• Current and Past Research Projects

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    Mechanisms of Parental Care

    Among South American poison frogs, we find species showing all three types of parental care: mother-only, father-only, and biparental care. These closely related species provide a unique opportunity to learn more about the causes and consequences of parental care. The goal of this project is to understand the mechanisms driving variation in parenting style by investigating hormone levels, neural activity, and brain gene expression. This research will add to our understanding of understudied male parental behavior as well as our general understanding of the origins of individuality in behavior. This work is done in collaboration with Eva Fischer at UIUC.

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    Developing -Omic Resources for Poison Frogs

    To explore the genomic underpinnings of behavior with the dyeing poison frog (Dendrobates tinctorius), Eva Fischer and I are developing a single-cell RNAseq 'cell atlas' of D. tinctorius brain tissue. This will be the first exploration of sex differences at the single-cell level in poison frogs. Additionally, we plan to use the cell atlas to deconvolute future bulk RNAseq data to gain more fine-scale details on which cell types are differentially expressed RNA. To complement this resource and allow for more functional interpretations of the data, we are assembling a D. tinctorius genome.

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    Maternal Effects in the Wild

    Maternal effects may contribute to rapid evolution by providing a route for intergenerational transmission of information about environmental conditions offspring will encounter. During my PhD, I tested how maternal glucocorticoids prepare offspring for future conditions and how maternal care contributes to the success of offspring. 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 was done in collaboration with the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, in Yukon Territory.

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    Plasticity in Mate Choice

    For my senior BS 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? We found a predator-induced increase in overall female responsiveness, defined as an interest in either male, and greater responsiveness to males in the source high-predation population. We published this work in Ethology.

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    Rapid Adaptation in Gene Expression

    For an NSF-FIBR-funded project with Cameron Ghalambor, I constructed RNA-seq 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 used high-throughput RNA-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 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 paper for more information about this system!

  • 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.”

  • Publications

    ​Please contact me for PDFs of any publications listed.

    *denotes undergraduate researcher

    14 | Surber-Cunningham LL, Jimenez LS*, Mobo LW*, Westrick SE, & Fischer EK. (submitted/preprinted) Early development of the glucocorticoid stress response in poison frog tadpoles. bioRxiv https://doi.org/10.1101/2024.05.31.596457


    13 | Westrick SE, Fischer EK, van Kesteren F, Boutin S, Lane JE, McAdam AG, & DantzerB. (submitted/preprinted) Timing-dependent effects of elevated maternal glucocorticoids on offspring brain gene expression in a wild small mammal. bioRxiv.   https://doi.org/10.1101/2024.04.19.590319


    12 | Westrick SE, Paitz RT, & Fischer EK. (submitted/preprinted) Why not both? A case study measuring cortisol and corticosterone in poison frogs. bioRxiv. https://doi.org/10.1101/2023.06.19.545597


    11 | Westrick SE, Moss JB, & Fischer EK. (2022) Who cares? An integrative approach to understanding the evolution of behavioural plasticity in parental care. Animal Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2022.10.005


    10 | Westrick SE, Laslo M, Fischer EK. (2022) The big potential of the small frog Eleutherodactylus coqui. eLife. https://doi.org/10.7554/eLife.73401


    9 | Westrick SE, van Kesteren F, Boutin S, Lane JE, McAdam AG, & Dantzer B. (2021) Maternal glucocorticoids do not influence HPA axis activity or behavior of juvenile wild North American red squirrels. Journal of Experimental Biology. https://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.236620


    8 | Westrick SE, Taylor RW, Boutin S, Lane JE, McAdam AG, & Dantzer B. (2020) Attentive red squirrel mothers have faster-growing pups and higher lifetime reproductive success. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-020-02856-7


    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 the 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. https://doi.org/10.1093/icb/icw051

  • Teaching

    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

  • Fernando Nottebohm

    "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."

  • Outreach

    Fischer Frog Folks

    University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

    Check out all the community engagement activities we offer! As a member of the Fischer Lab, I've participated in community and school engagement activities to engage folks with poison frog research at events such as Genome Day, library visits, and visits with the Science Club at Rantoul High School.

    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."

    Women+ 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."

  • About Me

    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 with Dr. Kim Hoke, Dr. Lisa Angeloni, and Dr. Cameron Ghalambor - working with Trinidadian guppies. In 2015, I joined Dr. Ben Dantzer's lab at the University of Michigan to pursue my PhD - working with North American red squirrels in collaboration with KRSP. In 2020, I defended my PhD and started my postdoctoral fellowship with Dr. Eva Fischer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign - working with Neotropical poison frogs.


    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 fascinated with science and I hope to share that fascination with my students.


    As an individual, I love to explore the great outdoors. I enjoy hiking, cooking, knitting, baking, spending time with family, bragging about my brother, and volunteering at my local animal shelter. I'm passionate about improving conditions in academia to improve mental health and accessibility for all members of academia.


    My CV is available here.

  • Contact Me

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    Counting baby guppies!

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    Twitter: @sewestrick