September 6, 2011

Peer Review: Liput ’13 Explores Chemical Pollution and Zebra Finches

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Over the past several decades, chemical pollution has posed a serious threat to the environment. Cornell undergraduate Elizabeth Liput ‘13, and others are investigating this pollution from an ecological standpoint, and more specifically, studying the effects of chemical pollutants on the reproductive behaviors of birds.A biological sciences major with a concentration in ecology and evolutionary biology, Liput has been working with a graduate student in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, studying these effects from the field and in the lab.

This semester, Liput, along with other students, is examining the songs from song sparrows, a key part of bird reproductive behavior. Recordings have been taken at over 40 different field sites by Sara DeLeon, the graduate student conducting the project. The recordings are stored electronically so that they can be analyzed in a computer lab.

“By analyzing the songs we can deduce the nonlethal effects of the specific thing that we’re looking at. To me, what is interesting about this project is seeing the nonlethal effects and looking at how they can translate into changes in reproductive behavior, which, considering biological principles of evolution, that reproductive change in behavior can have a really strong influence on a population,” said Liput.

In addition to analyzing recordings from field sites, Liput along with DeLeon and other undergraduates, have set up a simulation of the same type of field situation, but using zebra finches, in the lab.

“In order to really connect or create a causation effect, you can’t just observe something and say ‘this is the cause’ because there could be a multitude of causes [out in the field],” Liput explained.

Liput has been working with DeLeon since the spring of her freshman year. She had the opportunity to apply for a research position through a freshman biology seminar, BIOG1250. After submitting her application, she was connected with DeLeon.

The past 2 semesters, Liput visited the lab weekly to check up on the zebra finches, take recordings of male songs, and measure the growth and body mass of the birds. According to Liput, zebra finches are the go-to species if you are studying birds in a lab setting.

“It was a lot of waking up early to go to the lab… the thing about birds is that they are most active in the morning- if you try to do the same trials during the day, it probably won’t work. Targeting the birds when they are most active is really important,” said Liput.

Liput has found through her work with DeLeon that undergraduate research presents one with unexpected opportunities, such as giving presentations, and actually applying what was learned in an organic chemistry class to what she is studying in the lab.

Last spring Liput gave a presentation of her research during one of the Lab of Ornithology seminars.

“It was a lot of fun to present to other people, and I didn’t expect that I would enjoy it that much… undergraduate research can give you opportunities that you’re really not expecting,” she commented.

While displaying her research to an audience was worthwhile, according to Liput, one of the most valuable components of her research as an undergraduate has been the lab experience.

“Seeing how scientific work actually functions from start to finish, in a matter of speaking, is a really valuable thing,” she said.

Additionally, Liput has had the opportunity to form a strong working relationship with DeLeon.

“Sara is my supervisor, but I feel more that [Sara and I] have worked together on her research, and having that relationship with a grad student is something you can’t really get otherwise… I think that scientific research is unique in that respect, and the working relationship that we have is something that I will always value,” remarked Liput.

DeLeon’s research is affiliated with the Lab of Ornithology, and, in fact, Liput works at the Adelson Library, located at the Lab of O. Much of what Liput is interested in is researched at the Lab of Ornithology.

“The Lab of Ornithology encompasses conservation, population biology, disease… it is just so broad. The facility is fantastic, everybody is friendly and approachable, and the work that they are doing is really important,” said Liput.

Liput plans on applying to graduate school to study ecology and behavior, using birds as a study system. “I’m one of those really odd people who knew exactly what she was going to do coming in [to Cornell]. This research has confirmed that [ecology and evolutionary biology research with birds] is what I want to do,” she stated.

Original Author: Paige Roosa