—Beth Ellen Roberts
When UC Foundation Assistant Professor of Biology Hope Klug saw a 703 area code on her caller ID one day last November, she eagerly picked up the phone, anticipating that she was about to get some very good news. And in fact, the caller informed her that the National Science Foundation (NSF) had chosen her to receive a coveted NSF CAREER award, which will provide $655,000 to support her research over the next 5 years.
Dr. Klug’s project, titled, “Revisiting the operation of mate acquisition,” will explore how factors such as competition for resources, an animal’s “life history,” and even plain old luck can affect how members of a species select their mates. “It’s very important to understand how animals mate,” she notes, “because if we understand how they mate, we understand how they reproduce, and that informs us whether populations of species are likely to persist.”
The caller that happy day in November was George Gilchrist, Program Director in the NSF Division of Environmental Biology, who explains Dr. Klug’s research will significantly advance knowledge in the field: “A diversity of ecological factors, including competition for resources, patterns of sex-specific maturation and survival, and chance events influence the pool of potential mates and, therefore, the behaviors used in courtship; however, little research has been directed at understanding these connections between ecology and the evolution of mate acquisition. Dr. Klug is pursuing a novel combination of theory development and experimental work to fill in the gaps in our understanding of these questions.”
The CAREER program, according to the NSF, “offers the most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.” “This award is reflective of what’s going on at UTC now,” says Dr. Klug; “We have a lot of really strong faculty that are both engaging in active research and teaching and, they are integrating the two.”
And UTC students are up to the challenge, she adds. When she arrived at UTC in 2011 following a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale, she was happy to find students just as capable of high level research as those at larger universities where she has studied and taught. “When you leave a very well funded private institution like Yale and come to a state school,” she says, “you don’t know what to expect, but I’ve been incredibly impressed with the quality of students we have at UTC.”
Several of her graduate students, including Sarah Farnsley, now an Adjunct Lecturer at UTC and Elijah Reyes, in his first year of graduate studies, say that they enrolled in graduate school at UTC specifically to work with Dr. Klug, and the NSF CAREER award will allow her to offer students even greater opportunities to conduct research, to collaborate with nationally and internationally known scientists in the field of evolutionary ecology, and to publish their findings.
Over the course of the project, about 25 undergraduates and 3 graduate students will assist Dr. Klug to create mathematical models of mate acquisition and parental care and then to conduct experiments to verify the accuracy of the models. Modeling the behavior is difficult because of the number of factors involved. When a fish looks for a hook-up, for example, is she searching for a mate that will pass on good genes and then leave, or does she want one who will look after the babies? Will there be 10 babies or 10,000? Does she have many years to produce offspring, or does she have just one shot? And are there really plenty of fish in the sea, or are good males hard to find?
Now, Klug says, faster computers make it possible to create predictive models based on biologically realistic scenarios that explore interactions between a wide range of such factors, and more accessible software programs such as Matlab and Mathematica allow students to help. Over the next few years, she and her students will work on the models at UTC first, and then they will travel to collaborate with professors at Oxford, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Zurich.
Once the models have been completed, Dr. Klug and several of her students will travel to Tvärminne Zoological Station, a highly regarded environmental research center on the coast of Finland, where they will test their predictions by studying an unassuming little fish called the sand goby that lives in the Baltic Sea.
Male sand gobies compete intensely to attract females by building nests made of a shell or rock that they cover with sand in order to hide them from predators. Once the female lays her eggs, she swims off to rest and rebuild her strength before mating again. In her absence, the male guards the nest and fans water over the thousands of eggs to provide oxygen. By creating a variety of conditions in large outdoor tanks, with different types of nesting materials and different ratios of male to female gobies, the team will examine their understanding of what factors really lead the sand goby to select one mate over another.
In addition to creating opportunities for UTC students, the project also includes work with high school students in UTC’s Gear Up program. For the past few years, Dr. Klug and her students have offered Gear Up participants the opportunity to participate in science activities such as dissecting sharks and simulating firefly mating patterns using flashlights. The NSF funding will allow them to develop bigger and better interactive programs for those students, as well as providing training and teaching materials for at least 20 local high school teachers.
“Giving K-12 students and undergrads the opportunity to do hands-on science early on is really important,” she adds. “The thing that really got me interested in biology was attending a marine biology camp for girls at the University of South Florida the summer after my 8th grade year. That was really the first time that I realized that I could be a scientist and that being a scientist is fun!”