Zora Neale Hurston
“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein.”
Maternal effects may contribute to rapid evolution by providing a route for intergenerational transmission of information about environmental conditions offspring will encounter. Stressors in a mother’s environment, such as predation risk, can alter offspring behavior, hormones, and neural gene expression, either directly or indirectly, potentially preparing them for adverse future conditions. Epigenetics may improve the potential success of offspring by producing a more optimal phenotype for the current circumstances.
I am testing how manipulating maternal stress prepares offspring for future conditions. To understand the mechanisms of this and their relationships, I looked at the behavior of mothers and offspring and potential mechanisms: hormone levels and neural gene expression. This work is done in collaboration with the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, in Yukon Territory.
Hormones and Behavior
During the spring and summer of 2015 -2017, the Dantzer lab conducted a manipulation to examine the maternal effects produced by stress hormones - specifically glucocorticoids. We recorded behavior of mothers and offspring, as well as collecting physiological samples for further analysis in the lab, including measuring oxidative stress, fecal cortisol metabolite levels, and neural gene expression.
Additionally, we're interested in how maternal stress affects maternal care behaviors. We use focal observations during nest entries (while borrowing her pups for life history data collection) to assess how attentive mothers are to their offspring and whether their attentiveness is influenced by their stress hormone levels. In 2017, we will be piloting new methods to explore maternal care behaviors in more depth.
Plasticity in Mate Choice
For my senior honors thesis, I pursued an independent research project on female mate choice. I designed and tested methods to answer the questions: a) has female mate choice evolved in introduced populations after two years; b) is female mate choice a developmentally plastic trait; and c) is plasticity in the trait evolving? I conducted over 100 dichotomous mate choice trials with females from one source high-predation population and four introduction low-predation populations, including sisters reared in two treatment groups, with and without predator cue. We found a predator-induced increase in overall female responsiveness, defined as interest in either male, and greater responsiveness in the source high-predation population. I presented my thesis at Front Range Student Ecology Symposium and the 2013 Animal Behavior Society Conference. We published this work in Ethology.
For an NSF-FIBR-funded project with Dr. Cameron Ghalambor, I constructed cDNA libraries from brains of fish collected from the source population, four introduction populations, and a natural low predation population - then raised in the lab in a common garden set-up. We will use high-throughput sequencing to look for whole-brain gene expression differences associated with rapid and long-term adaptation to predator free environments. This project is part of my work with Dr. Kim Hoke's lab investigating the evolution of the neural mechanisms of behavior. We're excited to see the results!
Check out Dr. Ghalambor's recent paper for more information about this system!
Rapid Evolution of Behavior
As a sophomore honors student at CSU, I started doing research with the guppy group by assisting with behavioral observations in Dr. Lisa Angeloni’s lab with graduate student, at the time, Dr. Dale Broder. The aim of the research is to assess the role of behavioral plasticity in initial adaptation. We conducted mating and foraging trials on guppies from the source population and four introduced populations across four environmental treatment groups, including rearing siblings with predator cue or without. Each guppy went through a series of behavioral assays to track patterns among populations and different environments. While full results are still being analyzed, so far we have seen plasticity, rapid evolution, and evolution of plasticity in one mating behavior 2-3 years post-introduction.
Junior year, I partnered with another undergraduate in Dr. Lisa Angeloni’s lab to conduct foraging trials asking if guppies establish a dominance hierarchy over time to inform future studies on foraging in lab populations. My partner and I were presented a broad question and worked together to develop the experimental design to answer the question. Ultimately, we did not detect any increase in aggression over time while foraging. We presented our work at the Front Range Student Ecology Symposium (FRSES) and won 2nd place for Best Undergraduate Poster Presentations.
8) Westrick SE, Taylor RW, Boutin S, Lane JE, McAdam AG, & Dantzer B. (accepted) Attentive red squirrel mothers have faster-growing pups and higher lifetime reproductive success. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology
7) Dantzer B, van Kesteren F, Westrick SE, Boutin S, McAdam AG, Lane JE, Gillespie R, Majer A, Haussmann M, Monaghan P (2019) Maternal stress promotes offspring growth without oxidative costs in wild red squirrels. Journal of Experimental Biology https://doi.org/10.1101/680421
6) Santicchia F, Wauters LA, Dantzer B, Westrick SE, Ferrari N, Romeo C, Palme R, Preatoni DG, & Martinoli A (2019) Relationships between personality traits and the physiological stress response in a wild mammal. Current Zoology. https://doi.org/10.1093/cz/zoz040
5) Westrick SE, van Kesteren F, Palme R, Boonstra R, Lane JE, Boutin S, McAdam AG, & Dantzer B. (2019) Stress is not predictive of coping style in North American red squirrels. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-019-2728-2
4) van Kesteren F, Delehanty B, Westrick SE, Palme R, Boonstra R, Lane JE, Boutin S, McAdam AG, & Dantzer B. (2019) Experimental increases in glucocorticoids alter function of the neuroendocrine stress axis in wild red squirrels without negatively impacting survival and reproduction. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology. https://doi.org/10.1086/705121
3) Westrick SE, Broder ED, Reznick DN, Ghalambor CK, & Angeloni LM. (2019) Rapid evolution of mate choice and behavioural plasticity following introduction to an environment with reduced predation risk. Ethology. https://doi.org/10.1111/eth.12849
2) Fischer EK, Westrick SE, Hartsough L, & Hoke KL. (2018) Differences in neural activity, but not behavior, across social contexts in guppies, Poecilia reticulata. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-018-2548-9
1) Dantzer B, Westrick SE, & van Kesteren F. (2016) Relationships between Endocrine Traits and Life Histories in Wild Animals: Insights, Problems, and Potential Pitfalls. Integrative and comparative biology.
Psych 402 - Biology of Maternal Care
Lead Instructor: Sarah Westrick
Instructor at University of Michigan - Fall 2019
During my graduate studies, I designed a new capstone seminar course for undergraduates in the Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience major at UM. I developed the syllabus utilizing my training from CRLT and the Preparing Future Faculty summer workshop. During this collaborative seminar, we discussed primary literature from many different disciplines to develop a holistic, integrative understanding of why and how mothers care for their offspring. Because the topic of maternal care is inherently multi-disciplinary, discussion ranged from evolution, neurobiology, psychology, and genetics.
Psych 335 - Introduction to Animal Behavior
Lead Instructor: Dr. Thore Bergman or Dr. Ben Dantzer
Graduate student instructor at University of Michigan - Winter 2016, Fall 2016, Fall 2017, Fall 2018
Psych 230 - Introduction to Behavioral Neuroscience
Lead Instructor: Dr. Martin Sarter
Graduate student instructor at University of Michigan - Winter 2017
"Unless you understand the needs, the habits, the problems of an animal in nature, you will not understand it all.... Take nature away and all your insight is in a biological vacuum."
Bringing guppies to low-income communities
University of Michigan
In 2016-2017, I partnered with MYELIN and UM Libraries to bring Trinidadian guppies to local low-income community centers. Our overarching goal is to bring science to underprivileged communities in a way that is engaging and interactive for students. By using live animals in our activities, we can engage students of all ages and increase the accessibility of ecology and evolution, an under-developed area of curriculum in the K-12 classroom. I will develop a Trinidadian guppy population specifically for use in outreach in the fields of evolution, ecology, and neuroethology.
MYELIN - Mentoring Youth and Emerging Leaders in Neuroscience
University of Michigan
"Mentoring Youth and Early Leaders In Neuroscience (M.Y.E.L.I.N.) is a student based organization at the University of Michigan, which is dedicated to science outreach education in minority and low income communities in Ann Arbor. Through educational outreach programs, MYELIN strives to inspire, and support the next generation of researchers and college students. It was founded by graduate students in neuroscience and biopsychology. M.Y.E.L.I.N. is currently developing programs that present an interactive and engaging cirriculum to groups of children on a regular basis, in hopes of providing them with the tools to go further in their scientific studies."
Females Excelling More in Math, Engineering, and Sciences
University of Michigan
"Through engaging, hands-on activities presented in a fun, supportive environment, FEMMES programs encourage girls to learn and explore their potential in science, technology, math and engineering (STEM). Our goal is to promote involvement in STEM by building curiosity and increasing confidence in girls so they may pursue their dreams without hesitation."
Science with 4th Graders
Throughout my career in the guppy collective at CSU, I have been able to pursue my commitment to outreach. Guppies are a wonderful study system to aid young students in visualizing the scientific process in an engaging manner. I have participated in the Angeloni Lab’s outreach projects by visiting 4th grade classrooms to demonstrate the scientific process with guppies. I assisted students in observing, developing hypotheses, collecting data, and presenting their findings at Front Range Student Ecology Symposium at Colorado State University. Please visit Dale Broder's website for more information about guppy outreach projects!
Math, Science, and Technology Day @ CSU
I also participated in Math, Science and Technology Day at CSU, a program to bring local 4th grade children to campus for a day of fun, engaging activities and discussions about science and technology. This year we presented the Colorful World of Guppies and taught students about selective pressures in the guppies' environment that contribute to their varied color patterns.
Women in Science Devoted to Outreach and Mentoring
Colorado State University
As an undergraduate at Colorado State University, I participated in WISDOM (Women in Science Devoted to Outreach and Mentoring). With WISDOM, I visited middle school classes devoted specifically to girls interested in learning more about science. As a woman-focused organization, we led activities and discussions about a variety of topics in science to engage girls in science. Interacting with a diversity of students, it is inspiring and rewarding to see them develop larger scientific ideas through their own observations and discussions.
As a scientist, I am broadly interested in how and why animals behave the way they do, including evolution, ecology, and other mechanisms. I'm interested in combining proximate and ultimate questions to investigate the individual variation that produces variation in fitness, and thus determines the direction and strength of evolutionary trajectories. I am particularly enthused by integrative approaches and collaborations that combine many different techniques and perspectives to answer questions in a way that is ecologically relevant to the organism. I previously worked at Colorado State University in Dr. Kim Hoke's neuro-inspired evolution lab, Dr. Lisa Angeloni's behavior lab, and Dr. Cameron Ghalambor's evolutionary ecology lab - all working with Trinidadian guppies. In 2015, I joined Dr. Ben Dantzer's lab at University of Michigan to pursue my PhD - working with North American red squirrels.
As an educator, I am excited to share my love of science with many different age groups. I strongly believe in the value of a primary education that expands children's minds and exposes them to many different facets of the world - including science! Collaborating with local schools is a fantastic way for researchers to spread knowledge and hopefully inspire the next generation of brilliant thinkers. I also enjoy teaching at the university level. My undergraduate courses are where I became passionate about science and I hope to share that passion with my students.
As an individual, I love to explore the great outdoors, as Einstein is quoted as saying, "Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better." I enjoy hiking, cooking, knitting, baking, spending time with family, bragging about my brother, and volunteering at my local animal shelter. If it's snowing, you'll most likely see a huge smile on my face and snowshoes on my feet. Ask me for a book recommendation - my librarian mom has trained me well. Did I mention my brother's awesome?
My CV is available here.