REU Faculty Mentors and Sample Student Projects

 Todd Barkman, Ph.D., Evolutionary Genetics.  Dr. Barkman is currently studying the evolution of protein function using a paleomolecular biology approach. To understand the ancestral functions of proteins and how novel activities are acquired his lab recreates extinct proteins and assays their functions. Dr. Barkman has trained 20 undergraduates and two high school students in molecular laboratory techniques during the past five years. Four students have published; three undergraduates have presented a total of eight seminars or posters based on their research; both of the high school students have completed poster presentations.

Christine Byrd-Jacobs, Ph.D., Neurobiology. Dr. Byrd-Jacobs' research is examining the cellular interactions involved in maintenance of the adult brain structure and the ability of the brain to respond to injury. She uses the olfactory system of zebrafish as a model; her work involves techniques such as immunocyto-chemistry, tract-tracing methods, histology, and light and confocal microscopy. Dr. Byrd-Jacobs has had more than 35 undergraduate students assist in her laboratory since she has been at WMU. These students have been included in one peer-reviewed publication and 12 abstracts.

Kathryn Docherty, Ph.D., Microbial Toxicology and Global Change Microbial Ecology.   The central theme of Dr. Docherty’s research examines how anthropogenic stressors, whether they are organic pollutants, newly designed green chemicals or global climate change factors, influence microorganisms.  Microorganisms, including Bacteria, Archaea and Fungi, are biological catalysts that invisibly perform such wide functions as producing 20% of Earth’s oxygen to cleaning up some of our most resilient pollutants.  Dr. Docherty’s lab group uses both traditional microbiological as well as cutting-edge molecular techniques to examine how microorganisms respond to chemical stressors, and how those responses translate into altered microbial function.  This proactive research will be performed in a highly interdisciplinary atmosphere, and will emphasize the importance of sustainable scientific research.  The student will participate in experimental design, data analysis and peer-reviewed manuscript preparation, and will prepare a poster or oral presentation of their work.

John Geiser, Ph.D., Microbial Genetics.  Dr. Geiser uses the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae as a model system to study the interaction of bacterial protein toxins with intracellular target proteins. His laboratory is currently identifying the intracellular targets of Yersinia pestistoxins so that methods can be devised to stop infection by the bacteria that causes bubonic plague. During the past six years Dr. Geiser has mentored 13 undergraduates, including three previous REU students. Four students have gone on to graduate school (including all three REU). One former REU student has co-authored a publication.

Sharon Gill, Ph.D., Evolutionary Ecology and Endocrinology.  Dr. Gill’s laboratory investigates evolutionary ecology and endocrinology of birds, by linking behavior, hormones and fitness in wild populations. One of our current research areas aims to understand the responses of wild bird populations to human-induced environmental change, specifically focusing on changes associated with urbanization. With graduate and undergraduate students, Dr. Gill is currently studying the song of male birds in relation to anthropogenic noise, physiological costs experienced by male and female birds living in cities, and reproductive success of birds breeding in urban and natural areas. Since her arrival in 2008, undergraduate students have been active participants in Dr. Gill’s research, gaining experience in both the field and laboratory.

Pam Hoppe, Ph.D., Cell Biology.  Dr. Hoppe’s lab uses the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans to study the molecular mechanisms that underlie formation of the highly ordered contractile apparatus found in striated muscle. Current projects include (1) studying the role of the unc-82 serine/threonine kinase in localization of myosin and other thick-filament proteins, and (2) using RNAi screens to identify phosphatases and other kinases that are required for proper cytoskeletal organization in muscle. Since 2000, Dr. Hoppe has employed three undergraduate students for summer research projects. Two have published or submitted papers, and one has conducted research that will be included in future publications. All three students are now in graduate or medical school programs.

David Huffman, Ph.D., Bioinorganic Chemistry.  Dr. Huffman studies the structure and functions of Wilson protein, a P-type ATPase responsible for copper transport. This protein contains six N-terminal copper-binding sites that facilitate acquisition of this trace essential metal. Students working in the laboratory gain a battery of skills, including the construction of recombinant vectors, protein expression studies, large-scale protein production, protein purification and protein characterization. In the past four years, undergraduate students under Dr. Huffman have co-authored four abstracts, one presentation and one submitted publication.

John A. Jellies, Ph.D., Neurobiology.  Dr. Jellies focuses on neuromuscular development, pattern-formation and neural pathfinding in the sensory systems of a model system, the medicinal leech. Projects include: (1) muscle assembly into defined structures recognizable by motor neurons; (2) cellular integration of environmental cues to project growth cones; and (3) influences among motor neurons, interneurons, sensory neurons and muscle targets. Dr. Jellies has had 12 undergraduates in the lab in the past five years; one has co-authored a peer-reviewed paper and four have published abstracts.

Donald Kane, Ph.D., Developmental Biology.  Dr. Kane’s research interests are with Vertebrate developmental genetics and Morphogenesis. His research examines how early developmental genes control cell fate in the zebrafish. Since developmental processes are conserved among the vertebrates, the underlying genes are likely to be conserved as well. Hence, learning what these genes do in zebrafish will help us understand what is going on in dryer creatures, like, for example, people.

James J. Kiddle, Ph.D., Organic Chemistry.  Dr. Kiddle’s research focuses on the chemical mechanisms by which environmental pollutants react with biomolecules, producing damage or changes that are deleterious to an organism. Projects include: (1) elucidation of the free radical mechanism of action for nitrosoamines, a class of potent carcinogens present in the environment, and (2) development of a potential model explaining the long-term neurological effects seen in organisms that have been exposed to organophosphorus chemical warfare agents and pesticides. During the past 10 years Dr. Kiddle has supervised 26 undergraduate students (16 women, 10 men) on novel research projects. The work has resulted in undergraduate co-authorship in 10 publications in premier journals.

Steve Kohler, Ph.D., Ecology.  Dr. Kohler’s research is focused in two general areas: (1) the roles of species interactions and disturbance in signaling and affecting the structure and resilience of stream communities, and (2) the influence of parasites/pathogens in the population/community ecology of aquatic invertebrates and the structure of food webs. For more than 15 years, Dr. Kohler has always had two or three undergraduates engaged in research in his lab, with active involvement in both field and laboratory activities. Several students have conducted undergraduate honors thesis research under him.

Cindy Linn, Ph.D., Neuroscience.  Dr. Linn’s laboratory analyzes neuroprotective mechanisms that prevent excitotoxicity in the mammalian retina. Excitotoxicity is the process by which excessive excitatory neurotransmitter release in the central nervous system destroys neurons through apoptosis. Dr. Linn mentored one REU student in her lab during 2003 and 2005.

Yan Lu, Ph.D., Plant Physiology. Dr. Lu is currently studying how photosystem II repairs photodamaged reaction center proteins under high light stress. Dr. Lu's recent work revealed that proper repair of photosystem II requires a small zinc-finger protein on thylakoid membranes. Understanding the detailed molecular mechanisms for the role of thylakoid zinc-finger proteins would help guide the development of crop plants with higher solar energy conversion efficiency and/or higher tolerance to extreme weather conditions. Dr. Lu's research involves techniques such as chlorophyll fluorescence analysis, two dimensional gel electrophoresis, Western blots, real-time PCR, liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry. Dr. Lu has trained six undergraduate students: three students published, two students went to graduate school.

Sherine Obare, Ph.D., Nanomaterials Chemistry.  Dr. Obare is interested in the fabrication of organic-inorganic hybrid materials at the nanoscale. Students in this group are engaged in many areas including nanoparticle fabrication, synthesis and characterization of organic and coordination compounds, fluorescence spectroscopy and microscopy, time-resolved fluorescence, electrochemistry, photocatalysis, and electron microscopy.

Christopher Pearl, Ph.D., Endocrinology.  Dr. Pearl's laboratory focuses on the physiology of male reproduction. Research in the lab focuses on how alterations in the estrogen signaling pathway affect overall fertility, as well as individual components of the reproductive tract including the testis, epididymis and the pituitary. Techniques commonly used in the lab include morphometry, immunohistochemistry, western blotting, cell culture and ELISA. Dr. Pearl has trained eight undergraduates; work from these students has resulted in co-authored publication and presentations at national meetings.

Silvia Rossbach, Ph.D., Microbial Genetics.  Dr. Rossbach’s laboratory focuses on microbial ecology, specifically the environmental control of gene expression. When exposed to harmful environments, such as elevated levels of heavy metals, bacteria respond rapidly by changing their gene expression. Techniques that are used to identify metal-regulated genes in Pseudomonas fluorescens and Sinorhizobium meliloti include transposon mutagenesis with reporter genes and microarray analysis. Several previous REU students have been involved in constructing mutant banks and screening transposon-generated mutants for zinc, copper and cadmium-regulated genes.

Elke Schoffers, Ph.D., Organic Chemistry.  Dr. Schoffers’ expertise is in the area of organic synthesis, with a background in medicinal, heterocyclic and biochemistry. Specific projects in her lab address the development of nitrogen-containing ligands for catalysis and sensor design, as well as the synthesis of metabolites that influence biological signals. This includes the preparation of specific inosamines (rhizopines) and related molecules that have been proposed as potential nutritional mediators for nitrogen fixation.

John Spitsbergen, Ph.D., Cellular Neurophysiology (co-Principal Investigator).
The focus of Dr. Spitsbergen’s research is on understanding the regulation of neurotrophic factor expression in target tissues of the peripheral nervous system (blood vessels, cardiac muscle and skeletal muscle) and to determine the consequences of altered neurotrophic factor expression with aging and disease. Since 1996, Dr. Spitsbergen has supervised laboratory research projects for 51 undergraduates and four high school students. These research projects have resulted in 13 abstracts and presentations at national meetings for undergraduate researchers, 15 abstracts to local meetings within Michigan, and eight abstracts to national meetings. All of the high school students have received honors in regional, state or international science competitions.

Susan Stapleton, Ph.D., Biochemistry (Principal Investigator).  The work in Dr. Stapleton’s laboratory focuses on understanding the mechanisms involved in the differential regulation of gene expression by nutrients, hormones and metal contaminants, including the activation of specific signal pathways and transcription factors to elicit these responses. Dr. Stapleton has served for seven years as the PI for WMU’s NSF REU award and has been instrumental in establishing the partnership program with Western’s HBCUs. She has mentored more than 50 undergraduate students in her research laboratory, and many have co-authored publications or abstracts or given presentations at scientific meetings. In the past five years, five undergraduates have co-authored published abstracts and nine have made presentations at local, regional or national meetings. Two of these presentations have received “best presentation” awards.

Brian Tripp, Ph.D., Protein Biochemistry.  Dr. Tripp uses various molecular biology, microbiology and biophysical techniques to investigate the function of proteins and engineer them to perform novel functions, such as biosensors and nanomaterials. Current research projects involve (1) the engineering of self-assembling bacterial flagellin proteins to form bionanotubes and hybrid nanomaterials, and (2) investigation of novel inhibitors of carbonic anhydrase enzymes via high-throughput screening methods. Dr. Tripp has mentored two WMU undergraduates, one NSF REU summer program student and two Kalamazoo Valley Community College/WMU NIH Bridges Program students. 

Maarten Vonhof, Ph.D., Evolutionary Ecology.  Dr. Vonhof’s laboratory focuses on the environmental and biological (social, morphological, physiological and life history) factors that influence the development of genetic structure in natural populations of bats and their parasites. Specifically, he pursues studies related to social behavior, population genetics and phylogenetics. Dr. Vonhof typically has two or three undergraduates working in his lab. They learn various techniques associated with DNA sequencing and genotyping. In addition, they learn analytical techniques to carry out population genetic and phylogenetic analyses.


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