Connecting the relationships between birds and lice

[This blog was written by Stephany Virrueta-Herrera, a PhD student in the Johnson lab at the Illinois Natural History Survey. It is part of the SIB Student Research Experience, a blog series that offers a closer look at our students and their research.]

The author holding a grey-chested dove during fieldwork in Panama.

During undergrad, I took an ornithology course and became interested in studying both birds and conservation, which led me to the PEEC program at Illinois, where I am now starting my third year as a PhD student. In February 2017, I visited the Johnson lab at Illinois, where Kevin Johnson (now my PhD advisor) introduced me to bird lice. Birds are hosts for several different types of parasites, lice being one of them. There are several types of bird lice, which vary based on what part of the bird’s body they live. 

My research explores the evolutionary patterns of the lice found on several different types of birds, with some of my specific projects including birds that live in the Neotropics. At the moment, I am wrapping up a manuscript in which I used whole genome data from lice of an ancient linage of birds, tinamous, to estimate their evolutionary origins (ancestry) in relation to other bird lice.

While they are one of the most abundant organisms on the planet, there is still a lot about parasites that we don’t know. There is even less information about parasites in non-temperate climates. Bird lice in particular can help us understand many different things because they live outside their host, but spend their entire lives on the same host. They are also very small, which makes their genome relatively easy to sequence.

As lice spend all, if not most, of their lives on the same hosts, many times there are similarities between host and parasite evolutionary trees. Lice are not limited to humans or birds, and in a recent study I worked on, we found that seals and their lice have coevolved. An interesting finding from this study showed that seal lice with the highest genetic diversity corresponded with seal hosts with the most individuals. We would need further data to confirm these findings, but this case illustrates that parasites can provide information on what’s happening with the host population, as the lice with the lowest genetic diversity corresponded to an endangered seal.

Being a grad student entails a lot of research and working behind a computer in my office, but recently I have been able to go on some cool travels for work. I attended the 2019 Midwest Phylogenetics Workshop at the University of Minnesota’s Itasca Biological Station. During the workshop, I not only gained new skills and knowledge in comparative phylogenetics (methods that allow us to study the history of how organisms evolved and diversified), but also had the opportunity to meet and work with colleagues thinking about similar phylogenetic questions across the country.

The head waters of the Mississippi River are located near the Itasca Biological Station, so we had the opportunity to visit one afternoon.

Conferences are also a wonderful opportunity to present work and meet with colleagues from around the world. I also recently traveled to Alaska for the American Ornithological Society’s 137th meeting, where I presented my work on tinamou lice, met colleagues and collaborators, and also experienced some of Alaska’s unique habitats.

The view during a hike at Hatcher Pass Management Area.

Being a part of an interdisciplinary department in SIB means that my peers and I study a wide diversity of organisms and systems. Over spring break, I had the opportunity to work with fellow PEEC student, Kira Long, in Panama. Kira studies manakins, but in her work, she also catches several other neotropical birds which also happen to land in her nets. While Kira processed birds for her ongoing studies, I was able to collect feather lice from some of the birds.

Spending time with the birds in their actual habitat was a wonderful experience, and it was truly amazing to be able to see live lice crawling through their hosts’ feathers trying to avoid being removed, in this case, by me. 

Delousing an American pygmy kingfisher.

After being at Illinois for two years, there are still many questions that remain unanswered, and that is one of my favorite parts about being a scientist. Lice are parasites on their hosts, but we also know that most lice are also hosting symbiotic bacteria. Feather lice on birds specifically are thought to host these bacteria because they can help provide nutrients which are limited in their feather-based diets (Smith et al. 2013).

I am currently working with an IB undergrad, Lorenzo D’Alessio, on a project exploring the symbionts found in tinamou lice. So far, we have found evidence for bacteria genera such as Sodalis, which may not be previously described in lice, for which we hope to have more solid results and prepare a manuscript for in the near future. This study will allow us to further knowledge of host parasite systems, and eventually make connections and comparisons from bird (host) to lice (parasite/host) to bacterial symbiont.

Announcing a new blog series – the SIB Student Research Experience!

Summer is an exciting time for the School of Integrative Biology – many of our faculty and students use this time to travel to their study sites across the US and around the world to set up their experiments, collect data, and gain new experiences that will guide their work.

Student researchers are critical to the success of SIB, and the collaborative relationships that they develop with our faculty prepare them for exciting careers in all kinds of industries, such as health care, biotech and bioinformatics, agriculture and plant biology, ecology, sustainability and conservation, and more.

Over half of all of SIB undergraduates gain some form of research experience during their time at Illinois, which provides them with hands-on skills developed in the field and the lab. Using these skills, our undergraduates are uniquely poised to tackle complex, interdisciplinary problems.

Lincoln Taylor, a senior in the IB Honors Program, works with Dr. Adam Dolezal to measure how queen bee egg laying behavior is impacted by diet.

Faculty benefit immensely from having these dedicated, creative students working with them full-time during the summer. This mentor-mentee relationship goes far beyond a set of extra hands in the laboratory. Students bring with them fresh ways of looking at long-standing problems, boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm. These research-based connections transform the way that our students engage with their undergraduate experience and the relationships are often maintained long after the student has graduated.

Beginning this summer, you’ll be hearing from some of these student researchers through a new series on our blog – The SIB Student Research Experience. They will be telling their stories to put a face and a name behind their data and results. Their accounts show in a very tangible way how their professional journey relates to their research goals, and highlights the wide range of backgrounds and interests we have here in SIB.

From microbes to ecosystems, our students are training to develop and apply their extensive technical knowledge to our most pressing issues as a global community, addressing the challenges of 21st century biology. I hope you enjoy their stories, and be sure to check back for each new blog.

Carla Cáceres, Director, School of Integrative Biology

Hear from one of our 2019 grads!

This May, the School of Integrative Biology celebrated the achievements of our graduating class of 2019! We join your family and friends in congratulating you on your accomplishments, and we hope you keep in touch with us as you take the next steps in your journey!

One of our graduating seniors, Daniel Garza, shared his thoughts on his time with SIB.

Daniel Garza will be attending the University of Illinois College of Law in fall 2019.

What do you value the most from your experience with SIB?

I value the diversity in education and training I received. From building phylogenies based on genomic data to crafting an essay in science communication, SIB offers courses and training in everything a science-oriented career could need. The truly well-rounded education offered by the School of Integrative Biology creates an academic community centered on unique career paths. 

What was one of the most important lessons you learned from SIB?

To always be curious and to always seek out answers!

What is something you wish incoming students knew about IB? Do you have any advice for them?

Something that every incoming SIB student should know about is the various career paths you can pursue with a degree in integrative biology. You can build your major through electives to be as specific or as broad as you would like. 

One piece of advice that a professor told me (freshman year!) that has stuck with me is to take the courses that sounds interesting to you, not just the ones that your pre-med or pre-grad school advisor told you to take. You never know where unique courses and world views will take you; it may end up becoming your passion. 

How do you feel SIB has prepared you for the next step in your career journey?

SIB has prepared me extremely well for the next steps in my career. Crafting logical and evidence-based arguments will be of paramount importance to me as a future attorney. Additionally, the ability to write coherently and concisely in the presentation of an argument is a skill taught to all SIB students, and that ability is critical to any career path, regardless of the field. 

What was one of the most valuable things you gained from SIB?

There are many aspects of my education under the School of Integrative Biology that will stick with me for life, but most of all is the ability to have fun while learning and creating scientific discoveries. The passion and personal nature of the SIB creates an environment where students are encouraged to grow both personally and professionally. Good natured professors are abundant in the SIB and the welcoming and fun environment that they help to create promotes science and learning while reducing the stress and anxiety normally associated with the college experience. 

Do you have any professors or instructors that made SIB particularly memorable for you? What kind of impact did they have on your college experience?

Professors Suarez, Berlocher, and Cheng all provided lasting memories for not only myself but almost everyone who comes into their classrooms. Each created a classroom where topics were presented in a way that immediately caught your attention and made learning easy with such passionate and driven teaching. Where some of my friends in other majors dreaded attending classes, these 3 professors made attending class worthwhile and interesting. 

One of my most unforgettable experiences came through working in Dr. Suarez’s lab. The lab was awarded the opportunity to perform research with the particle accelerator at Argonne National Laboratory. Filming x-ray footage of foaming ants, click beetles, and trap-jaw ants through the particle accelerator was one of the most rewarding experiences I had in college and it would not have possible without the Suarez lab and the School of Integrative Biology. 

Where are you going after graduation and how did SIB prepare you for that?

I will be attending the University of Illinois College of Law aiming to specialize in biotech, pharmaceutical corporate law. The scientific background I gained from my degree will be a considerable advantage as I enter this field. Science-based degrees are at the forefront of the job market and SIB prepares its students for all career paths through their well-rounded and research-based curriculum.

Two big changes this Fall – our new home in NHB and the Alumni Mentoring Program

Welcome back, everyone!


Integrative Biology has been working hard this summer, and has a couple of big changes to share with you. Watch the short video below for more information, and then explore the Alumni Mentoring Program home page here:

Alumni Mentoring Program and NHB introduction, Integrative Biology

See you soon!

Boneyard Creek by IB463

Every day thousands of students walk along the engineering quad, crossing the bridge over Boneyard Creek. While many students don’t even notice the creek, it is home to a surprising diversity of fish species. Boneyard Creek is a headwater creek which feeds into many drainages, ultimately leading to the Mississippi River. This ecological connectivity provides continuous habitat for fish migration including several species of sunfish, largemouth bass, and catfish. On any given day, you may find as many as 20 (or more!) different species of fish. Despite being the main aquatic feature, it remains an overlooked part of campus.

The Boneyard Creek at Sunset

The Boneyard Creek at Sunset, © All Rights Reserved, by tobiastoennies

The website was created to educate unwitting residents and incoming students at the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign about the surprising abundance of fish in Boneyard Creek. This website was made by the Ichthyology Classes of 2012, 2014, and 2016. It provides an array of information, including the history of the creek, a list of present fishes, a dichotomous key to identify them, education activities for children, and a volunteering tab that tells how you can contribute to the health of the Boneyard Creek. Many resources are included on this website, and it effectively serves as the information hub for all things Boneyard Creek. Click here to see an underwater video of fish in the creek recorded by Elise Snyder.


Male Rainbow Darter

Male Rainbow Darter collected and photographed by Alexander Pane at Phillips Tract

The Fishes of Boneyard Creek website is the result of a unique class project that stretched across three different cohorts of Ichthyology students (IB 463 from years 2012, 2014, and 2016). The 2012 course originally made the site. The 2014 course greatly improved it. The 2016 course created videos that explained how to use a dichotomous key. The 2012 class obtained a list of ‘potential’ fish species that could be found in the creek based on historical records from the Saline Branch, into which the Boneyard Creek feeds. The class has continued to sample the creek and to perform numerous class projects. One project has addressed the question of whether fish use the fish ladder at Scott Park. Another project sampled fish with minnow traps. Another project performed seine hauls to assess the fish community.

Creating this website and the accompanying videos not only taught us about the specific characteristics of the Boneyard Creek fish species – it also taught us how to communicate science to the public. We learned not only how to identify the different species of the Boneyard, but we also learned valuable skills like script writing, video editing, and how to present scientific information in a digestible way. These skills are vital in the modern scientific world where there is a heavy emphasis on communication and presentation of findings. Having scientists who are able to communicate with the public ensures that information can be utilized in a meaningful way. We hope that this project continues to go forward and ask/answer meaningful questions about the Boneyard Creek.

Ichthyology Class of 2016

Ichthyology Class of 2016 in the field

Koalified Medicine

This week’s post is from 2013 IB graduate Andrea Chez, who just completed her first year of medical school… in Australia!


Shock was usually the first reaction that I got when I told people that I was moving to Sydney.chez sydney

Then excitement.

Followed by disbelief.

And the question that I always got, and am still getting asked, is “why Australia?” Up until my senior year, I had never considered medical school anywhere outside of the States. I had decided to study abroad for a couple weeks in January of 2015 (through the University). The focus of the trip was to learn more about global healthcare, and the diversity of different healthcare regiments, as well as population diversity. In the course of the fortnight that I spent in Australia, I had fallen in love. The idea that I could potentially contribute to helping Indigenous peoples, both medically and culturally, was exciting and invigorating. I also truly appreciated how largely mental health is emphasized. The view isn’t too shabby either.

I had always known that I would like to study abroad throughout the course of my medical degree. I thought that I would arrange electives here or there in different countries, or utilize my summers to travel and explore. When I returned home, I decided to try and send off applications to some medical programs around Australia, without huge expectations that I would be accepted. That changed when I was notified that I had qualified for multiple mini interviews at both the University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne.

The application process is not too different from the program in the States, but everything is much cheaper. One option is to apply to multiple schools through a main application that you send to the schools that you would like to apply to, but there is only one fee versus a fee for every school. Another way is to apply through an international representative (which I elected to do). My representative helped me throughout the whole process of dealing with student loans, applying for the correct visa, and just contacting the universities in general. The medical schools then conduct multiple mini interviews, in which a panel of interviewers will talk to different applicants and have them answer a variety of panel questions, each with a rubric of points that can be awarded. Once interviews are done, decisions are made, and places are awarded. Oddly enough, international tuition prices in Australia are pretty similar to domestic medical school tuition in the States. When I opened that acceptance e-mail, it was as if all of my hard work was validated.

It definitely takes hefty doses of bravery and moxie to pack up your life, and start over. The decision to enroll in any schooling, let alone medical school, in another country, is one that doesn’t suit everyone. I love that I am completely immersed in a different culture, and will get to experience opportunities that I never dreamed of. However, there are days that I am quite homesick. There are also days that I couldn’t be happier. No matter what happens, I know that I have never regretted my decision, and am excited to see where this journey takes me.

Reflections on research & Fulbright


Hello again, my name is Sally Feng. I graduated with a B.S. in Integrative Biology in May 2014. I am doing work on coral reef restoration in the Philippines under a Fulbright research grant.

My research experience
Three years ago, research was a foreign concept to me. During my sophomore year, I contacted a few professors and let them know that I was interested in their research. The following summer, I began assisting with a project with Dr. Katie McGhee in Dr. Alison Bell’s lab. IMG_8232I started taking field courses in the States (IB 447 and NRES 285)
and abroad in South Africa (ANSC 398) and in Costa Rica (ANTH 445). I was also in Dr. Becky Fuller’s lab to see what it was like to work in another lab. The next thing you know, I was completing my own independent projects. I presented at the iBio Research Symposium and at the Undergraduate Research Symposium at U of I. I received funding from NSF REU, Office of Undergraduate Research and Bell lab to present at the Animal Behavior Conference at the University of Colorado Boulder and at Princeton University. After two semesters of IB 390, I enrolled in IB 490 to graduate with distinction. My senior thesis on color-reward association in stickleback fish has been accepted for publication in Animal Behaviour.

My Fulbright experience
I am part of the corals lab under Dr. Ronald Villanueva at the University of Philippines Bolinao Marine Laboratory. DSC01107My study organism is Drupella cornus, a corallivorous marine gastropod. I am interested in seeing whether the gastropod chooses to feed upon a coral colony over another and whether the removal of the gastropod will have an effect in coral cover.

Even though I had a project in mind, it requires a lot of patience to get an experiment started. This was my first field-based project. I had to figure out how to set up my study area underwater and what sites to use. I just became open water certified so I needed time to get comfortable in diving. IMG_8285I was set back a few weeks because of a storm and gale warnings. Soon it was Christmas and everyone was gone for the holidays. Finally, after two months since my arrival and with the help from the lab aids, I was able to set up my experiment. Since then my experiment has been running smoothly.

While research is my priority, I was able to pursue another interest of mine, environmental education. I attended SEA (Sea and Earth Advocates) Camp, a project of the Save Philippines Seas and U.S. Embassy Manila. DSC_0242SEA Camp’s goal is to empower young seatizens as leaders in conservation. There were 30 participants, ages 18-23, from a diverse background ranging from university students to government workers. I was invited to give a talk on coral restoration and was a mentor to the participants with their project proposals on marine conservation. The camp was very well organized with resource speakers, workshops and other activities. I enjoyed seeing how excited the participants became when they had the opportunity to snorkel and scuba dive. It was amazing to see how motivated everyone was in saving the Philippines Seas.

DSC_0294I have been abroad for six months and only have three months left of my grant. I am extremely happy with my stay in the Philippines and am excited to see where I will be next. If you would like to contact me, feel free to send an email to

– Sally.

Amazing IB undergrads!

undergrad research week
This week is Undergraduate Research Week, a celebration of student excellence in research across campus. The signature event is the eighth annual campus-wide Undergraduate Research Symposium (URS), held on Thursday, April 23rd.

We are pleased to highlight some of the great research our undergraduates are doing in IB!  The following IB students are presenting at this year’s Symposium:

Behavioral Freeze Avoidance Strategy in an Antarctic Fish
Mateusz Grobelny, Senior

Efficacy of Common Disinfectants Against Ophidiomyces Ophiodiicola, the Causative Agent of Snake Fungal Disease
Marta Rzadkowska, Senior

RNAi Knockdown: The Role of unc-25 in Mediating Nicotine Resistance in Caenorhabditis elegans
Andrew Tran, Sophomore
Emily Yaniz, Sophomore
Stephanie Martynenko, Sophomore

Community Inference
Zachary Cohen, Sophomore

Modeling Threat Assessment in Prey
Nicholas Sutton, Senior

Molecular Evolution for the Chemoreceptor Gene Families in the Common Eastern Bumblebee, Bombus impatiens
Yihui Zhu, Senior

DNA Fragment Length Heterozygosity PCR: Lab-on-a-Chip Method for Testing Bias in Prairie Root Metagenomics
Taylor Pederson, Senior

Electrophysiological and Mass-Spectrometric Investigation of Aplysia L1-L7 Neurons
Feng Zhu, Senior

Elucidation of Dopamine’s Influence in Peripheral Sensing in Pleurobranchaea.
Megan Flanagan, Junior
Andrew Tran, Sophomore

Genetic Analysis of Cellobiohydrolase I (cbhI) Gene Sequences and Production of Other Wood Degradation Enzymes in Tropical Aquatic Fungal Communities
Matthew Boyce, Senior

Improving the Accuracy of Photosynthetic Compensation Point Measurements
Jessica Ayers, Junior

Hox Gene Expression in Mammalian Limb Development
Paige Oboikovitz, Senior

Did you know you can “hack” photosynthesis?

According to IB profs Stephen Long, Amy Marshall-Colon, and Donald Ort, using high-performance computing and genetic engineering to boost the photosynthetic efficiency of plants offers the best hope of increasing crop yields enough to feed a planet expected to have 9.5 billion people on it by 2050.

Read more at: