Researchers spotlight animal behaviors

Sarah Guindre-Parker
Sarah Guindre-Parker

KENNESAW, Ga. (Oct 28, 2020)Kennesaw State University’s Office of Research is hosting a one-hour web show every other Friday at 4 p.m. to showcase the varied research being conducted by KSU faculty members. “Research with Relevance” spotlights Kennesaw State researchers in a live interview followed by an interactive question-and-answer session with the virtual audience. 

In this week’s episode, Sarah Guindre-Parker, assistant professor of biology in the College of Science and Mathematics, will be joined by Glenn Young, assistant professor of mathematics. Guindre-Parker and Young will discuss a long-term project looking at breeding behaviors among starlings.

Before the presentation, Guindre-Parker and Young answered a few questions about their interest in research and the ways in which they involve students.

How did you first get involved in this field of research? / When did you decide to become a researcher?

Guindre-Parker: I became involved in research in high school as part of my program’s requirements (the International Baccalaureate program). I had a really great biology teacher and decided to pursue my independent project with her. I really liked biology and set my sights on medical school when I started college. As an undergraduate student, I continued working in research because I enjoyed it and thought it would be good experience for medical school applications; I worked on several types of biology projects, ranging from exploring barnacle feeding ecology, pest management practices, and flower pollination strategies. It wasn’t until I became involved in studying animal behavior in the field that my career path really clicked for me. I loved being outside and observing animals in their habitats.

Glenn Young
Glenn Young
Young: I was first introduced to mathematical biology through an REU while I was an undergraduate at James Madison University in Virginia. This experience led me to apply to the University of Pittsburgh for graduate school, which has a very good mathematical biology group. I was able to study a handful of very interesting biological problems while in grad school, but it wasn't until my postdoc at Penn State that I began studying mathematical ecology, which is the current focus of my research. 

What was the defining (or "aha”) moment when you realized this is what you wanted to do?

Guindre-Parker: My ‘aha’ moment came when I first worked on a research project studying animal behavior in the field as an undergraduate student research assistant. The first moment a researcher handed me a wild bird and taught me the correct grip to safely hold and examine the animal, I was hooked. Since that point, I have made a career of trying to understand how animals behave in order to cope with constant environmental challenges and changes. Now that I am a professor, I can see all the ways my previous mentors have set me up for success, and I try to do the same for student researchers in my team.

Young: I am positive I did not have an aha moment. I've always enjoyed math, and decided to pursue it in college. I then gradually learned that it can be used to study biological and physical systems, and thought that was cool enough to study in grad school, and that led me here.

In what ways has KSU supported your research?

Guindre-Parker: The Field Station has been an incredible resource for my team. I’ve set out nest boxes there, and my students and I study European starling behavior and health at this site and several others. The university has also invested a lot in the research programs of new faculty like me, including providing generous start-up funding as well as through programs from the Office of Research. I recently participated in a summer grant writing workshop, as well as received a faculty seed grant. Both of these opportunities provide faculty with resources to become more competitive for external research funding whether it be through resources for successful grant writing, or funds to collected preliminary datasets needed to prepare strong grant applications.

Young: Monetarily, they've given me start-up funds and a seed grant with Dr. Guindre-Parker for this project, plus a stipend over the summer for mentoring a Birla-Carbon scholar. In general, the university and the math department in particular have offered endless support, including many workshops on bettering various aspects of your research, and maintained a diverse research community with plenty of opportunity for collaboration.

How are you involving students in your research? / How have you seen students benefit from being involved in your research efforts?

Guindre-Parker: I try to involve students in all aspects of my research, depending on their interests or career goals. I think providing students with agency over their research is really important – that sense of confidence and independence as a researcher was key when I was beginning my career so I try to pass that forward to the next generation of scientists. Students from my team have gone on to present their research at conferences, including the university’s excellent Symposium of Scholars, as well as national conferences in my field like the Animal Behavior Society’s annual meeting. I think regardless of what career path students pursue in the future, becoming involved in research provides them with transferable skills that can help them in a variety of settings.

Young: In general, I try to involve students on projects that include a "sub-project" of sorts — one that lends itself to the understanding of the larger project, but is accessible for an undergraduate. I've seen undergraduate researchers benefit in all sorts of ways through research, from improved analytical and writing skills, to focusing or refocusing career goals.

What is a common misconception about your field?

Guindre-Parker: Part of my research explores how animals cope with challenges in their environment, and one important coping strategy is under the control of glucocorticoid hormones, which are often called the “stress hormone." A big misconception in my field is that when glucocorticoid levels are high—which is a key part of the vertebrate "stress" response—it indicates an animal is stressed out. Stress is actually really hard to define in animals, and glucocorticoids are not a clear way to infer whether an animal is stressed. Glucocorticoids are supposed to be elevated under specific circumstances, because they cause an animal to respond appropriately to their environment. For example, if an animal faces a sudden snowstorm or a predator tries to attack them, glucocorticoids become elevated which allows the organism to change their behavior to focus on their survival. When glucocorticoids facilitate the appropriate response to the environment, it means the hormone did its job correctly. Glucocorticoids should not be synonymous with “stress."  

Young: It's hard to say, because I'm not sure many people outside of my field know it exists. Usually when I tell someone I use math to study biological systems they say, "I didn't know you could to that." Maybe that's a misconception in itself -- my field does, in fact, exist.

Tune in on Friday, October 30 at 4 p.m. to hear about this research. Click here for more information.


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