By Jaclyn Lipp
Spending days outside on a farm with horses and alpacas isn't just an enjoyable job for one Ohio University student -- it's part of a research project that may provide clues about the evolution of mammals.
Kristin Stover, a senior biological sciences major in the Honors Tutorial College, is finishing her senior thesis on the effects of body size on feeding behavior in horses and alpacas.
Stover's thesis developed from research conducted by her adviser, Susan Williams, an assistant professor of anatomy in the College of Osteopathic Medicine who studies growth and structure of head muscles and bones involved in feeding. Under the direction of Williams and Scott Carpenter, director of Laboratory Animal Resources at Ohio University, Stover also holds a Program to Aid Career Exploration (PACE) job that allows her to gain experience with taking care of the research herd of alpacas and goats.
To conduct her research, Stover first takes measurements of the alpacas' jaws. She then uses electrodes implanted in the animals' jaw muscles to record the electrical impulses fired when the muscles contract during chewing. Stover and Williams also film the animals to study jaw movements. Their goal is to determine whether chewing rates and muscle activity increase proportionally with changes in body size.
The evolution of chewing influenced the evolution and diversification of mammals, including the way that heads of mammals changed over time.
"Most other animals, like a shark, for example, rip something apart and swallow it. A snake even swallows food whole, whereas we actually pick a side and we chew on that side," said Stover, who will present her findings at the Ohio University Student Research and Creative Activity Expo May 14.
How did Stover, a native of Canal Winchester, originally become interested in research? Though she initially planned to go to veterinary school, a PACE position she held sophomore year pushed her in a new direction. In a locomotion lab run by Steve Reilly, a professor of biological sciences, Stover studied how animals such as hedge hogs and lizards walk and run. During her junior year, she worked on an independent research project looking at whether dogs use a "front wheel drive" or "rear wheel drive" type of gait. She won second place in her category at last year's Student Research and Creative Activity Expo.
"I wasn't expecting the results of my research last year at all, so that was kind of fun just to see what you end up with. Just because you didn't hypothesize correctly doesn't mean that you failed. You still found out something new. It's very rewarding and it's a lot of fun to get to play around with new techniques," Stover said.
Stover next will pursue graduate studies in marine biology at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and hopes to become a research professor.
"Coming in, I really didn't know what research entailed. Working your way into that world takes awhile, but I definitely think it's worth it. You get to ask your own questions and find out things that people haven't even thought of before," Stover said.
Having an undergraduate researcher in the lab can be a valuable and rewarding experience for faculty members, too, Williams said.
"These students have been incredibly insightful and helpful," she said. "They've allowed me to really engage undergraduates and have opened me up to a bigger part of the university. I'm very grateful for that."
Updated May 15, 2009