Across the animal kingdom, there is incredibly diversity in social species, including highly social insects, reptiles, birds, fish, and mammals. Social behavior is one of the most intensely studied categories of behavior because interactions among members of a social group have important consequences for fitness and health. By uncovering the complex neural and developmental mechanisms that generate social behavior in ethologically-relevant contexts, my work provides insight into the evolution of behavior and its regulatory mechanisms.
My research focuses on the causes and consequences of individual variation in social behavior and behavioral context-specificity. I utilize an integrative approach, including investigating neuromolecular, genetic, developmental, and environmental mechanisms, as well as the effects of behavioral expression on future behavior, physiology, and fitness for all members of a social group.
Undergraduate researchers play a central role in my research program. I have mentored 22 undergraduates, plus two Master’s and two high school students, including 21 women and 14 members of groups underrepresented in STEM fields. In my research, students have the opportunity develop independent projects and contribute to larger, ongoing projects. I am committed to maintaining a welcoming, inclusive, honest, and fair environment for research and learning, free from discrimination or harassment of any kind.
Postdoctoral Research, Hofmann Lab, University of Texas at Austin (2015-present)
I joined the Hofmann Lab in January 2015, and I am excited to be working with the African cichlid Astatotilapia burtoni
. My research investigates the neuromolecular mechanisms by which early-life social experiences affect adult social behavior. A. burtoni
is a highly social fish that forms naturalistic communities in the laboratory and exhibits a range of highly-conserved social behaviors including affiliation, aggression, and cooperation. Social groups contain females and males of two different phenotypes that are socially-controlled and reversible: dominant males that are reproductively active and brightly colored and subordinate males that are reproductively suppressed and cryptically colored. My research demonstrates that juveniles are sensitive to early-life effects, including social and maternal effects that alter behavior and neuroendocrine function. I have also discovered important ontogenetic changes in behavior and social status that may be regulated by the neuromolecular and transcriptomic mechanisms regulating adult social behavior and status. My work builds on previous and ongoing research on the neuromolecular and genomic basis of social behavior and competence in adult A. burtoni
, and in social groups and networks. See the lab website for more information: Hofmann Lab
Doctoral Research, Grober Lab, Georgia State University (2009-2014)
My research in the Grober lab focused on the causes and consequences of individual variation in agonistic behavior in the bluebanded goby (Lythrypnus dalli) across a range of social contexts. The bluebanded goby is a highly social, sex changing fish that forms linear social hierarchies of a dominant male and multiple subordinate females. Sex is socially regulated by status, such that dominant fish are male and subordinates are female. In social groups, I found that patterns of agonistic interaction at multiple levels of the hierarchy are strongly linked to reproductive output. Aspects of reproduction, including female reproductive state, also feedback to alter the social network position of specific group members. The steroid hormones cortisol, 11-ketotestosterone, and estradiol can influence, and be influenced by, agonistic behavior and reproductive physiology, and all were implicated for different behavioral and reproductive roles in bluebanded goby social groups. I also investigated the role of social experience in juvenile and adult behavior. Together, this work provides a comprehensive look at the social, reproductive, and neuroendocrine factors important for bluebanded goby agonistic behavior.
(Left to right) Bluebanded goby habitat on Catalina Island, CA rocky reefs; gobies in the lab; juvenile gonad with developing eggs and sperm; male and female spawning in the lab; newly laid (top) and eyed eggs (bottom).
In my final field seasons on Catalina Island (2013, 2014), I led research teams of undergraduate women from Agnes Scott College (Decatur, GA). In 2013, I also mentored an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates student. See them in action!
Catalina Field Crew 2014: (Left to right) Megan Williams and me diving at Catalina Island, CA; Alma Thomas and Megan Williams forming bluebanded goby social groups; Cierra Lockhart process gobies for social groups; Alyssa Millikin observing social behavior.
Take a look at social behavioral interactions and reproduction in bluebanded goby social groups!
Undergraduate Research, Crespi Lab, Vassar College (2007-2008)
Dr. Crespi’s research focuses on behavioral neuroendocrinology and life history transitions, and I was fortunate to work on multiple projects with wood frog tadpoles and frogs (Rana sylvatica
), redback salamanders (Plethodon cinereus
), bluebanded gobies (Lythrypnus dalli
), and African clawed frogs (Xenopus laevis
). With the wood frogs, I investigated the integrated effects of resource availability, disease, and levels of the hormone leptin on the timing of tadpole metamorphosis, a life history transition with important fitness consequences. As a research assistant with Dr. Crespi at the Mountain Lake Biological Station (Pembroke, VA), I worked with an undergraduate from the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates investigating the importance of environmental moisture for mother and hatchling redback salamander behavior, size, and survival under wild and semi-natural conditions.
(Left to right) Measuring humidity at a redback salamander nest; salamander eggs suspended from the underside of a rock; redback salamander mom with her eggs in the lab; measuring a salamander hatchling in the field; redback salamander mom with her hatchlings. Mountain Lake Biological Station