March 08, 2010

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By Kathryn Kopchik

LEWISBURG, Pa. — A black and white seabird that inhabits rocky shorelines in the North Atlantic chooses its mate based on the brightness of their red feet, in turn improving the chances of healthier offspring, according to an award-winning research presentation by Bucknell University senior Nicole Marchetto.

Marchetto was honored for her research on the black guillemots with the Best Student Presentation award in the division of ecology and evolutionary biology during the January meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology in Seattle.

Red feet as a signal of health
Marchetto's research poster presentation, "Red Hot: Lipid peroxidation and color based assortative mating in black guillemots (Cepphus grylle)," involved two physiological aspects of the guillemot.

"Our group wanted to see if these birds were mating assortatively, based on the brightness of their foot color," said Marchetto. "We also wanted to find the level of oxidative stress in the body using a lipid peroxidation test."

The first part of the experiment involved analyzing the brightness of the birds' feet, looking at which mates they chose. Mark Haussmann, an assistant professor of biology at Bucknell, began studying the birds three years ago with students from Kenyon College, where he was a visiting professor.

"Nicole helped with the final stage of the project, which was measuring the bird's lipid peroxidation levels and comparing that to their foot redness intensity," said Haussmann.

"It turns out that they are mating assortatively based on the brightness of the foot color," said Marchetto. "We discovered that the brighter the red foot, the lower the level of lipid peroxidation, which means the bird has better preventative measures against oxidative stress.

"These pairs are picking mates who show themselves to be healthier, which means their offspring may be healthier. It's an exciting finding and we were excited to get that relationship," she said.

Undergraduate research
"Nicole's competition was mostly Ph.D. students from universities around the country, so we're very proud of her," said Haussmann. "Bucknell students have the opportunity to be involved in real research and to present it on a national stage."

In addition to the poster presentation in January, Marchetto co-wrote a review paper on the effect of stress on aging and telomeres, a bio-marker of aging, with Haussmann. "The paper was submitted to Current Zoology, a journal which focuses on evolutionary biology in animals. I was honored to work with him on that."

Dual majors
Marchetto will graduate from Bucknell in May with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology and a Bachelor of Arts degree in studio art. She plans to attend medical school.

A dean's list student, she recently was inducted into Phi Sigma honor society. She has served as secretary/treasurer of Omicron Delta Kappa national leadership honor society and vice president of Mortar Board national service and leadership honor society. "We do community service for two of the honor societies. For example, we read to students at the Lewisburg Library once a week in connection with Mortar Board."

As recent president of the Student Art Association, she helped inaugurate a project exhibiting student art works around campus. "One location is around the staircases in the library and photographs in the Bison, and on the second floor of the Elaine Langone Center. We also had an exhibit of photographs under the glass on the tables at Seventh Street Café," she said.

Marchetto tends to keep separate her work as a dual major in studio art and biology, finding that "with difficult science studies that I do here, art has allowed me to have an outlet, including a print-making class, an advanced painting class, and a sculpture class." Several of her works have been included in the annual student art exhibition in the Samek Art Gallery.

Contact: Division of Communications

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