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Western Colorado's Selective University

Undergraduate Research

Research student in the labStudent Researcher in lab

As professors, we are interested in facilitating learning experiences not only in the classroom and teaching lab, but also through research opportunities. Working on research with a faculty member allows students to gain real life experience in experimental design, data collection, specimen identification, specimen curation, and data analysis. These experiences allow our students to be very competitive for entrance to post-undergraduate degree programs, whether they are in ecology, genetics, biochemistry, or in medicine and human health.

Students who are interested in doing research may contact one or more of the faculty mentors listed below.

Research Opportunities in the Department

St. Mary's Saccomanno Research Institute/Colorado Mesa University Summer Internship Program in Biological Research (SIPBR)

This 10-week summer internship program provides an opportunity for highly motivated undergraduates and recent graduates to perform hands-on biological research. Interns work under the guidance of an experienced scientist on real research projects, allowing participants to experience the excitement, challenges and creativity of research. The Program compensates each intern with $4500.00 so that s/he can work full-time during the summer on a project with a faculty mentor. At the end of the summer, interns present their research to the public.

Applications for the summer 2016 Internship Program are now available!

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact Dr. Kyle McQuade.

Dr. Becktell's research interests are in:

  • Plant Pathology
  • Horticulture and Greenhouse Management

Please contact Dr. Becktell if you are interested in working with her on research.

Dr. Craig's research interests include:

  • Roles of mitochondrial dysfunction in the initiation, progression and treatment of disease.
  • Immunogenetics
  • Neurodegenerative disease
  • Cancer biology
  • Mitochondrial disease

Please contact Dr. Craig if you are interested in working with her on research.

Dr. Hampton's research interests are in the field of:

  • Integrative feeding biology of vertebrates

Please contact Dr. Hampton if you are interested in working with him on research.

Dr. Longest's research interests include the following areas:

  • Evolution of sociality
  • Animal social behavior, development, and parental care
  • Impacts of climate change on animal behavior and migration
  • Hormonal correlates of dominance
  • Population genetics and conservation

Please contact Dr. Longest if you are interested in working with her on research.

Dr. McKenney's research interests are in microbial ecology, especially projects involving the diversity of nitrogen fixing bacteria in soils. She has also collaborated with other researchers on a variety of microbiology projects, ranging from water quality determinations to bacterial sensitivity to suspected antibacterial plant extracts.

Please contact Dr. McKenney if you are interested in working with her on research.

Approximately 30% of human tumors bear mutations in genes encoding Ras GTPases, membrane-associated molecular switches that activate intracellular signaling networks in response to extracellular stimuli. To signal, Ras proteins require both post-translational addition of an isoprenyl lipid tail on the C-terminal cysteine residue and methylation of the isoprenyl cysteine. For this reason, clinicians are testing whether drugs that block Ras modifications reduce cell growth and limit tumor expansion. One class of drug that is being evaluated includes compounds that inhibit methylation of Ras proteins. The specific roles that methylation plays in Ras activity are unknown, however, and are the focus of the work done in Dr. McQuade's laboratory.

Dr. McQuade's current research focuses on methylation of Ras family members in the social amoebae Dictyostelium discoideum. Work in his laboratory is aimed at understanding the cellular roles of isoprenylcysteine methylation. Student projects are available that would provide experience and expertise in molecular genetics, biochemistry and cell biology.

Please contact Dr. McQuade if you are interested in working with him on research.

Dr. Palmer is interested in using molecular genetic tools to explore the evolution of a variety of organisms. Currently, she is working on a project that seeks to understand how populations of polychaetes (marine worms) diverge genetically and applying that understanding to the establishment of marine preserves. She is also involved in characterizing the species of tardigrades (water bears) that occur in Western Colorado and Eastern Utah.

Dr. Palmer's students collaborate with her on each of these projects. As they do so, they can gain skills in DNA isolation, DNA purification, gel electrophoresis, PCR, cycle sequencing, and DNA sequence analysis. They also learn about and characterize the morphologies of the study organisms through light and electron microscopy.

Please speak to Dr. Palmer if you are interested in working with her on her research.

Dr. Stansbury is interested in how new traits arise and diversify in evolutionary lineages. Since development is responsible for sculpting all morphology, the evolution of novel forms must result from heritable modifications of developmental programs. Dr. Stansbury studies the genetics underlying the development of a spectacular novel feature: the lantern of Photuris fireflies. Current research includes the identification of promising candidate genes via bioinformatic analysis of mRNA sequences derived from pupal lantern bearing tissues, determining the function of these genes using RNA interference, and sequencing and analysis of regulatory regions of genes known through previous research to play a role in lantern formation.

Please speak to Dr. Stansbury if you are interested in working with him on his research.

There are approximately 1.2 million species on earth that are known to science and have been formally described; however, estimates of the actual number of species on earth range from 5-10 million or even higher. This means that there is an incredible amount of biodiversity that we know nothing about!

Research in my lab is focused on understanding biodiversity, including the taxonomy and evolutionary history of various plant groups. I focus on the plant genus Solanum, which includes the eggplant, tomato, and potato and I am also interested in research on local rare plant species in Colorado. Current research includes fieldwork in the western United States, South America, and Central America, as well as laboratory work, including DNA extraction, amplification, sequencing, and phylogenetic analysis. I am also the curator of the Kelley Herbarium at CMU, where students can perform internships helping with identifying, mounting, and data basing herbarium specimens. By studying plants in the field, herbarium, and lab, we can get a better understanding of life on earth.

Please contact Dr. Stern if you are interested in working with him on research.

Research in my lab seeks to understand how mammals respond to anthropogenic disturbances, such as climate change, wildfire or habitat loss.  In addressing this topic, we use a combination of behavioral observation, molecular analyses, and habitat suitability surveys.  We are currently focused on American pikas (Ochotona princeps), a small mammalian herbivore this is closely related to rabbits and hares.  Pikas are typically found in alpine talus (i.e., rockslides and boulder fields) in western North America.  Because they are heat-sensitive and have a limited dispersal capacity, climate change has already forced pikas upslope or has lead to local extinction in parts of their range, including southwestern Colorado.

Current projects include investigating pika status and distribution in habitats recently burned by wildfire and testing hypotheses relating to foraging behavior, winter cache quality and pika survival.  I am also collaborating with a citizen science project in Oregon to develop a noninvasive acoustic monitoring system that can be used to estimate pika density in typical and atypical habitats.

Please contact Dr. Johanna Varner if you would like to work with her on her research.

Research in my lab is focused on measuring and understanding patterns of diversity in tropical systems with Lepidoptera as the centerpiece for sampling and measurement. I approach these problems with an interest in quantifying diversity as a spatially dynamic and multifaceted characteristic of communities that can be measured not only by sampling species but also by sampling the trophic interactions between species. This exciting approach to investigating community properties allows inferences to be made that include information about the underlying processes that drive and maintain species diversity in addition to the static quantities presented by taxonomic sampling. I strive to support and mentor undergraduate research students in all aspects of my research with an emphasis on a field course and field work at Yanayacu Biological Station and Shiripuno Research Center in Ecuador.

My current research is funded by "Caterpillars and Parasitoids of the Eastern Andes in Ecuador" a collaborative research grant funded by the Biological Surveys and Inventories of the National Science Foundation ( DOB-0717034). The goal of this project is describe new species of Lepidoptera and their parasitoid wasps and flies while sampling trophic interactions quantitatively on the Andean slope. The lead Principle Investigator of this project is Lee Dyer of the University of Nevada, Reno who brought together a team of people from around the globe to focus on unraveling the mysteries of the neo-tropical lepidopteran caterpillars and their parasitoids and host plants. As a Co-Principle Investigator on this grant I work together with the other Co-PI's Scott Shaw from University of Wyoming, John Stireman from Wright State University, Jim Whitfield from University of Illinois, and Matt Forester from the University of Nevada, Reno. Together this team of collaborators is working to describe new species and unlock diversity patterns of the upper Amazon in Ecuador. This exciting grant has provided funding for undergraduates to gain research experience in Ecuador since 2004.

I have also worked extensively to document patterns of diversity in adult butterflies in the family Nymphalidae. For more than 10 years I have worked with Phil DeVries at the University of New Orleans to monitor fruit feeding nymphalid butterflies in the canopy and the understory at La Selva Lodge on the Napo River in Ecuador. As well I have worked with similar monitoring projects at Limoncocha on the Napo River, and at the Shiripuno Research Center on the Shiripuno River with undergraduate students from Ecuador and the United States.

Please contact Dr. Walla if you are interested in working with him on research.

Student research, on my projects, involves the identification and use of gene (DNA) and amino acid (protein) sequence information, and the application of these data to reptile phylogenetics and venom evolution. Students conducting research learn basic techniques of DNA isolation, gene amplification with PCR (polymerase chain reaction), and gene cloning. In addition, students gain experience on how to interpret DNA and protein sequence information with the aid of computer analysis (bioinformatics). Usually, Junior level status and completed coursework in general chemistry, genetics and zoology is required to be considered for student research opportunities.

Please contact Dr. Werman if you are interested in working with him on research.

Receiving College Credit for Research

Under the supervision of a professor, the student can participate in the research while simultaneously earning college credit by taking one of the following courses:

BIOL 387--Structured Research

Under the supervision of a faculty mentor, students learn the techniques associated with the mentor's field of research and collaborate with the professor to collect and analyze data. Students must have the permission of the supervising mentor to enroll in the class, which can be taken for a variable number of credits.

BIOL 487--Advanced Research

After taking BIOL 387, students may continue to refine their skills in research by taking this course. Students continue to delve deeper into the research conducted by the faculty mentor and contribute to the research being conducted by the professor. Students must have the permission of the supervising mentor to enroll in the class, which can be taken for a variable number of credits.

Research Facilities for Cell and Molecular Biology

The Molecular Genetics Research Laboratory at Colorado Mesa University provides the space and equipment for research conducted with undergraduates and for class projects. The research conducted here include projects on mitochondrial morphology, the molecular basis for cell motility, the population genetics of polychaetous worms, the molecular phylogenetics of solanaceous plants, and the molecular characterization of biocontrol species. Classes that benefit from the lab include Genetics, Cloning, Molecular Biology Techniques, Evolution, and Forensic Molecular Biology.

Student Successes

Everett Austin: Mr. Austin, now a medical student at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, worked with Dr. Kyle McQuade when he was an undergraduate at CMU.

Michael Bautsch: After completing his Biology degree, Mr. Bautsch earned a Master's degree from the Colorado School of Mines. As an undergraduate, he worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer.

Ryan Bixenmann: Mr. Bixenmann received his Ph.D. from the University of Utah and is currently a postdoctoral scholar at Montana State University. As an undergraduate, he worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer and Dr. Tom Walla.

Joshua Bollan: Mr. Bollan is now pursuing his M.D. at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. As an undergraduate, he worked with Dr. Kyle McQuade.

Colleen Cooper-Vanosdell: Ms. Cooper-Vanosdell received a Master's degree from Montana State University in 2011. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer.

Julie Fritz: Ms. Fritz is working on a Master's degree at Emory University. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Kyle McQuade.

Ellen Garcia: Ms. Garcia has accepted an offer of admission into the MultiSteps graduate program at Virginia Tech. While she was an undergraduate here, she worked with Dr. Stephen Stern.

Marcus Hooker: Mr. Hooker is working on a Ph.D. at Washington State University. As an undergraduate, he worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer and Dr. Stephen Stern

April Ilaqua: Ms. Ilaqua has accepted an offer of admission to the Master's Degree Program at Central Michigan University. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Kyle McQuade.

Josh Jahner: Mr. Jahner is working on his Ph.D. at the University of Nevada, Reno. As an undergraduate, he worked with Dr. Tom Walla.

Whitney Marquardt: Ms. Marquardt pursued a law degree at the University of Wyoming. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer.

Micah Nelp: Mr. Nelp is now pursuing a graduate degree at the University of Arizona in biochemistry. As an undergraduate, he worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer.

Kinta Serve: Ms. Serve received a Master's degree from Washington State University. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Steve Werman.

Amee Replogle: Ms. Replogle is currently working on a Doctor of Pharmacy degree at the University of Colorado Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer.

Aneka Singlaub: Ms. Singlaub received a graduate degree from Western Washington University. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer.

Angela Smilanich: Ms. Smilanich is now Dr. Smilanich and is currently a faculty member at the University of Nevada at Reno. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer, Dr. Lee Dyer, and Dr. Craig Dodson.

Joseph Talboom: Mr. Talboom was admitted to Northern Arizona University to do graduate work in Biology. As an undergraduate, he worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer.

Maria Trigg: Ms. Trigg graduated as a Physician Assistant from Yale University. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer.

Shay West: Ms. West received her Ph.D. from the University of Colorado and is now an instructor at Colorado Mesa University. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Steve Werman.

Nicole White: After graduating, Ms. White worked for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's (CBI) Crime Lab. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Aparna Palmer and interned at the CBI.

Sarah Wood: Ms. Wood is currently at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine working on a Doctor of Dentistry degree. As an undergraduate, she worked with Dr. Kyle McQuade.

Brad Winters: Mr. Winters received his Ph.D. from Washington State University and is currently a researcher at UT Austin. As an undergraduate, he worked with Dr. Kyle McQuade and Dr. Tom Walla.