The average person doesn’t care much for bird droppings, but biology major Melissa Homsher ’14 finds them pretty interesting.
Under the guidance of Mike Butler, assistant professor of biology, Homsher is conducting honors thesis research into a substance that birds secrete in their waste. They have reason to think that the substance, biliverdin, which is produced from the part of hemoglobin that transports oxygen, might interact with white blood cells and affect immune response. Homsher’s project is examining this possibility.
Butler has been working with Homsher and other undergraduates to better understand the physiology of biliverdin, which is also the pigment responsible for making eggshells blue and green. As they work out the physiological role of biliverdin, they expect to be able to ask some new questions that relate to animal coloration and immune response.
Butler’s primary research interest is animal coloration, including its physiological basis as well as its evolutionary and ecological consequences. He has also studied carotenoids—the yellow-orange pigments that make the male mallard’s beak yellow and can also boost immune function. Homsher and biology major Briette Karanfilian ’14 assisted with that research, which was published in the November 2013 issue of Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology.
Homsher, who is in the process of applying to medical school, says her work with Butler has fit in perfectly with her future aspirations.
“Being at the forefront of this kind of research has been a learning process of understanding how much planning and setbacks it takes to form a successful experiment. You never quite get the results you expect—science is definitely a learning process, and nothing works perfectly,” she says. “I’ve learned about how exciting it can be to discover something new, and being directly part of the process of developing new knowledge. Through research, you can integrate all your areas of study and apply them to one focus.”
Butler appreciates that Lafayette offers so many opportunities for undergraduates to conduct meaningful research alongside faculty. In addition to Homsher and Karanfilian, in the past year Butler has worked with and supervised Heather Bauerle ’14, Kara Falvey ’13, Camila Moscoso ’16, and Nathan Ritter ’14 through the EXCEL Scholars undergraduate research program and independent study.
“It’s really energizing to work with undergraduates on their research projects. For most, it’s their first foray into coming up with a question and using the tools of science to answer that question, so their enthusiasm in doing this on their own for the first time is infectious. Also, because it is their first time, it really is a learning process. I get to watch this process in real time, and provide mentorship during the stage of scientific education when they are developing the most,” Butler says. “Those who continue in scientific fields will continue to hone these skills of course, but it’s a really big motivator knowing that my interactions with students at this part of their careers set the stage for their future development.”
The past year has been a busy one for Butler. In addition to his ongoing research and teaching responsibilities, he had five manuscripts accepted for publication, gave an oral presentation, and served as a session chair at the Fifth North American Ornithological Conference in Vancouver, Canada, and gave two invited seminars.