The end is near! I am happy to report that both Chris and I have submitted our final dissertations to the graduate school. What a relief! Now that my dissertation is off to the printers, I decided to do some stats…
Unsurprisingly, the most used word in my dissertation (excluding common words), is “stress,” clocking in at a word count of 392 (out of 35K total words). Close behind were CORT (296), lizards (225), immune (201), and ants (144). Sounds about right! (The most used word was “of,” with a word count of 681. Fascinating!)
I couldn’t help but display this graphically, because who doesn’t love a word cloud?
For those of you keeping track, this is the “cleaned up” version–the original was quite overwhelming! I removed the citations and statistics as well as a number of prepositions, less exciting words (“may” was a big one), and anything that occurred fewer than 20 times throughout my dissertation.
The 13 graduate student winners were invited to talk about their research. I chose to highlight the last two chapters of my dissertation, which have been submitted to various journals. Here’s a sneak peak of the findings, as described in my short talk/acceptance speech:
My dissertation research addresses the circumstances under which stress produces negative consequences. Animals, including humans, have a way of dealing with stress, called the physiological stress response. This response involves a suite of changes in the body to help an animal deal with and recover from the stressor—these changes can mobilize energy and induce certain helpful behaviors to help deal with the stressor. Because of this stress response, experiencing a stressor isn’t always a “bad thing”.
That said, in order for these changes to occur, an animal temporarily pulls energy away from other systems that aren’t immediately important—like growth and reproduction. That means when stress is frequent, when it doesn’t go away, there can be negative consequences on these traits—on growth, reproduction, and immune function.
The immediate consequences of stress are fairly well studied, but we know less about how stress experienced during development or in previous generations can affect adult traits.
To investigate this, I took advantage of populations of eastern fence lizards that co-evolved with different levels of stress in the environment. Some populations co-occur with invasive fire ants, which bite and sting lizards. These encounters are stressful for the lizards, and if you’ve been stung by a fire ant, I’m sure you can relate. So this study system gives us a unique opportunity to look at populations that have long history—many generations—of high–stress and compare to populations that do not have history with this kind of stress.
My research reveals that ancestral history with stress is actually really important. If a lizard’s ancestors experienced high-stress, that affects how it responds to stress as an adult—regardless of its personal experience with stress within its lifetime. So it’s not what it went through, but what its ancestors went through, that determines how robustly it responds to stress.
But it turns out the combination of a lizard’s personal experience and its ancestors’ experience that determines the immune consequences of stress. Researchers don’t usually consider how stress in previous generations can affect physiology, but my research indicates this should not be overlooked
Understanding when stress will become beneficial and when it becomes harmful will allows us to better predict how animals will be affected by the increasing amounts of stress due to global change, and to better allocate resources to manage these effects.
I would like to thank the Penn State Ecology Program and my advisor, Tracy Langkilde, without whom I could not have completed my degree. I would also like to thank my boyfriend, Rich, for his support and the Alumni Association for the recognition. It is a privilege to have your support, and I am excited to join the thriving community of Penn State alumni. Thank you.