Colleen Miller

How did you initially get involved in research?

I first became interested in joining a lab my freshman year at UW. Following the advice of older students and my advisor, I emailed several professors whose work I found interesting. These faculty members were principle investigators that did work in a range of subjects. I decided to meet with two different professors, one of whom was Dr. Anthony Ives and his postdoctoral student Dr. Brandon Barton. After going through the interview process multiple times, I decided that I would work with Dr. Ives beginning the following summer.

What research did you participate in prior to your thesis research?

Prior to my thesis research, I participated in two separate projects in the Ives Lab. I initially worked at the Arlington Agricultural Research Station collecting population metrics of the insect community in soy, corn and alfalfa fields. This experience continued into the following summer during which I undertook my own project in collaboration with Dr. Barton studying the effects of light pollution and night warming on aphids and their predators. Fortunately, this experiment was successful and has resulted in an in-progress manuscript.

The summer after my junior year I decided to do a REU internship with Dr. Ives at his LTREB site at Mỳvatn, Iceland. During this summer I conducted routine sampling studying the population dynamics of the midge populations as well as my own project. I undertook an exploratory project to document the presence and possible influence of parasites on the midge population, which was previously unstudied. The success of this project led to further research and documentation of parasitism and its effects on population dynamics, which will continue on that site.

Colleen Miller in Iceland

Assisting with research on the ecological effects of fertilizers in Myvatn, Iceland.
In addition, I completed an internship in Dr. David Lovelace’s lab the fall of my junior year at the Geology Museum preparing Triassic fossils he had collected. I also completed a small research project during my study abroad experience through the Ceiba Foundation with Dr. Joe Meisel. I had a very strong research basis through the Biocore program, which emphasizes an understanding of research methodology, which was formational for my research experiences.

What led you to your thesis project, and which research questions did you seek to answer?

Since I had declared honors in the zoology major, I was required to complete an honors senior thesis. I connected with Dr. Benjamin Zuckerberg through his Climate Change Ecology class (Zoo 660). I decided to begin volunteering in Dr. Zuckerberg’s lab that winter under the mentorship of his graduate student, Mr. Christopher Latimer.

I aided with a metabolism study of wintering Black-capped Chickadees as my first experience. However, during this time I was also forming my own ideas of projects I could perform independently. I had previously taken the Museum Studies course (Zoo 405), which educated me about the immense resources in research museums. I was interested in climate change and through these combined experiences, I found my niche. All of these factors thus came together over a series of meetings into a project that attempted to answer questions such as “How can we look at climate change over time and space?” “How does climate change affect morphology?” “What species are key in measuring effects of climate change in North America?” The final question eventually became, “How is climate change correlated with the variation of Northern Cardinal morphology?”

Cardinal specimens
Northern Cardinal specimens that Colleen studied at the UW Zoological Museum.
Which research methodologies did you use to answer these questions?

In order to answer this final question, I measured approximately 600 Northern Cardinals from museums all over the United States. I focused on measurements of the bill and tarsus of the birds, but I took eight measurements of each bird three times total. This process took several months along with a good deal of collaboration with curators, collection managers and other museum personnel. After the measurements were completed, I then needed to learn how to code and conduct simple statistics in R Software (Stat 327 is an introduction to R). I then analyzed my measured data against climate data from the past century in R.

What were your research findings?

We found correlations between temperature changes over geographical and temporal gradients and bill size of Northern Cardinals. These exciting results and their connected data will lead to further exciting research in the fields of climate change ecology and morphology.

Colleen would like to acknowledge the generous support of Laura Monahan, Paula Holahan, and Emily Lannoye at the UW Zoological Museum.