*Visit here for information on a State of Arizona post-doctoral fellowship program
Our research, resources, philosophy, and forms of support
For two decades, my students, collaborators, and I have studied the mechanisms and functions of brilliant colors in birds and other animals. We use both field and laboratory investigations to determine the information that birds communicate with their colors and the selective forces that maintain these ornaments. We have employed analytical tools like HPLC to identify the biochemical currency of coloration and to track the environmental and physiological factors that make colors difficult to produce and reliable indicators of mate quality. Our focal study species have mostly been colorful songbirds, from American goldfinches to house sparrows, but we are interested in and have begun expanding our work beyond these groups, to include spiders, snakes, chameleons, butterflies, and hummingbirds. For more information on our research and publications, return to my faculty and personal webpages.
Students interested in pursuing either a M.S. or Ph.D. degree under my direction should first contact me by email or phone to introduce yourself, your educational and research background, and your specific interests in graduate study. The application deadline for admission to our program in typically in mid-December (note that you must submit applications to both the ASU Graduate College and to SoLS). I will support students who are interested in working on the costs and benefits of exaggerated traits in any animal taxon, but given the interests and expertise within our group I will generally encourage students to focus on coloration in birds. I particularly welcome integrative approaches, where students decompose animal signals into their component parts and reconstruct the biochemical and physiological machinery needed to maximally express sexually-attractive or -valuable traits.
My lab is equipped with the modern tools for completing field and lab studies on bird coloration, health, and behavior. We use UV-VIS reflectance spectrometry to quantify reflectance patterns of colorful feathers and bare parts. We have on-site indoor and outdoor aviary facilities that accommodate wild-caught and captive-bred birds as well as both large and small species. We formulate our own diets to control the nutrients that we find to regulate avian color expression. In our wet lab, we routinely quantify pigments and antioxidants from blood and colorful tissues and assay immune function and oxidative stress using a series of techniques. We maintain captive colonies of birds for year-round studies, in addition to monitoring songbird populations on campus and across the city.
Students accepted into the program are offered financial support in the form of teaching assistantships, academic-year stipends, summer support, and fellowship opportunities through SoLS and ASU. As an alternate source of funding that releases students from teaching every semester, I encourage applicants to submit proposals for the pre-doctoral fellowships available through the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency. Contact me with information about your proposed ideas and I would be happy to help you with your application(s). Also, pending future grant support, on occasion I will fund students on research assistantships for one semester during the academic year (e.g. in the spring when field work is usually at its peak).
My philosophy toward graduate training is to supply students with the guidance and resources they need to become successful, all the while expecting them to be independent, self-motivated, and driven to exceed even their own personal expectations. Because I study local and captive birds, I am in the lab nearly the entire year and try to make myself as accessible as anyone might need me to be. I do not, however, watch over my student’s every move or spoon-feed them with projects or ideas. The keys to a successful graduate career are to hone your skills as an independent scientist, to carve a unique niche for yourself in the field, and to begin to make your mark as a professional scientist before you head off to the job market. Students may work on similar topics or study species as I, but when this occurs I always make it a point to leave sufficient space between our two projects for them to expand in the directions they see most appropriate for their career path.
To meet these expectations, I expect that students begin research in their first year of graduate school, perhaps in the form of a side-project that buds off of one currently ongoing in the lab. Our graduate curriculum is such that we do not burden students with loads of coursework; instead, students can hit the ground running with their research and get an early feel for what aspect of animal communication they find most appealing, ideal, or mysterious. This also fosters a constructive and collaborative learning and social environment for members of my lab. I also actively encourage my students very early in their career to begin publishing papers, attending conferences, and writing grants. There is no better way to prepare yourself for a career in academia than to begin learning to write manuscripts, deliver public presentations, and construct fundable grants as early on as possible. I recommend that my students apply for the many Graduate Student Research Awards that are offered annually by SOLS and other organizations (e.g. AOS, Animal Behavior, Sigma Xi). The National Science Foundation also allocates substantial funds to doctoral students progressing towards their degree, in the form of Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants. Last, to ensure that students have sufficient funds to attend 1-2 major conferences per year (e.g. Animal Behavior Society, International Society for Behavioral Ecology, American Ornithologists Union, Arizona Field Ornithologists), The Grad College at ASU offers generous conference travel support to students, and I typically will supplement these funds as needed.
To maintain an interactive and stimulating research group, we hold weekly lab meetings where students, post-docs, or I present our latest set of results, ideas for new research, or a draft of a paper we have recently written. We have weekly reading groups where we take turns picking a recent paper from the literature on animal coloration or other topics of interest and discuss its validity and broader significance. These are ideal settings for new students to grow comfortable with thinking, discussing, critiquing, and presenting science. By housing my students in office spaces within my core lab, I hope to create a similarly comfortable and productive working and social atmosphere. I know that many of my fondest memories of and biggest rewards from graduate school were the result of collaborative (and other) experiences shared by lab mates and members of my cohort alongside which I found myself day after day.