Why do research as an undergraduate?

Students who do scientific research as undergraduates say it changes their lives. They get to be discoverers of scientific information rather than consumers. It makes them more competitive when applying to graduate and professional schools. But most of all, they join the ranks of scientists, seekers of knowledge following a centuries-old intellectual tradition.

What kind of research should you do?

It doesn't matter much what organisms you work on, though you might already know if you want to work in the field or in the lab (or in both). What counts is doing the job, from reading papers to giving the final presentation at a professional meeting.

Are Research Opportunities Available?

Research opportunities are available for qualified and interested students within the Department of Biology. There are approximately 30 faculty in the Department of Biology, all of whom are involved in research efforts. Students considering research should be aware of the focus required and expense entailed in supplying research projects. As faculty time is limited, well-prepared and organized students generally do best in the limited openings in faculty research laboratories. Interested students should read about faculty research projects and speak to faculty managing the projects of interest. Below are some ways to become involved with research in the Department of Biology at UNI.


Many professors would like some extra help, but do not have money to pay for it. Volunteering is a good option if you are not sure whether you want to do research, or what exactly you want to do. Start contacting faculty members and see whether they would like a hand (see tips, below).

Independent Study (BIOL 4198)

Another good option if you want some lab experience, but do not have the time (or desire) to turn it into a full-blown research project. You can sign up for typically 1-2 credits per semester, figuring roughly 2-3 hours per week of work, per credit hour (this may vary with different professors).

Undergraduate Research (BIOL 3190)

This is a good option if you are interested in being involved in a long term research project (spanning semesters / years), potentially leading to the writing of a senior's honors thesis. The thesis/honors option requires 4 credits of undergraduate research. As for Undergraduate Research, most students sign up for 1-3 credits / semester. You should figure on spending 3 or more hours of work per credit hour.

Work Study

If you have work study money from Financial Aid, contact Sandi Ingles in the Biology Department!!

Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP)

A competitive program, with applications due in the Fall. SURP students are paid to do research during the summer ($3000/10 weeks). If selected, you must sign up for Readings (BIOL 3185, with your faculty mentor) in the Spring to help prepare you, then work full time during the summer in the lab/field. All Biology summer research students present their research in poster form at a formal science symposium at the end of the summer. The following Fall, you sign up for both UG research (for 3 credits) and UG Research Seminar (BIOL 3189), where you will give an oral presentation of your work. There is no summer tuition charged for this program (the credits are awarded in the Fall).

What is required of you?

  • reliability, responsibility, and enthusiasm! Research is a learning opportunity. No one expects you to come in with a lot of experience, so don't worry.
  • watch out for deadlines, especially for the summer programs.
  • think ahead! Applications (for professional schools) are typically due in the Fall. If you want research experience to go on your applications / resumes, you need to get involved early.
  • don't be afraid to jump in there and contact faculty. You can find faculty research interests on the departmental web page, then start sending emails. Keep it short and simple: introduce yourself, say you are interested in getting experience (and briefly, why), and ask whether there are any opportunities available. Don't be discouraged if a particular lab is "full" - keep trying!

Faculty Research Interests

Tilahun Abebe

My research focuses on improving resistance of cereals to drought and fungal diseases. Two major research projects are in progress in my lab:

Response of the reproductive structures of cereals to drought stress. The reproductive stage of plants is the most sensitive to drought stress. The research in my lab tries to understand how the reproductive stage of cereals responds to drought using barley as a model. The cereal inflorescence (spike) contains many spikelets (florets) that are surrounded by a husk (composed of leaf-like photosynthetic structures known as lemma and palea). The husk protects the developing seed from pathogens and insects. In addition, the husk is photosynthetically active and supplies the developing seed with assimilates (Abebe et al., 2004; Crop Science 44: 942-950). The husk and the awn are drought tolerant. They can supply the developing seed with assimilates during water deficit when most leaves wilt. Understanding how the reproductive structures respond to drought can offer valuable information on how we can improve yield when available water is limiting at the flowering and grain filling stages. We use functional genomics to analyze gene expression at the transcriptome and proteome level in the spike of drought-stressed barley.

Enhancing resistance of barley to Fusarium head blight (FHB) or scab disease through genetic engineering. The devastating scab disease of cereals is caused by the fungus Fusarium graminearum. The disease is responsible for huge economic losses to growers in the northern mid-west of the United States. Scab-infected kernels are shriveled and accumulate mycotoxins, such as deoxynevalenol (DON) making them unusable for malting and animal feed. There is no genetic resistance to scab in barley and fungicide treatments are not effective. One alternative strategy to fight the disease is engineering barley with anti-Fusarium genes. To infect the seed, the pathogen must cross the husk and the seed coat (epicarp). Expression of Fusarium resistant genes at the infection route has a great potential to reduce infection. We use a tissue-specific Lem2 promoter (Abebe et al., 2006) to target expression of anti-Fusarium genes in the husk and the epicarp of barley.

Pete Berendzen

My research interests focus on the evolutionary relationships, speciation, and biogeography of fish. Fish are fascinating because of their great morphological, physiological and behavioral variation and high diversity, with over 25,000 described species. The goals of my research address two main questions on the evolution of fish: 1) What are the historical processes that have shaped geographical distributions of fish? and 2) What are the patterns of variation of specific character traits within evolutionary lineages of fish? My research involves both active field collection of fish and laboratory work on the collection of molecular and morphological data. My primary focus is on North American freshwater fish although I also have interests in flatfish and East African freshwater fish.

Barton Bergquist

Barton Bergquist examines chemically mediated cell-level effects of chemotherapeutic compounds and the role of calcium and calmodulin in cellular water regulation. Effects on cytoskeletal dynamics as mediated by green tea extracts and other chemicals are also of interest.

Maureen Clayton

I am interested in studying the sublethal effects of contaminants in aquatic ecosystems. Currently, I am focusing on two contaminants of interest in Iowa: phosphorus and atrazine. My students and I, along with Dr. Ed Brown and Dr. Mohammad Iqbal, are studying phosphorus in local lakes, as well as potential methods to reduce phosphorus bioavailability. We have also investigated the production of microcystin-LR by cyanobacteria in local lakes. We are also examining the effects of atrazine, an endocrine disruptor, on human cell proliferation in collaboration with Dr. Kavita Dhanwada and on fish reproductive physiology in collaboration with Dr. Pete Berendzen.

James Demastes

My research interests focus on host-parasite coevolution and zoogeography. My research in coevolution involves long-time collaborations with several researchers at other universities. We have been studying pocket gophers (Rodentia: Geomyidae) and their ectoparasitic chewing lice (Pthiraptera: Trichodectidae) for over 15 years. Our current work involves a gopher-louse assemblage distributed across much of Mexico. Students in my lab have also been working on the zoogeography of the Blue-spotted salamander (Ambystoma laterale). Recent findings include the potential for the existence of two Pleistocene refugia (one midwestern and one near New England) resulting in an east-west genetic break that has also been demonstrated in mammals. Preliminary analysis of microsatellite data indicate historical bottlenecks in salamander populations in Iowa. Theresa Spradling and I are currently working to secure funding to extend this study to include other vertebrates (including lemmings and star-nosed moles) distributed across southern Canada to complete the first comparative phylogeographic analysis of Northeastern North America.

Kavita Dhanwada

My lab studies the effects of pesticides on human cells. Pesticides are commonly used chemicals in the United States, particularly in the Midwest with its primarily agricultural economy. Atrazine is one of the most widely used herbicides in this region along with metolachlor (herbicide) and diazinon (insecticide). Thus, the frequent use of pesticides has lead to the contamination of natural water systems and drinking water supplies. In fact, a recent study by the National Association of Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) found that in surface and ground water in the United States, atrazine, metolachlor and diazinon were the most frequently detected pesticides. The research question that we are very interested in asking is do these pesticides affect normal human cells after exposure and if so does this exposure lead to any human health effects? We have shown that when normal cells are exposed to very low levels of these pesticides, even below the allowable limits of each, these normal cells grow slower compared to cells that have never been exposed to these chemicals. We are currently asking what happens inside the cell, at the molecular level, to produce the slower rate of growth in pesticide treated cells and how that may lead to alterations in human health.

Laura Jackson

I have two main areas of research under the umbrella of conservation biology: restoration ecology and sustainable agriculture

Restoration ecology
Since 1998, I have worked with UNI graduate and undergraduate students and staff of the Tallgrass Prairie Center to understand the process of seedling establishment in mature stands of native, warm-season grasses. Experiments demonstrate that overseeding followed by mowing can increase forb diversity and abundance. We are now beginning to study the requirements for germination of spring-flowering species and whether they can be successfully added using overseeding and mowing techniques. Recent investigations (2005-2007) reveal that seed predators such as rodents and ants may remove 95-99% of all broadcast seeds before they have a chance to become incorporated into the soil. We are testing whether this can be reduced by the use of feeding deterrents or supplemental food.
Sustainable Agriculture
In 2002 Dana Jackson and I published an edited volume, /The Farm as Natural Habitat: Reconnecting Food Systems with Ecosystems/ to explore how farmers can incorporate greater native biological diversity into their agricultural production systems. I collaborate with farmers in northeast Iowa and elsewhere who are introducing native, warm-season grass pasture into their rotationally grazed pastures. I also study how agricultural policy and food systems influence land use practices in the Upper Midwest. I am interested in learning how we can improve soil and water quality, increase system resilience and restore biological diversity by changing land use practices on a large scale.

Jim Jurgenson

My research is divided into three separate but complimentary areas:

  1. Genetics of the plant pathogenic fungus Fusarium graminearum (Gibberella zeae). This organism is the causative agent of scab (head blight) of wheat in the United States and other countries. I have been developing genetic maps using Amplified Fragment Length polymorphism analysis to generate mendelianly inherited genetic markers. My genetic maps have been used to align the Genomic sequence recently produced by the Broad institute.
  2. I am also studying the population genetics of more than 20 species of native plants of the tall grass prairie. This effort is designed to assess the genetic diversity of native species in existing remnants of the prairie that exist in Iowa.
  3. I am also interested in the ability of plants to resist infection by microorganisms. We are isolating disease resistant gene analogues from the genomes of native plant species. It is expected that these could be used in agronomic crops as genetic protection to disease organism such as Fusarium graminearum.

David McClenahan

My area of research involves lung pathology associated with pneumonia, and how the immune system is involved in this process. Since I am a veterinarian, my "animal" model of study is the bovine, and the form of pneumonia I study is bovine respiratory disease complex. One of the hallmark changes associated with this disease is the extensive leakage of vascular products into the interstitial spaces and airways of the lung early in infection. There is fairly strong evidence that the host's own immune response is at least partially responsible for these changes. Given that, I am especially interested in how neutrophils that migrate into the areas of infection may potentially be damaging endothelial and epithelial cells in the process. Also, I have recently started investigating other inflammatory mediators, including bacterial endotoxins and exotoxins and products produced by the host (e.g. IL-8, PAF, ATP), and their effects on lung endothelial and epithelial permeability and health as a possible explanation for the vascular damage associated with infection. Even though this work is with a bovine pneumonia model, I'm hoping to expand its relevance to human lung diseases such as pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome.

Mark Myers

I am interested in the ecology, evolution, and conservation of north temperate and neotropical vertebrates, especially in relation to issues of human-induced habitat degradation and restoration. I realize that the designation "vertebrates" is exceedingly broad, but it reflects my experiences working with diverse taxa including fishes, birds, and mammals. I prefer not concentrate on a particular group of organisms, but on a common theme: how species' natural history traits and the movements of individuals influence population level responses to landscape alteration or management actions. Other areas of interest include population and community ecology, endangered species conservation, international conservation, marine protected areas, ecological economics, and environmental policy.

Steve O'Kane

My research is in Plant Systematics. Currently I have two large research projects. I am studying members of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) especially the large genus Physaria, which I've recently merged with Lesquerella. This research involves field, herbarium, and laboratory research. Field work to-date has and continues to uncovered several species new to science. Herbarium studies have led to a revision of the South American species of Physaria. In the laboratory I and my students sequence non-coding DNA to reconstruct evolutionary history and species boundaries. My second major research focus is the floristics of the American West. My collaborators and I have just completed a flora of the Four Corners area of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. This project had a massive field component as well as a herbarium component. I am now working on a flora of the state of New Mexico with my long-time collaborator Ken Heil of San Juan College, Farmington, New Mexico. Students in my lab have worked on the population genetics of Asclepias, species boundaries and population genetics of Plantanthera, the evolution and biogeography of the Physaria reediana and the P. rectipes Complexes, as well as the phylogeny and taxonomy of Physaria as a whole.

John Ophus

I study issues dealing with content and pedagogy in constructivist-oriented teaching in the K-16 environment. In particular, my research interests lie in community building and best practices for online education as well as science education and its implementation in the classroom. My doctoral research was on the development of community among students taking online courses. For my Master's degree, I worked on factors of the acquisition and innoculation of potato leafroll virus (PLRV) by the Green Peach Aphid (Myzus persicae) on Russet-Burbank potatoes.

Kurt Pontasch

Kurt Pontasch's interests include the fate and effects of contaminants in aquatic ecosystems, including stream microcosm toxicity tests using naturally occurring macroinvertebrate and periphyton communities, instream bioassessments of benthic community integrity, and the use of aquatic insect cholinesterase activities as potential biomarkers of organophosphorus pesticide contamination in streams.

David Saunders

I am interested in how animals adapt to their environment. In particular, I am interested in blood flow and blood clotting in animals that hibernate. As an animal's body temperature drops, its blood should become more viscous and the ability of the blood to clot should decrease. Previous studies in my lab have shown that in hibernating reptiles such as turtles, the blood does not become as viscous as one might predict therefore allowing for ease of flow under cold conditions and slow heart rates. I am interested in determining if the ability to of the blood to clot is also not affected by the cold in these animals as might be predicted.

Robert Seager

Science and religion as ways of knowing, including:

  • The relationships and interactions of science and religion.
  • Religions/spiritualities (including atheism) of the present and past.
  • Evolution of religious concepts, including their origins, extending (if possible) into human prehistory.
  • Creation/Genesis and Evolution; other creation stories.
  • Conflicts and possible resolutions between the fact and mechanisms of evolution and Christianity.

Mark Sherrard

My research focuses on plant adaptation to environmental factors.  I am particularly interested in the role that nutrient availability, water availability, and community diversity play in the evolution of plant physiology.  Ongoing research in my lab is largely field-based, and takes advantage of a unique experimental system (The Biomass Research Site) created and managed by the Tallgrass Prairie Center.  The goal of my research is to better understand the root causes of the tremendous physiological variation we see across the plant kingdom.

Marek Sliwinski

Research in my laboratory involves the molecular characterization of plant genes involved in evolution and development. Over the course of development from an embryo to an adult, all multicellular life uses genes to control placement and timing of organ formation. How these genes evolved to create different species is the focus of my research. Plants are a great model system to study such questions because of the wealth of data already available. The evolutionary relationships between plant groups is understood and the genetic basis of plant organ development has been well characterized. Students in my lab conduct research using a variety of tools including molecular techniques, microscopy, and the analysis of morphological data.

Theresa Spradling

My research interests lie in the areas of evolution and population genetics. My evolutionary research has focused on the historical relationships of a variety of rodents and on cospeciation between one particular group of rodents (pocket gophers) and their parasites. Jim Demastes and I are working together with researchers at other universities to study whether certain chewing lice have cospeciated with the pocket gophers that they parasitize. For these studies, my students and I use DNA sequence data from a variety of nuclear and mitochondrial genes. My population research on some of Iowa's endangered and threatened species has been focused on determining genetic diversity, inbreeding, and level of population isolation. My students and I have collaborated with Jeff Tamplin on the genetics of wood turtles in Iowa. My previous master's student studied blue-spotted salamanders in Iowa, and now I am working with another master's student who is studying central newts. For these projects, we use DNA fingerprinting (STR) data. Undergraduates interested in being involved in field work or in lab work associated with these projects may find an interesting way to participate in this lab.

Jeff Tamplin

Jeff Tamplin's research is focused on microhabitat selection, movement and activity patterns, and population structure and genetics of the wood turtle (Glyptemys insculpta), an endangered species in Iowa. He is also interested in temperature preferences and thermoregulation in aquatic turtles, particularly hatchlings and juveniles. In the past, he has studied Triassic and Jurassic reptile fossils from Antarctica, and the effect of acclimation temperature on growth, metamorphosis and temperature selection in tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum).

Carl Thurman

Cellular mechanisms of physiological regulation. Biophysical regulation of ion channel kinetics in plasma and artificial membranes. Control of membrane conductance in epithelial cells by hormones and neurotransmitters. Ion and osmotic regulation in semiterrestrial brachyurans. Biological rhythms in shallow water, marine organisms.

Michael Walter

Viruses that parasitize bacteria (bacteriophages - 'phages') are the most abundant and most diverse 'form of life' on the planet. Some phages kill dangerous bacteria, and therefore are useful to humans. Our lab takes both basic and applied approaches to studying phages of the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis. At the basic level, we ask: How can we quickly distinguish these phages from one another and how many different types of B. anthracis phages are there in the soil community: what is the 'species richness'? Our applied research includes characterization of phages that kill B. anthracis. This bacterium has a long and ugly history in terms of human and livestock disease, and now bio-terrorism, so there is plenty of interest in controlling damage. The student projects currently underway range from standard virology to phage-based therapy and decontamination, to phage-bioinformatics. Students may work on growing, isolating and characterizing phages (using a safe-strain host) which feeds data into several projects. Initially, phages are identified, named and characterized as to DNA and structural protein content. Phage protein profiles help with an ongoing project describing the number of different phages specific to B. anthracis in soils ('species richness'). Phage DNA data feeds into our growing UNI-phage data base, which we use to compare our phage DNA to others, using web-based bioinformatics tools. This helps us to characterize phage genes that might code for bacteria-binding-and-bursting enzymes. Last, and most exciting, we have current collaborations with certified bio-containment labs (elsewhere), where our phages are being tested in actual anthrax prevention with deadly strains. Students can help test our candidate phages here at UNI (against safe strains) for spore-sticking, bacteria-killing ability, then send the best ones out for testing..... far away. Since the number of phages is nearly uncountable (~10e31), the opportunities are endless. We collaborate with the Molecular Biology, Environmental Microbiology, Plant Molecular Biology, Plant Anatomy and Immunology Labs in the Department of Biology and with the Computer Science Department.

Darrell Wiens

Darrell Wiens focuses on cell motility and the cytoskeleton during development, cadherins during development, neural crest cells, heart development, and gravitational biology.