Something Fishy

Supported by a $899,000 National Science Foundation grant, a Biology Professor’s guppy research may lead to important discoveries about behavior and genetics.

By Andrew Clark

Professor Bleakley and W. Jackson Reilly ’16 examine fish behavior.ON THE SURFACE they may appear to be a collection of fish swimming around in a tank, like something you might see in a pet store. But the guppies in Bronwyn Heather Bleakley’s lab are so much more than simple household pets.

Over the coming years, the associate professor of biology and her team of students are going to be closely analyzing these guppies, observing how different types interact with one another. Ultimately, the fish may be able to provide answers for a spectrum of important biological questions about behavior and genetics.

The intriguing nature of Bleakley’s work caught the eye of the National Science Foundation (NSF) earlier this year, earning her a CAREER grant from the organization. Because of this, Bleakley will spend the next five years continuing her research. She will use statistical genetics to show the importance of both individual and social partner genes when it comes to cooperation among guppies. Like humans, guppies need to cooperate successfully with social partners. To determine how threatening a predator is requires the input of both partners responding effectively to one another.  (Professor Bleakley and W. Jackson Reilly ’16 examine fish behavior, right.)

While guppies are known to change their behavior based on their particular social partner, little is known about how partners influence each other or why some fish modify their behavior more than others. Bleakley plans to determine how gene expression, hormone secretion and aspects of guppy anatomy impact this cooperation.

This will be a rather involved process, says Bleakley, one that will force her to spend countless hours in the lab. But by the end, there’s no telling what kinds of valuable information will come of her work, such as how cooperative social behavior evolves and the importance of specific interactions with social partners. “What I do is basic research; it is exploratory and for the sake of knowing, but basic research provides the foundation for later application by other researchers,” says Bleakley.

A Special Opportunity
Applying for the NSF grant is an extensive process, from preparing forms and documents to working on budgeting. For Bleakley, right, this was the second consecutive year that she was applying for the grant. Utilizing feedback and advice from the NSF following her first try, Bleakley applied once again in July 2014. It was a lengthy wait, but the news she was dreaming of finally came in the middle of the day on May 15th. (Right, Professor Bleakley conducting research.)

“I was very excited,” says Bleakley, who is receiving $899,000 over the next five years from the NSF, which will allow her to hire a lab assistant and procure equipment. “You could probably hear me yell from two stories away.”

Bleakley wasn’t the only one who was thrilled by the news. Joseph Favazza, provost and vice president for academic affairs, says that receiving this award brings attention to the strength of the Stonehill faculty, which is critical to the College’s educational mission. “It’s extremely important,” says Favazza, “and it highlights the rigor of the research being conducted by our science faculty. In addition, an NSF CAREER grant exposes our undergraduate students to top level scientific inquiry and allows them to participate in the research as collaborators.”

A Long-Term Research and Mentoring Project
The idea for this project has actually been in the works for quite some time. In fact, Bleakley says that she originally began thinking of this research as a graduate student while testing different theses with her advisor. “It wasn’t like there was this singular inventive and creative moment,” says Bleakley. “This was the result of more than 10 years of work.”

One of the highlights of Bleakley’s project is the level of student involvement. The grant will allow Bleakley to award six summer fellowships each year—roughly 30 undergraduates will work on this research over its duration. (Above, Trinidadian guppies.)

To understand how and when social partners respond to each other will require a considerable amount of fieldwork and large-scale behavioral experiments. Bleakley and company will be using Trinidadian guppies, which are considered the ideal subject because they are highly influenced by their social partners, especially when it comes to cooperating with one another to avoid predators.

There’s much that can be learned by observing fish. For instance, W. Jackson Reilly ’16, one of Bleakley’s student-researchers, may put two bold guppies in a tank with a pair of shy guppies to examine how they behave as they hang out together. While conducting this research, Reilly, who has taken on a mentoring role in the lab, is learning molecular biology skills and honing his observational skills.

Corey Mair ’16, a biology major with a strong interest in gene expression, started on Bleakley’s project during her sophomore year and spent 40 hours a week in the lab this past summer.

“Being able to have this experience will help me in the future,” says Mair, noting that it is a rare opportunity to work on a funded research project as an undergrad. After she graduates, Mair is planning to go to medical school and ultimately work as a clinical geneticist. She sees her time in Bleakley’s lab as invaluable, especially considering the amount of responsibility Bleakley allows her researchers to have.

“Professor Bleakley lets you work and have independence,” says Mair. “She trusts that you know what you’re doing, and she’s there for guidance.”

The Impact of Collaborating
Dieter Kuhlka ’16 and Alison Smith ’17 Bleakley, who received the Hegarty Award for Excellence in Teaching at this year’s Academic Convocation, will be conducting her research while also teaching a full course load. It is a rather intense process, she admits, but there’s not much difference between her work in the classroom and in the laboratory. “I don’t see them as being separate,” says Bleakley. “I view the work that I do in the lab as my most intensive teaching. My research assistants do a whole lot of learning in the lab.” (Right, Dieter Kuhlka ’16 and Alison Smith ’17)

Bleakley stresses that it’s imperative to foster a mentoring relationship with her lab students and that having a strong rapport with them has mutual benefits. “I don’t have strangers moving into the lab,” she says. “We build a relationship in the classroom. When they come into the lab, it is a continuation of their education. I view them as collaborators.”

Flipping the Classroom
when she’s not hard at work in the lab, Bleakley can be found in the classroom, where she’s known for her rather innovative ways.

A proponent of the so-called “flipped classroom,” Bleakley doesn’t exactly teach in the way you might expect. Rather than spend the majority of her class time lecturing, she does just the opposite.

Bleakley provides the lectures to her students in advance, making them available online. Class time is then reinvested in different ways, from discussions to hands-on learning and problem sets.

This mode of learning is integral to the NSF grant, as Bleakley will be producing active learning exercises for teaching evolution and animal behavior as part of her integrated research and education plan.

“It gave me the opportunity to work more closely with students during class,” says Bleakley on why she decided to use the flipped classroom model, noting that students are able to have access to help during class when engaged with their most difficult work.

This model has proved quite popular with students, as it helps foster a stronger student-professor connection. Biology major W. Jackson Reilly ’16, who has taken a number of courses with Bleakley, loves the way the flipped classroom has worked out.

Reilly says that there are many opportunities to ask questions during class, though he notes that one of the most special aspects of Bleakley’s flipped classes is the personal nature of them.

“She’s a professor who has 200 students and knows everyone’s name,” says Reilly of Bleakley. “She cares about you and about what you are doing.”

Professor Bleakley (center, left) with her lab team. (l to r): Dieter Kuhlka ’16, Corina Mier y Teran ’16, Alison Smith ’17, Corey Mair ’16, W. Jackson Reilly ’16, John Figueiredo ’16 and James Cheney ’17.