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Four UW Students Receive NSF Graduate Research Fellowships

May 24, 2017
woman sitting at table with microscope and computer
Koedi Lawley received an NSF Graduate Fellowship. She will study songbirds, specifically looking at which brain regions are involved in distinguishing songs of their own species versus songs from other species, and which regions are involved in analyzing attractive features of the males’ song. (Karagh Murphy Photo)

Four University of Wyoming students have received National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowships to pursue research in their fields this summer.

-- Koedi Lawley, a student majoring in zoology and physiology, from Eaton, Colo., recently completed the first year of her master’s degree. However, her project, titled “Auditory Processing of Mate Choice Cues in the Female Songbird Brain,” will be based in neuroscience.

“In our lab, we use mate selection as a model for decision making. In the species that we study, females are not able to sing, unlike their male counterparts,” Lawley explains. “However, they are superb listeners and are capable of evaluating subtle features of male song, and choose the best possible mate based on that information.”

For her project, Lawley is investigating which brain regions are involved in distinguishing songs of their own species versus songs from another species, and which regions are involved in analyzing attractive features of the males’ song.

“My project is relevant not only for our understanding of the neural basis of mate choice, but also for future investigations of how signal identification and evaluation may occur in the human brain,” she says. 

Lawley says receiving this NSF grant is a tremendous honor and has opened up many doors she could not have previously imagined.

“In the short term, it will help me pursue my dream of obtaining a Ph.D.,” she says. “In the future, it is my hope to become a well-respected leader in my field and, one day, share my knowledge with students and instill the passion and excitement for science that my mentors have instilled in me.” 

Jonathan Prather, a UW associate professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology and director of the Life Sciences Program, is Lawley’s adviser.

woman using large syringe outside
For her NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Anna Ortega will study different migratory strategies that have been observed in a mule deer herd wintering in Wyoming’s Red Desert. (Benjamin Kroushaar Photo)

-- Anna Ortega, a first-year master’s student in zoology from Durango, Colo., will use her fellowship for research titled “Understanding Maintenance of Partial Migrations: A Test of the Fitness Balancing Hypothesis with Mule Deer (Odecoileus hemionus) in South-Central Wyoming.”

“The primary objective of my research is to test the fitness-balancing hypothesis in a partially migratory herd of mule deer that spends the winter in Wyoming’s Red Desert to advance our understanding of factors that promote the maintenance of partial migration,” Ortega says.

Three different migratory strategies have been observed in a mule deer herd wintering in Wyoming’s Red Desert. These include long-distance migrants that travel 150 miles to the Hoback Basin for the summer (the longest recorded mule deer migration, named the Red Desert to Hoback migration); medium-distance migrants that migrate nearly 70 miles to the southern Wind River Range for the summer; and short-distance migrants that either migrate less than 30 miles north for the summer or live year-round in the Red Desert.

“Some of my analyses include comparing fat dynamics, birth rates, fawn recruitment and adult survival among the different migratory strategies,” she says.

In a world of increasing human disturbances and a changing climate, Ortega says management decisions could determine the fate of many species. She adds that it is imperative that people making these decisions are well-informed experts, and she strives to be one of those individuals.

“With the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, I will now be able to devote more time to practicing my skills and knowledge required to make important ecological decisions in an ever-changing world,” she says. “Furthermore, I will be able to continue bridging the gaps between scientific discovery and the general public.”

Matthew Kauffman, leader of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit, is Ortega’s adviser.

two men and a deer
Patrick Rodgers helps release a deer. During his NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, Rodgers will analyze sex-based differences in migratory patterns and behaviors. (Benjamin Kroushaar Photo)

-- Patrick Rodgers, a zoology graduate student from Casper, recently finished the first year of his master’s program. His research project is titled, “Do Migratory Behaviors of Male and Female Mule Deer Differ? A Text of the Sexually Segregated Migration Hypothesis.”

Research and conservation efforts around mule deer migration in the last decade have focused primarily on does, while major gaps in understanding of buck migratory behaviors remain, Rodgers says. In south-central Wyoming, near the town of Baggs, his research team captured and outfitted 81 buck mule deer with satellite collars (which collect hourly location data) in an area with ongoing GPS-location data for does.

“From these data, I will analyze sex-based differences in migratory patterns and behaviors -- specifically, timing of migration, time spent on seasonal ranges (winter and summer foraging areas) and green wave surfing (the ability of individuals to track plant green-up in spring),” he says.

Additionally, Rodgers will assess shifts in buck behaviors in and around the autumn hunting season. This new information will be useful for local managers to more effectively prioritize mule deer migratory routes and adjust hunting seasons and regulations in order to reach herd objectives.

“Receiving this NSF Graduate Fellowship has been an incredible boon to my academic career,” Rodgers says. “Not only has it allowed me to better focus on my research and worry less about funding, but it also has expanded my opportunities as a student and a biologist.

“Specifically, this fellowship will allow me to expand outreach efforts -- a component of science that I consider to be crucial -- to convey information about migration and mule deer ecology to the general public. My hope is that the weight of this fellowship will carry into the future, enabling me to better contribute to both scientific and public understanding of wildlife ecology and wildlife-related issues.” 

Kauffmann also is Rodgers’ adviser.

woman outside in desert area with hiking gear
Madi Wewer takes a break in the Mojave Desert after collecting barometry samples in Black Rock Canyon for her senior thesis. She received an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship to study the tectonics and faulting at the Gakkel Ridge -- the world’s slowest-spreading ridge beneath the Arctic Ocean. (Omar Abdelrazik Photo)

-- Madeline Wewer recently graduated from Southern Methodist University with her bachelor’s degree in geophysics. Wewer, from Marietta, Ga., will begin her master’s program in marine geology and geophysics at UW this fall. He research is titled, “Applying Field Sedimentology and Low-Temperature Thermochronology to Constrain the Age of Tectonic Mode Switches in the Central Mojave, Calif.”

“In a nutshell, I will be part of a team exploring the sea floor and will work on understanding the tectonics and faulting at the Gakkel Ridge -- the world’s slowest spreading ridge beneath the Arctic Ocean,” she says.

This project will be different than what was originally proposed since Wewer changed Graduate Research Fellowship institutions.

“Obtaining this fellowship is an exciting opportunity because it allows me to pursue research on spreading ridges: a perfect combination of my passion for geology I discovered during my undergrad (years) and exploring the ocean, a hobby developed through scuba diving since childhood,” Wewer says. “This award gave me the flexibility to find the perfect program fit with supportive faculty without having to sacrifice my academic and career goals.”

Michael Cheadle and Barbara John, UW professors in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, are Wewer’s advisers.

The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is one of the nation’s most highly competitive awards for graduate studies. It offers, among other things, three years of support (within a five-year period) with an annual $34,000 stipend; a $12,000 cost-of-education allowance; international research and professional development opportunities; and the freedom to conduct research at any accredited U.S. institution of graduate education that recipients choose. For the 2017 competition, NSF received more than 13,000 applications and made 2,000 award offers.

About the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

The Graduate Research Fellowship Program is a vital part of NSF efforts to foster and promote excellence in U.S. science, technology, engineering and mathematics by recognizing talent broadly from across the nation. The awards are provided to individuals who have demonstrated their potential for significant research achievements. The group is diverse, including 1,077 women, 424 individuals from underrepresented minority groups, 62 persons with disabilities, 35 veterans and 627 senior undergraduates. The new fellows come from 488 baccalaureate institutions.

Former NSF fellows include numerous individuals who have made transformative breakthroughs in science and engineering; have become leaders in their chosen careers; and been honored as Nobel laureates.

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