Undergraduate involvement in professor’s projects advances biodiversity knowledge

11/6/2017

UM-Dearborn researchers collaborate with others and discover new reptile wildlife.

Biology faculty Matt Heinicke was awarded a grant to have UG students assist him with research.
Ian Moore, who conducted research with Assistant Professor Matthew Heinicke's lab as an UM-Dearborn undergraduate and is now a research assistant at St. Jude's Children's Hospital, runs samples in Heinicke's lab to check if he was successful in amplifying amphibian DNA.

When it comes to biodiversity, little is known about Angola, southern Africa.

But, working on research in Biology Assistant Professor Matthew Heinicke’s laboratory, microbiology senior Nariman Halimeh is helping to change that.

Looking at specimens brought back from Heinicke’s field work in Angola, Halimeh  does DNA sequencing, DNA extraction and DNA purification to assist in identifying and documenting wildlife in the African country.

“Dr. Heinicke is adding biodiversity knowledge to an area where there is currently very little and I get to have an important part in this,” said Halimeh, who has worked in the lab for more than a year.

Conducting research to identify and further investigate the diversity and evolutionary history of the amphibian and reptile species located in Angola, Heinicke said the Survey and Analysis of the Angolan Herpetofauna project is, at its core, a documentation effort looking at the variety and variability of wildlife in Angola at the genetic, species and ecosystem levels.

“Because of Angola’s unique landscape—there is desert in the southern part, rainforest in the northern part and grassland in between—it is geographically an important area. But previous political turmoil resulted in very little biodiversity research, so what is known of Angola’s wildlife is basically a blank spot on the map,” said Heinicke, noting that the research is a collaborative effort with colleagues at University of Florida and Villanova University.  “We are looking to change that.”

So far, the research team has made some interesting finds. For example, new reptile wildlife has been discovered.

“Confirmed through DNA, we’ve found species that are unlike anything known at this point,” Heinicke said. “Finding something totally new to science is very cool.”

Heinicke currently has two collaborative multi-year National Science Foundation grants, specifically awarded for involving undergraduates—like Halimeh—in research. In the other project, Heinicke and Biology Associate Professor Melissa Bowlin are working to determine evolutionary consequences of gliding-associated exaptations, or evolutionary shifts in the function of a trait, in geckos.

Halimeh said she is grateful to have the opportunity to work in Heinicke’s lab. In addition to furthering research efforts, she’s advanced herself.

“To me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that’s opened the door for me to improve upon my scientific knowledge, learn how to think critically and increase my chances of getting into a top graduate school,” said Halimeh, who learned of the Angola research opportunity after taking a genetics course with Heinicke. “My passion is cell and molecular biology and this experience has made me confident in my research ability to work with DNA.”

Heinicke said he knows the power of undergraduate research first hand: Always intrigued by evolutionary adaptation, he found his interest in both herpetology—reptiles and amphibians are very adaptive to changing environments—and the African landscape as an undergraduate research assistant. And he hopes to help others do that same.

“Thinking back, I credit my early research experience for allowing me to catch the research bug. It changed my life. I want to give that to my students too,” he said. “And their work is extremely helpful to me as well; they keep the research progressing. We are learning and moving forward together.”