner and applauded the students’ participation in the conference.

“Our university cares deeply about establishing and maintaining a culture of respect and inclusion,” Vitter said. “This outstanding conference is among those efforts because it is a wonderful opportunity to engage ambitious and exceptional students such as yourselves.

“We hope that after your amazing experience at MOST that we will see all of you back here next year at freshmen orientation.”

Participants at the MOST Conference respond enthusiastically as awards are presented during the closing ceremony in The Pavilion at Ole Miss. Photo By Marlee Crawford/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

Preparations already have begun for the 2019 MOST Conference, White said.

“We send out a post-conference survey as soon as they return home,” she said. “Our committee members have been busy observing and providing meaningful feedback. Based on these, we’ll make improvements and tweaks so that next year’s MOST conference will be even bigger and better.”

A partnership between the Office of Admissions, Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Community Engagement and the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, the conference is made possible through the support of the Office of the Provost, Fed Ex, the Caterpillar Foundation, Department of Intercollegiate Athletics, FASTtrack and the LuckyDay Scholars Program.

Ten UM Freshmen Receive Omicron Delta Kappa Awards

Honor society recognizes outstanding young leaders and community servants

This year’s recipients of the Omicron Delta Kappa Freshman Leader Awards are (back row, from left) Kneeland Gammill, of Memphis; Nicholas Crasta, of Vicksburg; Abby Johnston and Harrison McKinnis, both of Madison; (front row, from left) Bridget McMillan, of Long Beach; Asia Harden, of Greenville; Margaret Baldwin, of Birmingham, Alabama; Swetha Manivannan, of Collierville, Tennessee; and Ariel Williams, of Waynesboro. Submitted photo

OXFORD, Miss. – Ten University of Mississippi freshmen have been named recipients of Omicron Delta Kappa’s Freshman Leadership Awards.

The annual ODK Freshman Leadership Awards, which identify outstanding freshman leaders and community servants, were presented at the organization’s annual induction ceremony in April. Previous recipients have gone on to serve in roles such as Associated Student Body president and Student Activities Association director, and to be inducted into the university’s student Hall of Fame.

This year’s recipients of the ODK Freshman Leadership Awards are: Margaret Baldwin, of Birmingham, Alabama; Nicholas Crasta, of Vicksburg; Jacob Fanning, of Philadelphia; Kneeland Gammill, of Memphis; Asia Harden, of Greenville; Abby Johnston, of Madison; Swetha Manivannan, of Collierville, Tennessee; Harrison McKinnis, of Madison; Bridget McMillan, of Long Beach; and Ariel Williams, of Waynesboro.

“We created this award in 2010 to recognize the future leaders on our campus and to encourage their continued engagement in campus and community activities,” said Ryan Upshaw, ODK adviser and assistant dean for student services in the School of Engineering. “Each year, the selection process becomes more difficult as the university attracts student leaders from all over the country.

“Our society is excited to be able to recognize their outstanding contributions during their first year on campus. We also look forward to their potential membership in our society later in their college career.”

McKinnis, a chemical engineering major and graduate of Madison Central High School, said he is honored to be a recipient of the award.

“I was very excited when I found out I would receive this award,” McKinnis said. “To be recognized alongside such talented student leaders is truly an honor. I hope more than anything that my actions here on campus will make the lives of students more enjoyable and that they will see Ole Miss with the same love that I do.”

Baldwin, a chemistry major, is a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, where she received the Parker Memorial Scholarship. As an incoming freshman, she attended the MPOWER Leadership Conference, and she is a member of the Student Activities Association, Ole Miss Running Club and the Baptist Student Union.

Crasta, a Provost Scholar, is studying biology and political science. He attended the MPOWER Leadership Conference and served as a legislative aide for the Associated Student Body Senate. He is a member of Men of Excellence, the Black Student Union and Lambda Sigma. He is serving as an orientation leader this summer.

A biology and political science major, Fanning is a Provost Scholar and member of the Chancellor’s Leadership Class. He serves on the Ole Miss Mock Trial Team and is a member of ASB Freshman Forum. He is serving as an orientation leader this summer.

Gammill, a business and public policy leadership major, is a Provost Scholar and member of the Center for Manufacturing Excellence and the Lott Leadership Institute. He is a member of ASB Freshman Forum, the Ole Miss Cycling Team, Alpha Lambda Delta and Lambda Sigma.

Harden is a member of the Honors College and is studying integrated marketing communication. She attended the MPOWER Leadership Conference and is a member of ASB Freshman Council. She was a team leader for the Big Event and is a staff writer for the Ole Miss yearbook and a member of the Chancellor’s Leadership Class and Lambda Sigma.

A member of the Honors College, Johnston is studying public policy leadership as part of the Lott Leadership Institute and the Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program. She is an ASB senator and an ambassador for the Lott Institute. She also serves as a pre-college programs counselor for the Office of Outreach and a member of the Chancellor’s Leadership Class.

Manivannan is an international studies and Spanish major as part of the Honors College and Croft Institute. She serves as secretary of the Residential College Cabinet and the UM Collegiate DECA chapter. She is also a member of the Model United Nations team, the Indian Students Association and the ASB Freshman Council.

McKinnis is a member of the Honors College and the recipient of the Stamps Foundation Scholarship. He attended the MPOWER Leadership conference and is a member of the ASB Freshman Council, Lambda Sigma and the Chancellor’s Leadership Class. He is serving as an orientation leader this summer.

An accounting major, McMillan is a member of the Honors College and the Center for Manufacturing Excellence, where she serves on the Student Advisory Board. She attended the MPOWER Leadership Conference and serves on the ASB Freshman Council.

Williams is pursuing a degree in biomedical engineering as part of the Honors College. She is a member of ASB Freshman Council and Alpha Epsilon Delta, and participated in RebelTHON and the Big Event. She is serving as an orientation leader this summer.

Omicron Delta Kappa is a 104-year-old leadership honor society that has initiated more than 300,000 members since its founding. The society has more than 285 active chapters at colleges and universities across the United States.

UM Student Discovers Potentially New Tarantula Species

Andrew Snyder makes find during research trip to Guyana

It is believed that the blue tarantula, discovered by UM doctoral student Andrew Snyder in Guyana, is an undescribed species. Submitted photo by Andrew Snyder

OXFORD, Miss. – A shiny cobalt blue gleamed in the beam of a flashlight sweeping through the evening darkness of the tangled rainforest in Guyana.

Holding the flashlight, University of Mississippi doctoral student Andrew Snyder walked closer to this brilliant blue source, lured by the curiosity twinkling from a small hole in a rotting tree stump.

What the biology major discovered is perhaps a new species of tarantula, one whose hairy legs and body are speckled with streaks of metallic-looking blue.

“Many jungle organisms give off eye shine, caused by the reflection of your beam of light off of a membrane in the eye, and typically with a characteristic color depending on the organism,” Snyder said. “The blue that my light beam illuminated in fact was not the eye shine of a spider, but rather the forelimbs of a small tarantula.

“I have spent years conducting surveys in Guyana and have always paid close attention to the tarantula species. I immediately knew that this one was unlike any species I have encountered before.”

Snyder, who is finishing his doctorate at Ole Miss this spring, had been trudging through the rainforest of the Potaro Plateau that evening in the spring of 2014. He had been conducting a survey of nocturnal amphibians and reptiles as the herpetologist for a joint conservation research team through Global Wildlife Conservation and World Wildlife Fund-Guianas.

Then the tarantula captured his eye. And there were more. The tree stump was pockmarked with holes, and several, if not all, housed a tarantula, each seemingly tolerating a neighboring tarantula.

“When I sent the images of the tarantula to an expert who specializes in neotropical tarantulas, he ecstatically proclaimed that this was 99 percent likely to be an undescribed species,” Snyder said.

An individual tarantula was collected and sent to experts for verification. The creature is awaiting its formal description, and the process might require a follow-up trip to the region to try to collect a few more samples. The tarantula’s discovery could be publicized only recently.

UM doctoral student Andrew Snyder has made 10 trips to Guyana for various research and conservation efforts. Submitted photo by Liz Condo

“For a species description, it is crucial to have multiple individuals, ideally both males and females, and across different age classes to account for sexual dimorphism and phenotypic variability (normal variability in external appearance within the same species),” Snyder said.

A return trip to Guyana, which hugs the North Atlantic coast of South America and contains some of the continent’s largest unspoiled rainforests, would not be unusual for Snyder. He’s been there 10 times.

The Baltimore native first journeyed to Guyana during the summer of 2011, weeks before he started graduate school at Ole Miss. He received his bachelor’s degree in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution from the University of Maryland.

Snyder’s scientific work in Guyana is as a herpetologist, a biologist who studies amphibians and reptiles, and his work is related to his doctoral research through collecting specimens and DNA samples. He’s also visited the country, which is slightly smaller than Idaho, on personal research trips, training programs and conferences.

He was last in Guyana in November to participate in a press release for the results of the Potaro expedition.

Snyder, who describes himself as a Ph.D. candidate, photographer, conservationist and naturalist, also served as an expedition photographer on the Guyana trips.

“While the data collected on these expeditions were valuable to my Ph.D. research, these expeditions were conservation expeditions,” he said. “We were exploring and surveying areas in Guyana that were lacking biodiversity data and facing certain conservation threats: logging, mining, etc.

“(My photography) documents the biodiversity, habitats and conservation threats, and communicates the research that we are doing throughout the country.”

The Potaro River in Guyana flows 140 miles before flowing into the Essequibo River, Guyana’s largest river. The blue tarantula was discovered in the Potaro Plateau area. Submitted photo by Andrew Snyder

After earning his Ph.D., Snyder hopes to continue his conservation research and photography, perhaps with a group such as the World Wildlife Fund or Global Wildlife Conservation. He wants to continue to contribute to science and conservation, and further public awareness of biodiversity and conservation efforts with his images.

Snyder’s passion for herpetology extends back to his childhood in Maryland; his parents allowed him certain exotic pets such as amphibians and reptiles. After receiving his bachelor’s, he spent two-and-a-half summers conducting amphibian and reptile surveys in Cusuco National Park in Honduras with the conservation group Operation Wallacea.

He credits the University of Mississippi and his professors and labmates for making him “an all-around better scientist and biologist.”

“Perhaps most importantly, I began to see the forest for the trees, if you will (while at UM),” he said. “I really began to understand the bigger picture of the work that I was doing or could do. My time at the University of Mississippi also led to so many valuable opportunities and collaborations that otherwise would have never happened.

“My labmates, the other graduate students specifically in the Noonan Lab with me, have been very instrumental in my development.”

The Noonan Lab at UM is headed by Brice Noonan, associate professor of biology and Snyder’s Ph.D. supervisor. 

Snyder’s area of research is phylogeography, the study of the geographic distribution of lineages of species or closely related species and the processes responsible for shaping them. Snyder credits Noonan for his interest in phylogeography and his interest in performing research in Guyana.

After Snyder’s initial trip to Guyana, he and Noonan brainstormed projects while scanning through Google Earth to find areas for research, which is why Snyder has spent considerable time surveying the Kanuku Mountains in Guyana.

Guyana has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, including several species of snake, such as the venomous Bushmaster. Submitted photo by Andrew Snyder

“Having focused much of my own graduate work in the Guianas I was elated to bring in a student with Andrew’s field experience and a genuine interest in exploring this poorly understood, yet remarkably intact region of the neotropics,” Noonan said. “Andrew has quickly become one of the foremost experts of the region’s reptiles and amphibians, and his extensive fieldwork in the region has greatly enhanced our understanding of all aspects of the area’s biodiversity, as evidenced by this tarantula discovery.”

The partnership between Noonan and Snyder at UM is not unique.

“Andrew Snyder is one of our talented Ph.D. students who work to discover new populations and new species,” said Gregg Roman, UM chair of and professor in biology. “The biology department at the University of Mississippi has many strengths in biodiversity and conservation research. Our graduate students work closely with their major professors and undertake expeditions around the world to learn the science and techniques of surveying and analyzing biodiversity.

“The identification of this new and blue tarantula within tree hollows will help conservationists draw attention to overlooked habitats within the forests.”

The Guiana Shield – a geological formation in northeast South America that underlies Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, most of Venezuela, as well as parts of Colombia and Brazil – is a special place for its phylogeographic value, Snyder said. An upland region leading up to the Guyanese border with Venezuela and Brazil, the Potaro Plateau is between the lowlands of the eastern Guiana Shield and the famed Guiana Highlands.

“The region is incredibly old and unique in just how much area is still unexplored and not affected by human impacts,” Snyder said. “From a research perspective, this allows for inferences to be made that are not influenced by human interaction as they are in other tropical areas where the habitats have been affected by deforestation.”

A developing country, Guyana has an abundant biodiversity that is challenged by the country’s richness of natural resources. A delicate balance needs to be struck between conservation and access to and extraction of the country’s natural resources with minimal environmental impact, Snyder said.

Discoveries such as the blue tarantula reinforce the importance of creating and maintaining that balance, said Leeanne E. Alonso, associate conservation scientist with Global Wildlife Conservation.

During a spring 2014 expedition to Guyana, UM doctoral student Andrew Snyder happened upon a cobalt-blue tarantula, which is believed to be an undescribed species. Submitted photo by Andrew Snyder

“Guyana has an amazing range of habitats and high diversity of species, especially for such a small country,” said Alonso, who has worked with Snyder for five years. “Discoveries such as this tarantula help us highlight that there’s so much rich diversity in Guyana, much of it still undiscovered, and all of it contributing to keeping the planet healthy. This tarantula helps to remind us all of the beauty of nature, and that we share this planet with so many interesting creatures.

“It’s intriguing to think about why these tarantulas are blue. Perhaps the color helps them startle predators or blend into the leaf litter. Such large predators must have an important role in the food web of the tropical forest.”

The blue tarantula, with its stunning color, also causes people to take another look at invertebrates and realize the importance of conserving them, Snyder said.

“Since this discovery, the amount of people who have commented, ‘I hate spiders, but this one is beautiful!’ is really telling,” he said. “Conservation starts with awareness.

“The fact that this tarantula is making people aware of the stunning biodiversity of this area is key. Guyana was so proud of this discovery that they actually painted a large mural of it on one of their walls at the Georgetown Zoo.”

Davenport Gift to Support University’s ‘Seat of Knowledge’

UM alumnus designates J.D. Williams Library in estate plans

UM alumnus Bill Davenport has designated the J.D. Williams Library as recipient of his planned gift because of the library’s central role on campus. Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi was once known as the campus where everybody speaks. Even today, despite smart phones and ear buds, Ole Miss retains its reputation as a place where professors know students by name and strangers are just friends who haven’t yet become acquainted.

That personable atmosphere goes a long way. In fact, for at least one alumnus, it was the catalyst that inspired a $200,000 gift to the J.D. Williams Library.

A personal letter set Bill Davenport, associate dean of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas School of Dentistry, on a path to making a legacy gift.

“A number of factors went into this decision,” said Davenport, a Corinth native. “First and foremost, I loved Ole Miss. It opened up a whole new vista to a small-town country boy. I loved the school and the students, and the majority of the professors were truly motivating and inspiring. I always wanted to give something back.

“As everyone says, you can’t really describe your attachment to Ole Miss after going to school there.”

Davenport, who’s active in the Ole Miss Alumni Association and has made other contributions to the university, said he began to consider a major gift after he received a letter from the late Charles Noyes, then chair of English, when the Friends of the Library philanthropy was being organized.

“The library is the cornerstone of the university and is truly the most visible icon for education and life-long learning,” Davenport said. “The personal letter was what convinced me as it included comments regarding my time in his sophomore literature course.

“I was hooked. I never figured out how Dr. Noyes even remembered me.”

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter expressed gratitude for Davenport’s planned gift.

“The J.D. Williams Library is a hub of excellence for our university,” Vitter said. “It enables the superb quality of education that our students receive. As one of our most highly-valued resources, it can have a tremendous transformative effect on turning students into scholars and scholars into informed citizens who will make an impact on our world. ”

William Davenport

In high school, Davenport thought he wanted to become an electrical engineer until he took chemistry under an engaging teacher. He entered Ole Miss as a chemistry major but changed his focus once again after taking a required biology elective taught by the late Georgia St. Amand, whom he says was extremely inspiring.

“After that course, chemistry lost its luster to me, so I switched to biology,” Davenport remembers. “As a biology major, I encountered her husband, Dr. Wilbrod St. Amand, also in the biology department, who became a great mentor and friend to this day.”

Even then, UM’s personable atmosphere influenced Davenport’s life: His relationship with the St. Amands, as well as having the opportunity to be a teacher’s assistant in the biology labs, guided his decision to become an educator.

Davenport graduated from Ole Miss with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biology in 1969 and 1971, respectively. He taught biology at Arkansas State University for a year before enrolling at the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta, where he earned a doctorate in 1976.

While completing his doctorate remotely, Davenport joined the UM Medical Center faculty and taught the first seven dental school classes from 1975 to 1982 before transferring to the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center School of Dentistry in New Orleans, where he taught for the next 20 years.

“Serendipitously, in 2002, the opportunity came to come to UNLV in Las Vegas and help start the new dental school,” he said. “Salaries were very good, benefits even better. Thinking I would work a few years in Vegas and move on, but I blinked and here I am 16 years later.”

Davenport said he designated his planned gift for the library because he believes it is the center of knowledge, initially for the entering student and secondarily for the lifelong learner.

“The library is the seat of intellectualism,” he said. “I hope that my gift will provide the library with funds to contribute to the ever-changing technology and methodology that will attract and benefit the students that will be tomorrow’s leaders.”

Private gifts provide critical support to the library, more than ever as public institutions constantly struggle with budget issues, said Cecilia Botero, library dean. Gifts such as Davenport’s help the library cover costs associated with digital and paper subscriptions and increasing numbers of journals used as resources by students on a myriad of different career paths.

“I am so grateful that Dr. Davenport chose to support the library with his generous gift. It will help sustain our services in countless ways,” Botero said.

Though distance has kept Davenport from returning to campus, he fondly remembers his days at Ole Miss.

“I was there in Archie’s heyday. What could be more exciting than that!” Davenport exclaimed, adding that being in the Grove during football season was a special time as was participating in the Army ROTC band, being active in his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, eating at Grundy’s and Mistilis, and bowling at Kiamie’s.

For information on designating a deferred gift to Ole Miss, contact Sandra Guest at 662-915-5208 or sguest@olemiss.edu. To support the J.D. Williams Library, contact Angela Barlow Brown at 662-915-3181 or ambarlow@olemiss.edu.

UM Biology Professor Receives NSF CAREER Award

Patrick Curtis is the third faculty member in a year to receive the prestigious funding

UM Biologist Patrick Curtis examines bacterial specimens with one of his students.

UM biologist Patrick Curtis examines bacterial specimens with one of his students.

OXFORD, Miss. – They say good news comes in threes, and for the third time in 12 months, a University of Mississippi professor has received a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation.

Patrick Curtis, assistant professor of biology, is the university’s seventh CAREER award recipient in the last eight years. Sarah Liljegren, associate professor of biology, got the award in November and Jarad Delcamp, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, was given a similar award in June 2015. This marks the first time three UM faculty members were selected in the same academic year.

Curtis’ research on “Investigation of Conserved Global Regulatory Systems Using Cross-organism Comparison” will be funded for $ 767,103. His award begins in March and runs through February 2021.

“A model bacterium, called Caulobacter crescentus, has been studied for over 50 years,” Curtis said. “For a bacterium, it has a complex life cycle that is governed by these complicated intracellular signaling systems.

“What my research has shown is that a related organism, Brevundimonas subvibrioides, has the same life cycle, lives in the same environments and has the same signaling components. But some of them appear to work in a different way. This grant is to explore why these parts are working differently when there really isn’t any reason that they should.”

Using the developmental bacterium, Curtis and his team are studying dimorphic life cycles where, after division, the two resulting daughter cells have differing description and cell-cycle life styles.

“We are studying epigenetics in bacteria, which has hardly been touched, so we are hoping to be one of the pioneers in the field,” Curtis said. “People may not like to think about bacteria, but they are, by far, the most abundant life form on Earth and impact our lives in innumerable ways.

“We are also studying a basic biological question that even most biologists take for granted: how does one cell become two different types of cells. We know this happens – we observe it all around us – but the mechanics of it are barely understood. We’re trying to get at that.”

Curtis’s award also will support training in bacteriology at UM.

“A major part of the funding will support my two graduate students, Satish Adhikari from Nepal and Lauryn Sperling, who was an undergraduate here working in my laboratory and decided to stay on,” he said. “Another huge portion goes to laboratory supplies. Molecular biology is supply-intensive, so we go through a lot.

“The final portion will cover sophisticated genetic techniques, like high-throughput sequencing, RNA-seq and single molecule sequencing for methylation analysis.”

Curtis’s UM colleagues are excited about his achievement.

“This grant represents a significant investment in a young faculty member, and we couldn’t be happier for him,” said Paul Lago, UM chair and professor of biology. “His career at Ole Miss has developed nicely, and I believe he will continue to have a significant impact in the department and on biology students at the university for many years to come.”

John Kiss, dean of UM Graduate School and also a professor of biology, agrees.

“This award places Dr. Curtis among the top young scientists in the United States,” Kiss said. “He is clearly a leader in the field of microbiology, and I am very proud to have him as a colleague.”

UM Biology Professor Patrick Curtis makes time for his graduate students in his laboratory.

UM biology professor Patrick Curtis makes time for graduate students in his laboratory.

Curtis said he is appreciative of the research support NSF has provided throughout his career.

“Two years ago, I was a reviewer for an NSF grant panel and it was a very disheartening experience simply because I saw so many really great grants that I knew would not get funded, not because they weren’t worthy, but because science funding in this country is at the lowest it’s been since before World War II,” Curtis said.

“I wondered how my grant could ever compete with grants from people that lead their fields and have 25-plus years’ experience. For some time after getting the news, I wondered if I had hallucinated the whole thing. I actually still wonder if it’s real or I’m still dreaming.”

The NSF CAREER program started in 1996. Previous UM recipients are Tamar Goulet, associate professor of biology, in 2008; Nathan Hammer, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, in 2010; Emanuele Berti, associate professor of physics and astronomy, in 2011; and Amala Dass, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry, in 2013.

Liljegren, Delcamp, Hammer and Dass all have had previous funding under Mississippi’s NSF EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) Track-1 Grant. These attest to the effectiveness of that grant in helping to develop research competiveness within the State of Mississippi.

“CAREER awards are the most prestigious NSF awards for early-career faculty who integrate research and education in a very substantial way,” said Alice Clark, UM vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs. “They do not just fund a specific project, but are investments in the nation’s most outstanding faculty members in science and engineering.

“The fact that UM faculty have received three CAREER awards in a calendar year is a bold testament to the quality of our teacher-scholars.”

These awards are external validation of the growing research excellence of the science departments within the university’s College of Liberal Arts, said Lee Cohen, dean of the college.

“These awards also exemplify the kind of success that can be achieved when you have a helpful and encouraging faculty who are willing to assist their colleagues via mentoring,” Cohen said. “It is my understanding that UM’s previous NSF Award winners have been generous with their time and have been supportive in sharing the knowledge that they have regarding this highly competitive process, which I think is wonderful.”

Curtis earned his doctorate in microbiology from the University of Georgia and a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and genetics from Purdue University. He also was a postdoctoral researcher at Indiana University.

Courses he teaches at UM include General Microbiology, Bacterial Physiology and Prokaryotic Development. Curtis has written more than a dozen peer-reviewed journal articles.

Goals of the NSF CAREER program include providing stable support for five years to allow the career development of outstanding new teacher-scholars in the context of the mission of their organization and building a foundation for a lifetime of integrated contributions to research and education. Success rates vary across NSF divisions/directorates and competition years, but the rate in biology generally is between 10 percent and 15 percent.

For more information about the UM Department of Biology, visit http://biology.olemiss.edu/ or call 662-915-7203.

UM Professor Aids in Discovery of New Species of Giant Tortoise

Ryan Garrick among co-authors of peer-reviewed paper published in journal PLoS ONE

Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise

Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise

OXFORD, Miss. – A University of Mississippi biologist collaborated as part of an international research team on the discovery of a new species of the Galapagos giant tortoise, findings that are included in the Oct. 21 issue of PLoS ONE, a peer-reviewed journal published by the Public Library of Science.

Working as part of a group led by Yale University, Ryan C. Garrick, UM assistant professor of biology, used genetic data to help uncover the existence of the new species on the Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos.

“Giant tortoises occur in two separate locations in Santa Cruz,” Garrick said. “Until now, it was assumed that these groups belonged to the same species. However, genetic analyses have now revealed that they are actually separate species: the Western Santa Cruz Tortoise (Chelonoidis porteri) and the newly-named Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise (Chelonoidis donfaustoi) have been reproductively isolated from one another for a long time.”

To read the complete article, “A (2015) Description of a new Galapagos giant tortoise species (Chelonoidis; Testudines: Testudinidae) from Cerro Fatal on Santa Cruz Island,” visit http://www.plosone.org/.

This work is part of a larger research program. Garrick also was an author on related papers published earlier this year in the journal Ecology and Evolution and last year in Molecular Ecology.

Garrick, who joined the Ole Miss faculty in 2012, earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from La Trobe University in Australia. He was a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University and at Yale University.

His research interests are insect evolution, molecular ecology, biogeography, population genetics and conservation biology.

UM Chemistry Department Modifies Bachelor’s Curriculum

Undergraduate degree program offers traditional and pre-med emphasis

UM chemistry majors (from left) Ashley Williams, Sarah Sutton and Katelyn Allen conduct undergraduate research.

UM chemistry majors (from left) Ashley Williams, Sarah Sutton and Katelyn Allen conduct undergraduate research.

OXFORD, Miss. – The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Mississippi has begun offering two different pathways for students seeking a bachelor’s degree in chemistry.

“Our B.S. in Chemistry degree has been modified to have two tracks for students to choose from,” said Nathan Hammer, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “The first option is a traditional chemistry track that prepares students well for graduate school in chemistry or a career in the chemical industry. The second track has a biochemistry emphasis and is specifically designed for students who wish to go on to medical school or graduate school in biochemistry.”

The department has a suggested four-year course outline with electives that count toward the degree and are required for medical school admissions. These requirements are covered by the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT. The modified degree went into effect this spring.

“Both tracks are certified by the American Chemical Society and are among the most rigorous in the country,” Hammer said.

By modifying its B.S. in Chemistry degree, the department better serves the growing number of pre-med students who wanted a rigorous bachelor’s degree in the physical sciences, he said. These students typically enjoy chemistry, physics and math, but eventually wish to serve others in a medical profession.

“Prior to modifying our B.S. degree, these students had two options,” Hammer said. “The first was to satisfy our previous B.S. (in) Chemistry degree requirements and then take additional biology and biochemistry classes. The second option was to pursue our B.A. (in) Biochemistry degree and supplement it with calculus-based physics, additional advanced math courses and additional advanced chemistry courses.”

Most students opted to pursue the B.S. degree and take additional biochemistry and biology courses. Creating a B.S. in Chemistry degree track incorporates these additional biochemistry courses as well an advanced biology elective.

“We have substituted these courses for other chemistry courses that are useful for a career in chemistry, but not helpful in preparing for the medical profession,” Hammer said. “We have essentially taken what our best and brightest pre-med students have been doing on their own the last few years and crafted a degree that serves them. We have approximately 20 students total that are pursuing the new B.S. (in) Chemistry degree with the biochemistry emphasis. Most of these are pre-med students associated with the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College.”

As a result of the additional students pursuing a B.S. degree each year, more space is needed for physical chemistry and inorganic chemistry laboratories. Coulter Hall’s new research annex includes a state-of-the-art molecular spectroscopy research lab that will serve CHEM 337 classes. CHEM 402 will be moved to a larger room that will be able to serve the larger number of students each year.

Since students in the new emphasis will be receiving a well-rounded chemistry degree, they will be taking courses in every area of chemistry and will have opportunities to take classes from almost every faculty member in the department, Hammer said.

“In their freshman year, they will take two semesters of general chemistry from Greg Tschumper, Steve Davis, Maurice Eftink, Jason Ritchie, Kerri Scott, Murrell Godfrey, John Wiginton, Jim O’Neal or Gerald Rowland,” Hammer said. “Students will take two semesters of organic chemistry in their sophomore year from Dan Mattern, Jared Delcamp or Davita Watkins.”

They will also take a number of advanced classes, including physical chemistry from Hammer, analytical chemistry from Amal Dass and Jim Cizdziel, biochemistry from Susan Pedigo, Randy Wadkins and Mike Mossing, and inorganic chemistry from Ritchie, Jonah Jurss and Walt Cleland.

“Students will also be required to perform original research with a faculty member in chemistry during their senior year, which could be with any research active faculty member,” Hammer said. “For this reason, this new degree track is especially popular with pre-med honors students who can get senior research credit for their honors thesis.”

Charles Hussey, chair and professor of chemistry and biochemistry, is enthusiastic about having two undergraduate degrees within the department.

“The new Bachelor of Science degree with emphasis in biochemistry is more versatile than our existing Bachelor of Arts degree in biochemistry,” he said. “It not only prepares students to compete for postgraduate opportunities in the pre-health professions, but also provides them with a solid foundation in advanced chemistry. With this foundation, they are well equipped for graduate studies in biochemistry as well as the research-based M.D.-Ph.D. programs offered by elite medical schools.”

For more information about the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, visit http://chemistry.olemiss.edu or call 662-915-7301.

UM Professor Talks Turkeys On NPR Today

Richard Buchholz will talk about his research of the mating habits of America's favorite Thanksgiving bird

University of Mississippi Associate Professor of Biology Richard Buchholz will talk about the mating habits of wild turkeys on today’s NPR Science Friday. His segment is expected to air between 2:50 and 3 p.m. (Central).

The research, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, was conducted at the UM field station. To hear Buchholz talk about this timely topic with Thanksgiving less than a week away, check out this list of stations that air the program.