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Alumna publishes undergraduate research in Zoology journal

September 18, 2014

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A biology and mathematics double major, Kristen Crandell B.A. ’09 has published her undergraduate research as the cover story in the journal Zoology. Working from field observations with Harvard University researchers in Costa Rica, she cowrote the article with Kellar Autumn, professor of biology and one of the lead researchers on gecko adhesion.

Crandell is currently studying bird flight biomechanics in a Ph.D. program at the University of Montana. We asked her to share more about her experiences at Lewis & Clark. 

What drew you to Lewis & Clark?

I was attracted to the exciting research opportunities and study abroad programs. I was drawn to a bunch of majors when I started, and loved the idea of being able to explore and take classes outside my field. The beautiful campus and Portland were bonuses. 

What’s unique about Lewis & Clark biology classes?

My first biology lab had us outside, measuring things, within weeks. Rather than repeating steps from a worksheet, we explored nature and learned critical thinking. Lewis & Clark fosters everyone’s creativity and independence. That’s more important than anything you can learn from a lecture. 

Tell us about your work with Kellar Autumn.

I worked in Kellar’s lab for three years, and I was given unprecedented access to research opportunities. I particularly appreciate being given free reign of lab space and equipment and being able to design my own project. This experience taught me how challenging and fun science can be. Thanks to Kellar, I spent a summer in Costa Rica doing research with a team of world-class scientists from Harvard University. That got me excited about all of the things we didn’t know and pushed me toward a career that would help me better understand our world.

What did you discover in Costa Rica?

In the summer between my junior and senior years, we studied many species of Anolis lizards in their natural environment. I lived in three research stations and hiked around the rainforest every day to catch lizards. We recorded several variables, including perch height and diameter. I measured the lizards’ adhesive performance on a portable force plate, then released them.

In the last month of that summer, I traveled to Harvard to image preserved Anolis specimens at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. These images let me measure a variety of traits of the toe and claw. With my field data, I compared attachment performance with toe and claw morphology and habitat use. I found several characters that appear to have coevolved. Most notably, I found that the adhesive toe pad (for smooth surfaces) likely coevolved with the gripping claw (for rough surfaces). 

How important to the field is the Costa Rica research you published in Zoology?

This paper is one of the first stabs at understanding claws, a defining trait within vertebrates. When I first started this research I was surprised that few people had bothered to look at claws—they’re everywhere! I hope my study inspires others to explore the functional importance of claws from an ecological and evolutionary perspective, but also with an eye toward robotics. 

What does it mean to you to be published in Zoology?

I’m excited about this paper because it represents my first real scientific experience. Most scientists couldn’t say they were able to publish a paper based on research they did as an undergraduate. 

What parts of your Lewis & Clark education stick with you?

Lewis & Clark taught me how to think critically and function independently. Those skills are more important than being able to regurgitate information from a text. Now that I’m a teacher myself, I’ve come to appreciate how great that is.

Caleb Diehl ’16 contributed to this story.

Biology Department Zoology journal

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