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Department of Biology at Illinois State University
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We encourage all alumni to stay in touch with the school's faculty. We will be contacting you via email every fall for any news you would like to share with your fellow alumni. As much as possible this news will be included in our yearly newsletter. If you are not receiving these requests and our newsletter - update your information with the ISU Alumni Association (click here for the online form). You can also directly email the School of Biological Sciences Alumni Newsletter committee with comments. Let us know what you would like included in your newsletter or on this webpage. For the complete newsletter from spring of 2016 as a pdf please click here.

Students study millipede mating habits, other mysteries of rain forest during immersion trip

by Kevin Bersett

student on field tripA group of mating millipedes set off a scramble the afternoon of November 29 just off a trail in a Costa Rican rain forest. A half-dozen Illinois State biology students dug through muddy leaves to gather the squirming arthropods for graduate student Kristin Duffield's research project. It was a messy job made messier by the millipedes defecating as they coiled in the students' hands. But no harm, no foul. The millipedes don't bite, and though they release cyanide when they coil in a defensive posture, it is not in an amount that harms humans, Distinguished Biology Professor Steven Juliano explained. Duffield was collecting pairs of millipedes in order to study their mating habits. "I'm interested in mate choice and natural selection," she said. Duffield and her 11 classmates in the School of Biological Sciences' Rain Forest Ecology course had to complete research projects during their trip to La Selva Biological Station in northeastern Costa Rica. They arrived November 28 and presented their findings after they returned to Illinois State December 2. Duffield was fortunate that there were so many millipedes. One of the challenges the students faced when doing their research projects was that they had to pick their project before they came to the unfamiliar tropical environment, Juliano said. The organisms that they planned to study were not as abundant as they had thought, which forced students to change their plans. That had originally happened to Duffield and to junior biology major Sarah Kluk, both of whom had hoped to study golden silk orb-weaver spiders. Kluk had planned to look into the potential of females to eat their much smaller male counterparts and whether the amount of food a female had, put a potential mate in lesser or greater risk. Though Kluk found 12 orb-weaver webs in the forest, she could not find any mature females. But finding the organisms is only part of the challenge. "You want to have a novel idea," said graduate teaching assistant Molly Schumacher. Juliano said this isn't always easy for students who sometimes choose a species before asking a question that may have been previously studied. "It's best to think of good questions first," Juliano said. The students had only 10 days for their projects and were allowed to conduct research only on plants and invertebrates at La Selva, in order to put less strain on the rarer vertebrate species. Several students were studying the abundant leafcutter ants, which march single file in seemingly endless lines across the jungle floor carrying a leaf particle larger than themselves. For most of the undergraduate students the trip was their first opportunity to conduct field research. That goes for junior Taylor Zarifis who worked with Juliano one morning to extract water samples from the pools formed by the overlapping leaves of bromeliads. She was studying how much nitrogen was in the water and the relationship between the number of dead insects in the water and the amount of nitrogen, which benefits the plant. Juliano said that in a wider context, Zarifis was trying to draw a connection between carnivorous plants and bromeliads. "It's interesting being in the rain forest and seeing all the different species and doing my own research project," Zarifis said. Biology Professor Joseph Armstrong said what is important is the research process, and not a focus so much on the outcomes. "You can either learn about science (passively) or you can do science, engage in science," he said. Waiting game By 9 a.m. November 30 Duffield and her millipedes were out of the forest and inside a darkened cabin as hot as a sauna. She was using a red-lit head lamp to inspect pairs of millipedes separated into individual plastic containers. She used the red light because the millipedes don't see red; consequently, she saw them but they didn't see her. Duffield was investigating whether female millipedes prefer to mate with a male with whom they had previously mated or with a new mate. She suspected the latter because females can store sperm for a long time, which benefits their offspring if one of the previous mates is a dud. "You can tell when a female has mated," she said. "The male will just ride on her back for days." This practice, called guarding, allows the male to make sure the female uses his sperm to fertilize her eggs. The going was slow that Saturday morning as Duffield waited for the millipedes to mate. This was new ground for Duffield, who normally studies the sexual selection of crickets as part of her Ph.D. studies, but she was prepared to wait it out. "However long it takes," she said. "I do a lot of mating trials. You have to be patient." Each student paid about $1,900 to go on the rain forest immersion trip. If you would like to support students who participate in future rain forest explorations, contact Stephanie Sellers, director of Development for the College of Arts and Sciences, at (309) 438-7725 or seselle@IllinoisState.edu; or Craig Gatto, director of the School of Biological Sciences, at (309) 438-3669 or cgatto@IllinoisState.edu.

Director's message Dr Gatto

The 2015-2016 academic year initiated some significant changes in the School of Biological Sciences. Walt Greenliaf joined the school staff in May 2015 as accountant. His workload focuses on handling accounts payable and receivable, along with maintaining daily fiscal activities for the school. We are very happy to have him join our team! The school was also fortunate to welcome two new tenure-track faculty hires this year. Beginning in August, Nathan and Alysia Mortimer joined the school. Nathan, Assistant Professor of Cellular Immunology, holds a Ph.D. in Genetics and Molecular Biology from Emory University. His research focuses on understanding how a host and its parasite interact to determine the outcome of a parastic infection. Alysia, Assistant Professor of Aging and Physiology, also receivd her Ph.D. in Genetics and Molecular Biology from Emory University. Her research focuses on how different factors such as aging and exposure to toxins contribute to neurological disorders and muscular dystrophies. Dr. Alan Katz announced his retirement for the end of 2015. He worked at Illinois State in Biology for 40 years as a genetics professor. After admirably serving 25 years as the Director of Graduate Studies, Alan stepped down and passed the torch to Dr. Steve Juliano, Distinguished Professor of Ecology.

Biology faculty received University recognition last year with Bill Perry receiving the Outstanding College Teaching Award and Laura Vogel receiving the Outstanding University Service Award. In addition, I was humbled to be named University Professor, the highest honor an administrator can receive at ISU. I share this award with so many amazing student who worked in my laboratory over the last decade and a half as they generated all the data that went into the publications and grants that enabled me to be recognized.


ISU Biology continues to be one ofthe most popular majors on campus and although many disciplines have seen declining numbers of majors over the last few years, Biology has grown nearly 10 percent per year for the past two years and now boasts nearly 700 undergraduate majors and 60 graduate students. This substantial student interest and success in Biology has provided us the justification for University support in faculty recruiting, which has allowed us to maintain our faculty numbers in the face of nine retirements over the last six years.


The school would love to hear from our alumni! Please drop me an email or like us on Facebook and let us know what you're up to. Certainly if you are ever in the area, please stop into the school office and say hello.
Wishing you much success,

Craig Gatto, Ph.D.

Director, School of Biological Sciences