Turner Award helps ISU alumnus present biology research

August 19, 2010

Without a major financial boost, a 2010 Indiana State alumnus admits it would have been difficult to present research at a Virginia university this summer.

Ryan Hancock, originally from Brook, Ind., received one of the Animal Behavior Society's Turner Awards, co-managed by Indiana University's Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior and funded by the National Science Foundation.

The nearly $1,000 gift offsets travel costs to the society's annual meeting, which was held this summer at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Va., in hopes of increasing undergraduate participation. In July, Hancock and research mentor Diana Hews, Indiana State associate professor of biology, shared their findings about the patterns of brain size in tree lizards.

"It's a good place to meet a lot of different people and learn about different kinds of research," Hancock said.

This was the first year anyone from Indiana State applied for the award, said Emilia Martins, a biology professor at IU's Bloomington campus who oversees the program. The award is named after Charles Turner, one of the first African American animal behavior researchers.

Hews knew Hancock from class and said he was very dependable, a good quality in a research partner.

"I was very enthusiastic to have the opportunity to work with him because I already knew he was a reliable person," she said.

Hews co-wrote the research Hancock presented, titled "Hippocampal volumes differ between male morphs and females in the ornate tree lizard," along with David Kabelik, a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.

Their research found that, in tree lizards, two male "morphs" differ in the size of the hippocampus, suggesting differences in the way this brain region functions. The hippocampus is involved in spatial memory and learning. Morphs refers to the occurrence of two or more forms within a species. For instance, some male tree lizards are territorial and defend specific turfs, while others wander widely in no particular area.

The territorial lizards also have much greater muscle mass, which may aid in defending territories, according to Hews. She compared them to "an Arnold Schwarzenegger of the lizard world." In contrast, the wanderers are relatively "skinny." She speculated that moving a lighter body around may be less energetically costly for these roaming types.

Unexpectedly, they found that whole brain size differed between the male types. Specific to their original research aim, they also found that hippocampus size is larger in one morph than the other, even controlling for differences in overall brain size. Hews and Hancock did not expect to find a difference in whole brain size between the two males - the non-territorial's brains being larger.

While research presentations in local venues such as Indiana State usually draw fewer specialists within a research field, Hews said, national conferences provide opportunities for scientists to network with other researchers with the same interests.

"More broadly, the ‘national stage' is ‘the real thing,'" Hews said. "The overall caliber of discourse is extremely high, and the level of expectation that others have when interacting with the research partners at the conference is much higher than one might experience locally."

Hancock said he received mostly positive feedback. A few researchers offered other ideas on how to measure brain size.

He would like to increase the project sample size and continue research, but is now focused on medical school. Hancock is attending the Indiana University School of Medicine through the Rural Health Program offered by Indiana State.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/971961267_RcQDK-D.jpg
Ryan Hancock and ISU Associate Professor of Biology Diana Hews present their research during Animal Behavior Society's annual meeting.

Contact: Diana Hews, associate professor of biology, Indiana State University, 812-237-8352 or Diana.Hews@indstate.edu

Writer: Nick Hedrick, media relations assistant, Indiana State University, Communications and Marketing, 812-237-3773 or nhedrick2@indstate.edu