UMSL biology major Serene Darwish received a College of Arts and Sciences Research Grant to study the kiskadee bird population in Guyana. (Photo by August Jennewein)

When Serene Darwish made the switch from pre-med to biology she knew it was a better fit, but the move came as a surprise to her family. Now, any lingering doubts have been quashed.

Darwish, a resident of Florissant, Mo., and a junior biology major at the University of Missouri­–St. Louis, will spend 42 days in Guyana examining the mating songs of the great kiskadee bird population. Her summer research excursion comes courtesy of a $1,000 College of Arts and Sciences Research Grant.

“I was originally pre-med, and this semester I knew it wasn’t for me. And I knew I had a passion for animals,” she said. “I’m trying to prove to my family that I have passion for this. I know I can do it.”

Darwish was one of six undergraduates to receive this year’s grants. The college created the grant program last year in order to promote undergraduate research. A faculty and student review committee selected six undergraduates to receive funds to help them complete their research activities.

Darwish’s project, “Identifying contact zones in Guyana for great kiskadee populations through differences in unlearned loud songs,” will be overseen by her research mentor Godfrey R. Bourne, associate professor of biology. Bourne will also be in Guyana this summer conducting bird research, something he does every summer.

“I’m seeing if there is evolution occurring with the kiskadee species, by looking at differences in their mating songs,” Darwish said. “If we notice a difference in the songs, than we know the birds are changing. They are evolving.”

Each kiskadee subspecies has somewhat complex unlearned loud songs. Essentially, the birds are hatched knowing certain songs and are unable to learn new ones. She’ll be looking to see if their physical environment is favoring certain elements of the loud song while selecting against other song elements, thus influencing geographical clustering of song types.

“If their homes are changing structurally this might influence nature selection to accentuate differences in their songs, especially with mating related to female choice of males as mates,” Darwish said.

Her research findings will help determine if there’s something going on with the bird’s gene flow among neighboring populations and let researchers know if the species will be endangered soon.

This is her first excursion into field research, which has her equally excited and nervous. The grant money will be used for travel expenses.

Her take-away from winning the grant is never underestimate your strengths.

“If you don’t try you won’t know,” she said. “This encourages me to try even harder and try other things.”

Five other students in the College of Arts and Sciences won research grants: Sean Cristea for “Investigation of Methods to Predict DNA Curvature in Viral Genomes,” Eleni Goranitis for “The Effects of the Alzheimer’s Amyloid-Beta Protein on the Inflammatory Response,” Hung Nguyen for “Systematic Study of Photoresponsive Structure-Behavior Relationships in Cyanometalates,” Bojana Opacic for “Overexpressing IAA biosynthesis rescues mutants with low IAA phenotypes” and Matthew Queensen for “New Chiral Organometallic Iron Catalysys for C-C and C-Si Bond Forming Reactions.”

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Myra Lopez

Myra Lopez