People: Past Lab Members

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Marcelo Araya Salas (Postdoc)

Marcelo's research focuses on using Neotropical study systems and novel analytical methods to evaluate ideas in behavioral and evolutionary biology. His first paper examined the harmonic content in Nightingale Wren songs, which provided no support to a long-standing belief in the musicality of bird song. He recently co-authored two studies on hummingbird behavior, derived from his Ph.D. research, showing for the first time that 1) their bills have adapted to serve as weapons in agonistic encounters and 2) hummingbirds exhibit open-ended vocal learning. He also co-authored a recent study suggesting that vocal learning does not seem to accelerate the evolution of acoustic signals in Neotropical parrots. As a postdoc here at Cornell, he is evaluating whether cultural transmission can promote signal divergence and clade diversification over evolutionary time. For more information, please visit his website.

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Dan Baldassarre

As a PhD student in our lab, Dan’s dissertation research was focused on how sexual selection affects the speciation process in the red-backed fairy-wren. There is a hybrid zone between two subspecies of the red-backed fairy-wren that differ primarily in a sexual signal: red vs. orange male nuptial plumage color. He used spatial modeling and genomic analyses to show that plumage color is introgressing across the contact zone between two subspecies of these wrens, and field experiments and genetic paternity assignments to show that sexual selection is at least partially responsible for driving this introgression. Where is he now? After doing postdocs at University of Miami (with Al Uy) and Princeton (with Christie Riehl), Dan is now an Assistant Professor at SUNY Oswego. For more details, check out Dan’s website.

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Doug Barron

Doug was a PhD student working with Dr. Hubert Schwabl at Washington State University, and now is a postdoc at the University of South Florida. Though not "officially" part of the Webster Lab, Doug worked closely with us on our fairy-wren project, and in particular examined how social interactions and physiological condition interact to determine male breeding phenotype and sexual signals. This work combined intensive field experimentation with hormonal and genetic analyses. Doug obtained his Bachelors Degree from Louisiana State and his MS from the University of Illinois where he worked with Jeff Brawn and Patrick Weatherhead. Where is he now? Doug is now an Assistant Professor at Arkansas Tech University. For more details, see his website.

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Sarah Bartos Smith

Sarah obtained her MS from the Webster lab in 2002. Her thesis work focused on testing the idea that female black-throated blue warblers copulate with extra-pair males in order to increase the heterozygosity of their offspring. Where is she now? After receiving her MS, Sarah moved to Portland State University to work with Dr. Michael Murphy on the ecology of spotted towhees and other birds breeding in semi-urban environments. Sarah completed her PhD last year and is now a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth College.

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Michelle Beck

Michelle had “dual citizenship” in the Webster and Schwabl labs at WSU, and obtained her PhD in 2009 (after receiving her MS from Auburn University where she worked in Geoff Hill’s lab). For her dissertation, Michelle initiated her own study of the warbler that (she thinks) is superior to all others, the prothonotary warbler. She examined plumage coloration and sexual selection in males and females, and in particular focused on the impact of ecological and social factors on reproductive behavior and extra-pair mating and the potential for those factors to alter the strength of sexual selection.Where is she now? Michelle is now an Assistant Professor at Rivier University. For more details, see her website.


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Helen Chuang Boswell

Helen was Mike Webster's first PhD student/victim and was lucky to escape alive with her degree in 1999. Her dissertation involved studying the relationships among extra-pair copulations, parental care, and mate-guarding in the Black-throated Blue Warbler. Like many others who succeeded her in the Webster lab, Helen utilized a combination of field observations and experiments and molecular genetic tools including microsatellites to address her questions. Where is she now? Helen joined the Biology Department at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah in 1999, and currently is a tenured Associate Professor there. SUU is a university that focuses on teaching excellence, and Helen has taught numerous courses there, including Evolution, Animal Behavior, General Biology, Genetics, Sociobiology, Biotechnology, and more. Helen also is publishing works focusing on the nature of science and evolution. In the little spare time that she has, Helen is a mom.

 


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Rebecca Brunner

Becca went to Cornell as an undergrad, where she majored in English and Biology. Since then, she has lived and worked in two remote jungles: Peru’s Manu National Park for a project investigating avian incubation and nesting behavior along an elevation gradient, and in the Philippines, where she conducted herpetological surveys and field experiments in order to predict future impacts of climate change—particularly on different life history stages and within different microhabitats. Becca also holds a Masters in Environmental Science and Policy degree from Columbia University, where she concentrated mainly on biodiversity conservation and forest policy (REDD+) in the tropics. She presented her team’s policy recommendations at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Thailand in 2011. Becca is now a graduate student at UC Berkeley.

 

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Gabe Colbeck

Gabe uses population genetic tools to evaluate the evolutionary history of divergent sexual signals, and behavioral ecology tools to evaluate the contribution of divergent signals to reproductive isolation and speciation. His work in the Webster Lab focused on the divergence of song across parapatric populations of the Black-throated blue warbler, and the consequences of that divergence for asymmetric reproductive isolation. After escaping the Webster lab in 2008, Gabe went on to become a postdoctoral fellow at Laval University in Quebec City, where he further refined his population genetics tool kit working on projects ranging from fish to beluga whales. Where is he now? Gab is now an Associated Professor in the School of Science and Mathematics at Maryville University in his old stomping grounds of St. Louis.



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Leslie Davis

Leslie obtained her master’s degree from the Webster lab in 2004. Her thesis focused on geographic variation and phylogeography of the Black-throated Blue Warbler. Where is she now? After obtaining her degree, Leslie moved on to become a secondary science teacher, and is now happily educating young minds somewhere in the middle of the continent.

 

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Jenélle Dowling

Jenélle conducts multi-species and in-depth single species studies of avian vocal communication, in both urban and unaltered habitat, with the goal of understanding how an animal’s signals evolve in response to its social and physical environment. She is currently a teaching post-doc in the Cornell University Neurobiology and Behavior department. She also conducts research on vocal behavior and male mating strategy during the dawn chorus in the Red-backed Fairy-wren as part of the Webster lab and Bioacoustics Research Program. Where is she now? Jenelle is now Research Specialist at the Montana Natural History Center.Learn more about her work at her website.

 

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Jiu Feng

Jiu worked on the phylogeography and conservation genetics of Asian sheep, focusing particularly on threatened populations of Argali and Blue Sheep in Mongolia and China. Where is she now? Jiu went on to obtain a second PhD in computer programming, and is currently working for Xerox.




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Emma Greig

Emma was a postdoc in the Webster lab (2009-013), and now continues to collaborate with us and is Director of Project Feeder Watch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Emma’s dissertation (from University of Chicago, where she worked with Steve Pruett-Jones) looked at the function of splendid wren vocalizations, including the enigmatic “Type II” song that is given in association with predator vocalizations. In the Webster lab she examined the evolutionary history and origin of these predator-associated songs, and also the causes and consequences of geographic variation in the songs of red-backed fairy-wrens. You can read more about Emma’s research and interests at her website. Emma is now Leader of Project Feeder Watch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

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Matt Horning

As a graduate student in Mike's lab, Matt studied the population genetics of a rare and threatened North American lily, and so became known as "that guy who works on plants". Matt learned from Mike everything he needed to grow up and become a productive member of the scientific community (see below). In return, Mike learned that plants are more than just nesting material, but they also, like, do stuff. Where is he now? Matt conducted post-doctoral research with Dr. Rich Cronn with the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis, Oregon, where he used molecular markers and “old-school” common garden trials to study adaptive trait variation in Purshia tridentata. Currently, Matt is a geneticist with the USDA Forest Service Pacific Northwest Region stationed at the Deschutes National Forest in Bend, Oregon. His primary role is to provide guidance to land managers on the use of genetically appropriate native plants in restoration activities in eastern Oregon, but also consults broadly with natural resource specialists throughout the western US.


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Sara Kaiser

Sara received her PhD from the Webster lab in 2013 and then stayed on as a postdoc continuing her research on the impact of climate (including anthropogenic climate change) on avian life-history decisions and the hormonal mechanisms that influence variation in avian reproductive and survival strategies. She studied Black-throated Blue Warblers in collaboration with researchers at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, and lives to have her head in a cloud of black flies each May. Find out more about Sara’s work at her website or watch this PBS special to see her in action! Where is she now? Sara is now a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.

 

 

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Gavin Leighton

Gavin was an NSF-postdoctoral fellow in our lab. He obtained his PhD at the University of Miami where he studied the maintenance of cooperative nest construction in sociable weavers. He has a background in animal behavior, population genetics, individual-based modeling, and sexual selection, and will be using comparative methods along with the Macaulay Library to understand how sociality influences avian vocal complexity. In 2018 Gavin started as an Assistant Professor at SUNY Buffalo State. Learn more about Gavin and his research at his website


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Willow Rosella Linday

Willow completed her PhD at Washington State University, and was co-advised by Mike (from afar) and Hubert Schwabl. Willow is interested in honesty enforcing mechanisms underlying variable reproductive behavior and morphology in wild birds. Her dissertation research focused on the role of hormones in controlling plasticity in reproductive phenotype of both male and female red-backed fairy-wrens. Ultimately, Willow is interested in exploring the role of hormones as a conditionally flexible link between changing environments and sexually selected breeding phenotype. Where is she now? Willow is now a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the university of Gothenburg, Sweden.

 


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Kara McClanahan


Kara is a bat fanatic who spent her summers in Eastern Washington catching bats and collecting their guano. Her graduate research focused on using molecular genetic tools to identify prey species from bat guano samples in order to characterize the diets of insectivorous base. Kara was co-advised by Mike and by Christine Portfors at WSU Vancouver, and obtained her masters degree in 2008. Where is she now? Kara is now an instructor at in the School of Biological Sciences at WSU.

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Bret Pasch

Bret has been a post-doc in the Lab, but in January will move on to a faculty position at Northern Arizona University. Bret has broad interests in the ecology and mechanisms of animal acoustic communication, particularly in relation to species interactions. His dissertation focused on proximate mechanisms and ultimate factors underlying vocal production and perception in Neotropical singing mice (Scotinomys) in the cloud forests of Middle America. Bret also has long-standing interests in the natural history and conservation of mammals. Please see his website for more information about current work. 



 


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Letitia (Letty) Reichart

Letty finished her PhD in 2008 after several seasons of chasing Ruddy ducks in Manitoba. Letty is interested in animal social behavior and examining potential factors (both proximate and ultimate) that maintain alternative reproductive behaviors. While in the Webster lab, Letty studied conspecific brood parasitism (i.e., an alternative female reproductive strategy where females lay eggs in nests of other females) in Ruddy ducks. Where is she now? Currently Letty is an Associate Professor of Biology at University of Nebraska Kearney. New research projects in her lab are focused on: (1) Effects of synthetic estrogens on avian reproductive behavior, (2) Wetland use and seed availability for migratory waterfowl in the Rainwater Basin, and (3) Wintering ecology of cranes.

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Oscar Rios-Cardenas

Oscar finished his PhD in 2003 in what was left of the Webster lab back in SUNY Buffalo. His main research interests are in Behavioral Ecology, with a more specific focus on the effects of parental care and sexual selection on the evolution of mating systems in general, and alternative reproductive tactics (ARTs) in particular. In the Webster lab, Oscar’s work examined the relationship between paternity, parental care and ARTs in the pumpkinseed sunfish. Where is he now? Currently Oscar is an Assistant Professor at the Instituto de Ecología, A.C., in Xalapa, Mexico. In collaboration with his former posdoc advisor Molly Morris, Oscar is analyzing the mechanisms that maintain ARTs in a swordtail fish, and is extending this project to examine how new species may arise from ARTs through loss of phenotypic plasticity. Student projects in his lab deal with (1) variation in the prevalence of ARTs and genetic structure among populations of a coral reef fish; (2) the role of feeding responses in the evolution of the swordtail “sword” as a sensory trap; and (3) the effects of secondary sexual characters on predation rates.








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Andrea Townsend

Andrea is a long-time friend of the lab, having served as a field tech on our black-throated blue warbler project way back in 1998! Andrea went on to complete her PhD at Cornell, studying inbreeding and its surprisingly high disease-mediated survival costs, in the cooperatively breeding American Crow. Eventually Andrea returned to black-throated blue warblers as a postdoc in our lab supported by a prestigious NSF Bioinformatics Postdoctoral Fellowship. For her postdoctoral research Andrea used population-modeling approaches (in collaboration with Scott Sillett and Evan Kooch) to examine the effects of climate change on the population dynamics of black-throated blue warblers. Where is she now? Andrea is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at Hamilton College. For more info on Andrea, check out her website.

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Claire Varian-Ramos

Claire completed her PhD in 2008 on female reproductive strategies in the Red-backed Fairy-Wren. She focused particularly on female extra-pair mating behavior, offspring sex ratio biasing, and how social and genetic structure in the population affect these behaviors. Claire is now an assistant professor at Colorado State Claire University, Pueblo Campus, where she recently was awarded the CSU-Pueblo Award for Faculty Excellence in Scholarship/Creative Activity. For more on Claire, please visit her website.


 

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Suann Yang

Suann was co-advised by Mike and John Bishop at WSU Vancouver, and received her PhD in 2006. Suann is interested in how interactions between species influence the formation and stability of communities. In particular, she focuses on the context-dependence of interactions between species, and how that context-dependence in turn affects the structure of populations and entire communities. While in the Webster lab, she studied the role of consumers and mutualists for the colonization of black huckleberry at Mount St. Helens. Where is she now? Suann is now an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at SUNY Geneseo