Biology Students Present Their Research at National University of Honduras

Posted on 5/24/2019 9:20:35 AM

Four students from Indiana University of Pennsylvania will be in Honduras in June as presenters at an international symposium on biodiversity in Honduras.

The seminar is organized by their IUP faculty advisor, Josiah Townsend, and will focus on topics related to Townsend’s and the student’s research on biodiversity in Honduras.

The four-day symposium, titled “Patterns of Evolutionary Diversification in Amphibians from Honduras: Challenges, Advances, and Opportunities,” will be hosted by the National Autonomous University of Honduras in Valle de Sula (UNAH-VS) June 5–9, 2019.

The IUP student presenters are biology May undergraduates Esbeiry Cordova-Ortiz of Avondale and Ayla Ross of State College; and biology graduate students Daniel Dudek, Jr. of McKeesport and Justin O’Neill of North Hills. They all work with Townsend in the Townsend Lab at IUP. 

The IUP students will be joined by IUP biology graduate Thomas Firneno, Jr. (a 2016 IUP biology master’s degree graduate and Outstanding Graduate Research Award winner), from White Haven, who is currently studying for his doctorate at the University of Texas at Arlington. Firneno’s course of study is evolutionary genomics and herpetology.

The goal of the symposium, designed for faculty and students at UNAH-VS, is to provide a summary of research and ongoing research involving amphibians in Honduras; suggest future directions and opportunities for research in Honduras and neighboring countries; and provide applied instruction and professional development through workshops to participants.

Organizers expect about 100 persons from a variety of disciplines and from all over Honduras to attend the symposium.

“For us, it is very important for the general public who don’t know about amphibians and their importance to the ecosystems to come to learn about their biology and ecological roles,” Luis Alberto Herrera Bardales, head of research and organizer of the symposium from UNAH-VS, said. “We want people to be aware that Honduras is one of the most diverse [environments] and has a high amphibian endemism compared to other countries in the region; it is in their hands, as young people, to do something now to stop their threats toward their extinctions.

“This symposium will gather people from all the country, especially herpetofauna lovers, government technicians, and biology students, that want to know about the new discoveries that IUP is doing regarding Honduran amphibian,” he said.

Following the symposium, Townsend and the student team will continue their field research in Honduras.

Townsend established the Townsend Lab at IUP when he came to IUP seven years ago. By utilizing molecular phylogenetics, comparative morphology, and macroecological modeling to reveal underestimated species-level diversity and unexpected patterns of evolutionary diversification, he and his students have discovered and delimitated more than a dozen new species.

The students’ participation in the Honduras symposium is funded through a number of grants and funding sources from IUP, including a University Senate Research Committee grant won by Townsend; Undergraduate Research Grants from the School of Graduate Studies and Research to Cordova-Ortiz and Ross, and the Cynthia Sushak Undergraduate Biology Fund award to Cordova-Ortiz.

“The students will present the results of their research projects at IUP, in order to return the scientific results to the hosts and collaborators that made the work possible in the first place,” Townsend said. “This should be an outstanding experience for our students and participants alike, and will continue to strengthen IUP’s ties to UNAH.”

Townsend, who has done research in Honduras annually since his undergraduate years, is one of the few international scientists who regularly work in Honduras. Townsend will spend the 2019–20 academic year in Honduras doing research on biodiversity through a Fulbright US Scholar grant. 

The symposium begins with an overview by Townsend and a program on diversity.

Esbeiry Cordova-Ortiz Esbeiry Cordova-Ortiz will present a program titled “Evaluating the influence of Pleistocene climate fluctuations on shaping contemporary genetic structure in Ptychohyla hypomykter” (Copán stream frog).

Daughter of Celina Ortiz and Pedro Cordova, Ellicott Road, Avondale, Cordova-Ortiz is a 2015 graduate of Kennett High School. She won first place in the undergraduate poster competition at the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania University Biologists Conference; is an Undergraduate Research Grant recipient; and was selected for the Samuel Mitrivich Scholarship, for a grant from the Cynthia Sushak Undergraduate Biology Fund, and for an IUP Emerging Student Leaders Award.

She was selected for the SEEDS Partnership for Undergraduate Research Fellowship and served as president of IUP’s Strategies for Ecology Education Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) chapter. She won honorable mention in the Undergraduate Scholars Forum Sigma Xi poster competition. She is the recipient of the Thomas Smyth Memorial Scholarship, is a Board of Governors Scholarship student, and is a member of the Promising Scholars program.

Cordova-Ortiz is a member of the Biology Club, Sigma Xi Scientific Honors Research Society, and the National Society of Leadership and Success, and participated in the Research Experience for Undergraduates at Michigan State University’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station.

Cordova-Ortiz started working with Townsend in her first semester at IUP; her experiences in his lab helped her to focus her biology major concentration to ecology, conservation, and environmental biology.

“I am grateful to Dr. Townsend for taking me under his wing and allowing me to discover my potential, not only as a student, but also as a researcher,” Cordova-Ortiz said. “As a first-generation student and a woman in STEM, it can be hard to feel like you belong, but he always saw me as a capable member of the lab. His hands-off approach to mentoring has allowed me to develop the necessary skills I need to be as independent as possible in an academic and research setting.

“I am happy to continue my work in the Townsend Lab as I work towards my master’s degree here at IUP, and I know I will continue to grow as a scientist and, more importantly, as a person under his mentorship,” Cordova-Ortiz said.

Ayla Ross Ayla Ross will present a program titled “Complex evolutionary history of Rana maculata revealed through multilocus phylogenetics and modeling,” which will discuss the rana maculate (highland frog).

Ross, daughter of Brad and Rhonda Ross, Berkshire Drive, State College, is a 2012 graduate of State College Area High School. She received the Biology Department Outstanding Student Award, and successfully completed the Biology Honors Thesis program under Townsend’s mentorship.

As an undergraduate, she was selected for the Biology Undergraduate Research Experience Award and a Biology Undergraduate Research Grant, along with a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates grant to study neuroscience at the University of Missouri. 

Ross served as vice president of IUP’s Strategies for Ecology Education Diversity and Sustainability (SEEDS) chapter, and was active with the group doing tree planting, hosting the annual seed swap and doing highway clean-ups. She was also vice president of Beta Beta Beta Biology club, which does outreach to local schools, and volunteered for a blood drive and at the local animal shelter. She was also selected for Phi Eta Sigma honor fraternity and was vice president of Swim Club.

“Working in the research lab with Dr. Townsend has been an invaluable experience,” Ross said. “The amazing work that we do as a lab has a large impact on amphibians and reptiles in Central America. I couldn’t have asked for a better advisor than Dr. Townsend. He is able to bring to life that raw enthusiasm we feel for amphibians and apply it to our different research projects. 

“IUP has been amazing in letting undergraduate students take lead roles in research and blossom as scientists. I could not have gotten this type of experience anywhere else,” Ross said. “As I apply to graduate programs, I know my resume stands apart from other students based on the quality of research I was able to conduct in Dr. Townsend’s lab. I used to think that research was only for graduate students. IUP opened my eyes to the possibility of doing meaningful research as an undergraduate and making a difference.”

Daniel Dudek Daniel Dudek will present “Evolution and taxonomy of Mesoamerican leopard frogs, with emphasis on Pacific populations.”

For the last year, Dudek served as a temporary faculty member in the Biology Department and is president and coordinator of the Biology Graduate Student Society. He is the son of Daniel Dudek and the late Audra Dudek, is a 2012 graduate of McKeesport Area High School, and received his undergraduate degree from Penn State University in 2016. He won the Pennsylvania Academy of Science Best Graduate Poster Presentation, and won the best graduate platform presentation at the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania University Biologists.

“I work with Dr. Townsend studying the evolution and taxonomy of leopard frogs found throughout Mesoamerica, with a focus on phylogenetics—basically, studying the genetic relationships between populations to develop a genetic framework that we can work from that allows us to determine possible new species,” Dudek said.

“I entered the lab with a background focused on plant physiology and phylogenetics, but his enthusiasm for herpetology has truly influenced me go into this different direction. As an advisor, I truly couldn’t have asked for a better person to learn under. His enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge, paired with his ambition, inspires you to become a better scientist. He has helped me in an unmeasurable way in attaining my goals by continuously pushing me to reach higher goals, helping to develop my projects, write grants, present research, and take advantage of all opportunities that cross my path,” Dudek said.

Justin O’Neill Justin O’Neill will present “Using species distribution modeling to estimate species boundaries in lowland frogs (Ranidae),” and Dudek and O’Neill will co-present “Applications of Climatic Niche Modeling with WALLACE.” (Wallace is a computer platform used to reproduce modeling of species niches and distributions.)

O’Neill, son of Mike and Linda O’Neill, Hillcrest Avenue, Pittsburgh, is a 2010 graduate of North Hills Senior High School. In addition to this work in the Townsend Lab, he is a member of the Indiana Storm Water Education Partnership.

“My work contributes to an overarching lab effort to describe a number of new or understudied leopard frog species from Central America,” O’Neill said. “Specifically, I use statistical modeling to create maps that approximate the geographic areas where the species may inhabit. Working with Dr. Townsend has provided me with a valuable opportunity to help better understand data-deficient yet intriguing amphibians, not only from the lab but also in the forests of Honduras.”

Firneno will present “Mito-nuclear discordance reveals cryptic genetic diversity, introgression, and intricate demographic history in a problematic species of Mesoamerican toads.” Firneno has used the results of his master’s thesis work at IUP to recently coauthor an article with Townsend in the journal Zoologica Scripta. The research on toads in Honduras that Firneno started at IUP has helped form the foundation of a follow-on project connected to his doctoral research at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“My work started with Dr. Townsend at IUP when I was working on my master’s degree,” Firneno said. “Since then, he has let me take my project with me to expand on the questions that we asked during my study at IUP. He has been an amazing mentor, and still is, and has also become—and I hope will continue to be—a great collaborator.

“I’m truly excited to be traveling with him and his lab members down to Honduras, especially the two undergrads that I was able to mentor when they were freshmen and I was finishing my master’s work,” Firneno said. “It will be a great experience to share the results of both my work at IUP as well as the continued research I’ve been pursuing with that data in that region of Honduras with students and collaborators at Honduran institutions that I’ve become acquainted with from prior field trips with Dr. Townsend.” 

As a Fulbright recipient, Townsend will divide his time between conducting research leading to the discovery of new species of amphibians and reptiles and to support national biodiversity conservation initiatives, while teaching classes in ecology and biodiversity and offering professional development workshops for biology faculty and students in the country. 

Townsend’s work at IUP, which routinely includes both undergraduate and graduate students, has resulted in the discovery and delimitation of more than a dozen new species, including ongoing work to uncover new species of frogs, salamanders, and lizards, which will be announced later this year and follows several years of study.