Undergraduate Research- Past and Future

First off, I want to announce that the Patricelli Lab is seeking undergraduates to participate in our ongoing sage-grouse research. These will be lab positions on campus involving mainly video analysis of grouse behavior on the leks. We are looking for people starting this summer, and will almost certainly have additional openings in the fall. For details, check out the Undergraduate Research page. If interested, contact me! We will have information sessions starting early next week.

Graduation cap featuring sage-grouse "buttprint", Photo courtesy A. Dirksen

Secondly, a big congratulations to our graduating seniors. This spring we had a particularly big cohort of fantastic long-time lab members who have finished up here at UC Davis. Kira, Amy, and Ayala all presented at the Undergraduate Research Conference at Davis this spring, and Ayala and Ciara gave poster presentations at the prestigious Animal Behavior Society meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. Thanks to all of you, and in particular Ayala, Nicole, Amy, Ciara, and Kira for all your hard work! Best of luck in for the future!

UPDATE: Congratulations to Ciara Main for earning an honorable mention in the prestigious poster competition at the ABS meeting. Great work Ciara and Anna Perry for putting together such a good project and following it up with a winning poster and mastery of the topic.

Lab Accolades May 2014

Some hearty congratulations are due for Patricelli lab members!

First, our honors student Rebecca was awarded the College of Biological Sciences citation as one of the top graduates across all biology majors in the college. She has been working with us for several years, most recently on a thesis project to examine vocal behavior in sage-grouse in response to changes in female behavior. She presented this at last month’s Undergraduate Research Conference, and is completing her thesis soon.

Gail, Rebecca, and Anna celibrate Rebecca's award.

Second, recent Ph.D. (and former Wyoming field assistant) Conor Taff received two major honors yesterday. First, Conor’s dissertation was named the Merton Love Award for best dissertation across the ecology graduate groups here at UC Davis. Given the large number of high-quality graduate students here, this is an enormous distinction! He will be giving the Ecology and Evolution seminar next week. Second, he has been given a prestigious young investigator award by the Cooper Ornithological Society [not the American Ornithologists' Union as I originally wrote]. Conor’s dissertation project was an integrative study of development and sexual signalling in a warbler called the Common Yellowthroat. You can read more about it on his website.

Congrats to both Conor and Rebecca!

2013 / 2014

Juvenile Male Sage-Grouse, Cottontail Lek

2014 already has it’s talons in me, but I am pausing a moment to share some recollections of 2013 that was.

Last year I built upon my first full teaching gig in 2012. I taught both Animal Behavior during the summer and Evolution in the fall of 2013. The summer course was challenging because of the accelerated pace and because of some necessary travel, both scheduled and unscheduled, in the middle of the summer term. I was thankful to have an excellent co-instructor (Jamie Bunting), and I think we ended up putting together a nice class. The fall evolution course went well. Having a set of notes to work from made a huge difference in my sanity- I no longer felt quite as much of a ‘trying-to-keep-up-on-a-high-speed treadmill’ feeling. This let me put a lot more of my effort into improving the course. I was much happier with the exams in terms of length and clarity, and the homeworks and discussion were better integrated with the lecture material. To some extent this was behind the scenes stuff, and led to (I think) a comfortable class in which expectations for both me and the students were clearly presented. I look forward to working harder on lecture formats and classroom interaction next time I teach.

Research-wise, we got several projects out the door. These included our collaboration with Sergio Pellis on fighting dynamics in the grouse, an applied paper on the effects of radio collars on male sage-grouse in conjunction with Dan Gibson and colleagues at the University of Nevada Reno, a commentary on the utility of avian vocal studies that rely on calls instead of songs (with my former labmate Lauryn Benedict), and a review of male cooperation that I completed with other lab mates Sam Diaz-Muñoz, Eileen Lacey, and Emily DuVal. We got some of sage-grouse work out the door as well, an acoustics paper led by Rebecca Koch and our laterality analysis- these are in revision though.

Male Sage-Grouse with the >30g Encounternet tag. Photo GLP.

Our new telemetry tags moved forward in 2013 as well. These tags are intended to give us an unprecedented window into the movement and activity of male grouse off the lek. We were able to do some proof of concept of them in the field at the end of the 2013 season. We followed that up with some testing of the accelerometer function by using some captive chickens in the Avian Sciences facility on campus. Now we’re just waiting for the final tags, and we’ll be ready to break a lot of new ground with our field studies in 2014.

Steamboat Springs, home of the Winter Animal Behavior Conference

2014 is already shaping up to be an exciting year. I got to attend the Winter Animal Behavior Conference a few weeks ago- this is a small, intimate meeting with just a few dozen top behavior folks. The conference strives for a really fun atmosphere. I presented some early analyses looking at differences in the distribution of male mating success on leks of different sizes. It feels great to finally be at the point where we can begin to leverage the multi-lek, multi-year nature of some of our data. I’m hoping that these sorts of analyses can complement our more focused studies and help round out the picture of how “negotiation” on the lek proceeds.

Sage-Grouse usually cut all but the base of the leaf.

Along with making use of our older data, we’re also breaking new ground in the field. In addition to the aforementioned tags, we will conduct our first systematic plant sampling to learn more about variation in quality of the food the sage-grouse depend on during the winter.



This year should see some important and much needed modernization of our workflows as well. We’re finally upgrading our fleet of video cameras to move away from miniDV tapes and onto recording into digital media files on SD cards. This change will necessitate a host of other lab upgrades, including new computer workstations for viewing the video files (we are currently using a trio of refurbished laptops that are literally falling apart) and a robust server to distribute the video files. We may also finally move at least some of our data into a true database instead of simple spreadsheets. These transitions will require quite a bit of planning, but on balance should be big improvements.

Finding a Home on Campus

I recently had an email exchange with Kraig Adler, a behaviorist and herpetologist at Cornell. Kraig was one of the faculty members that I got to know best as an undergraduate. In fact, he really put more into undergraduate mentorship outside of the classroom than almost any faculty member I can think of. He was the advisor for the Cornell Herpetological Society, a student-run club that hosted speakers, went ‘herping’ (looking for reptiles and amphibians), and even took overnight field trips to important zoos and collections throughout the eastern part of the country. Kraig sent me a recent article about the CHS, which got me to thinking about some of the important things that go into having a successful time as an undergraduate, one of them being finding a home on campus.

I was pretty fortunate to get involved in research early in my career, starting with some work at the Lab of Ornithology with Charlie Walcott and with Katy and Maurice Tauber in Entomology. These were great experiences, giving me real research projects to get excited about and important one-on-one time with faculty mentors. The CHS provided a different sort of home- not only did we get an incredibly helpful and supportive mentor in Kraig, but also a peer group of motivated students to share in the journey.

When I moved to Berkeley, I quickly saw the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology provided a similar kind of home for undergraduates. Hooked by classes such as Natural History of the Vertebrates, students sought other upper division courses taught by museum curators, and many became regulars at the museum Wednesday seminars. Hanging around got them work study positions or other research opportunities, and as a result, the MVZ became their home-base at UC Berkeley.

A home such as CHS or MVZ gives one a set of familiar faces to seek out on the first day of class. You get study partners, friends, and confidants– these are all important things to make it through the hard times in college. None of these advantages are unique to academic “homes” such as I’ve been talking about; finding any group of folks with shared interest is important for creating a support network for yourself. There’s something a little more to the academic home to which I’m referring, in that these promote interacting with faculty and grad students. This seems important for building confidence and demystifying the academic world a bit. Graduate school is not for everyone, and getting to know people who have/are going through that is really key information for making that decision.

While I’ve met a lot of great undergraduates at Davis, including some who have worked in our lab, I haven’t seen something akin to the CHS or MVZ here. Maybe it’s out there, but I haven’t encountered it yet.

Teaching Update- Summer 2013

The six-week summer session Animal Behavior course (NPB 102) is over (or most of it, all that’s left is the grading). Thanks to my awesome co-instructor Jamie Bunting, who did a fantastic job this summer. Also thanks to Tom Hahn for the opportunity and all the advice and resources that helped make this a successful class. And Myfanwy, who is actually doing the grading, and Julie who stepped in to help proctor this morning. This was my first summer class and it was as challenging as I thought. Organization is tricky, with fewer lectures overall but each one being close to 2 hours, finding the balance of breadth and depth took a lot of thought.

The students seemed to respond positively- besides a general lack of drama, I’ve had one student approach me about research opportunities already, and another send a “ you guys are awesome” email. Anyway, nice to have this under my belt. Several nice “thank you’s” and “it was a very interesting class” as the exams came in as well.

Next up: I can start to turn my attention to teaching Introduction to Evolution (EVE 100)  this fall. I think it will be a vastly different experience this time around compared with last year when I was teaching it for the first time. My practice with online assessments in Animal Behavior this summer is giving me some ideas of how to change the homework a bit, hopefully freeing up some time and effort for everyone involved to add in some more interesting assignments. I also think I did a better job of integrating the textbook reading in with the lectures this time.