CDB-REU research project opportunities and faculty research interests:

Faculty Research Topics
Anthony Darrouzet-Nardi Plant ecophysiology and soil biogeochemistry in the context of global change
Eli Greenbaum Herpetology and Molecular Systematics
Jerry D. Johnson Ecology and ecogeography of snakes, lizards, and birds

Arshad M. Khan

Brain and motivated behaviors, comparative neurobiology, neural imaging, circuit mapping, functional neuroanatomy
Camilo Khatchikian

Ecological Adaptation of Desert Mosquitoes

Philip Lavretsky

Filling important knowledge gaps in the ecology of the Mexican duck

Carl S. Lieb

Ecology and biosystematics, relationship between lizards and arthropods as hosts
of vector of the Malaria

Vanessa L. Lougheed  Aquatic ecology, ecological roles of ephemeral water bodies at IMRS
Rosa A. Maldonado Ecology of Disease
Jennie McLaren Plant community and ecosystem ecology.
Manuel Miranda  Characterize the architecture of retinal glycinergic cells from reptile retinas obtained on or adjacent to IMRS
Michael L. Moody Dr. Moody’s research focuses on the evolution, distribution, and molecular ecology of invasive and rare endemic plants.
Elizabeth J. Walsh  Evolution and ecology of freshwater invertebrates


Anthony Darrouzet-Nardi

Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences

Proposed Projects:

Research in the Darrouzet-Nardi lab primarily focuses on exploring plant ecophysiology and soil biogeochemistry in the context of global change factors such as climate change and nitrogen deposition. REU students will conduct projects at the Jornada Experimental Range, in the northern Chihuahuan desert near Las Cruces, New Mexico ( Depending on student interests, projects will involve a combination of field sampling, as well as laboratory incubations and experiments. Potential projects include (1) Quantifying carbon storage and partitioning carbon cycling processes among key organisms in the ecosystem: plants, soil microbes, and biological soil crusts. (2) Testing the “fungal loop hypothesis” which suggests that soil fungi are key controllers of element cycling in dryland soils. Students will learn skills in measuring plant ecophysiological parameters such as photosynthesis, both field and lab techniques for analyzing soil chemistry and quantifying microbial biomass as well as other ecosystem properties, and statistical methods for analyzing data. Students will work in close collaboration with Dr. Jennie McLaren and her research group.

Eli Greenbaum

Associate Professor, Biological Sciences

Proposed Projects:

Dr. Greenbaum proposes a summer training project for students to learn and utilize methods in evolutionary genetics, including DNA extraction, DNA purification,DNA sequencing, and analysis of data generated in his lab from blood samples collected from reptiles on IMRS or adjacent areas. This will include a wet-lab component to understand the importance of collections, reading of primary literature, critical thinking and 20-minute presentations about conservation.

Jerry D. Johnson

Professor, Biological Sciences

Dr. Johnson’s research program is focused on population/community ecology of selected species of lizards and snakes using mark-recapture techniques associated with pit-fall trap arrays and radiotelemetry technology, as well as using photographic surveys and plant community analysis for an ecogeographic study of bird communities comparing permanent and ephemeral water sources.

Significance of the work:

The Chihuahuan Desert is probably the least studied desert in North America, especially in regards to population ecology and ecogeography of its herpetofaunal and bird communities. We have been researching lizard and snake ecology for several years and continue to discover unique ecological attributes, especially in respect to lizard demography, behavior, and interrelationships between species, and by the use of radiotelemetry to focus on home ranges and dispersion of snakes within habitats and microhabitats. Very little is known about how birds use habitat patches in the Chihuahuan Desert, especially reasons for their utilization of different water sources based on vegetational differences between sources. 

Research questions:

Specifically, our research will address the following questions:

  • What are the ecological parameters relating to lizard home ranges, habitat preferences, growth, reproduction, longevity, and symbiosis with other species determined by mark-recapture data gathered from pit-fall trap arrays?

  • What are the ecological parameters relating to snake home ranges, movement patterns within home ranges, habitat and microhabitat preferences, reproduction, and symbiotic relationships with other species determined by data gathered using radiotelemetry?
  • How do differences in habitat types affect the distribution of bird species between permanent and ephemeral water sources?

Methods to be learned:

Summer students will use a wide-range of techniques to conduct their studies depending on particular project they get involved with. Students interested in lizard ecology will learn techniques associated with building, maintaining, and running pitfall trap arrays. They will also learn how lizards are marked for later identification, processesed after capture, and how and when to release them back into the grid. Students involved in snake radiotelemetry will learn how snakes are captured, permanently marked with Pit Tags, observe the method of radio implanting, and how and when to release them back into the wild. In addition, students will learn how to use telemetry units to locate and take data on snakes in the wild. Lastly, for those students interested in the ecogeographic study of birds, they will lean proper techniques to locate and photograph birds in the wild and how to analyze vegetation plots associated with permanent and ephemeral water sources. All students will learn how data is taken, analyzed, conclusions reached, and presented in a poster seminar.

Arshad M. Khan

Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences

Dr. Khan directs the UTEP Systems Neuroscience Laboratory. One of the goals of Dr. Khan’s research is to understand the structure-function relationships that link brain structures to motivated behaviors, such as foraging for food and water, reproduction and aggression. As an Affiliate Faculty Member of the EEB program in biology, Dr. Khan is seeking to understand how animals inhabiting the Chihuahuan Desert have evolved specific neural networks that help them behave adaptively in xeric environments to perform such behaviors.

Proposed projects:

The projects to be undertaken by REU participants will all involve a combination of field and lab work: first, to observe and document behaviors of reptiles or mammals at IMRS, and second to histologically process brain tissue from animal specimens and to map key nerve cell populations in their brains using multi-fluorescence microscopy. Students will learn basic ethological techniques to document animal behaviors, and state-of-the-art neuroanatomical techniques to section, stain, and image brain tissue. The goal of the project would be to link key areas of the brain (in terms of both structural and functional activity markers) to certain behaviors, including foraging, feeding, drinking, aggression, territoriality, and mating. These projects will contribute to a larger dataset being gathered for a Comparative Brain Cartographic Project being conducted by the UTEP Systems Neuroscience Laboratory, and students have the potential to present and publish the results of their completed projects in scientific meetings and journals.

Significance of the projects:

The best-studied nervous system architectures in vertebrates are those of laboratory rats and mice. Little is known, however, about the precise neuroanatomical organization of behavioral control regions in the brains of other mammals or other vertebrates, especially reptiles.  Even less is known about such animals in their natural habitat. The projects undertaken by REU students under the supervision of the UTEP Systems Neuroscience Laboratory are designed to bridge the gaps in our knowledge concerning non-rodent mammalian and lower vertebrate nervous systems, and to gain a greater appreciation of how the brain has evolved in animals that have adapted to the unique environment of the Chihuahuan Desert. More generally, the data obtained from these studies can aid in understanding the behavioral adaptations desert animals have acquired and how their nervous systems are organized to control such behaviors. Understanding such information, in turn, may help us identify common organizational principles of the brain that have remained highly conserved during the course of evolution.


Philip Lavretsky

Assistant Professor, Biology

Very little is known about the Mexican duck, which is endemic to North America. The Mexican duck ranges from Pueblo, Mexico through the highlands of Mexico and into southern New Mexico. Although estimated around 55,000 individuals, they remain a conservation concern due to habitat loss along with interspecific competition with a sister species, the mallard. The focus of the project will be to fill in important gaps in nesting ecology and habitat use of Mexican ducks. Specifically, potential REU students will work in several wetland areas around the greater El Paso region to find and track breeding females and nest success. Students will also be exposed to collection methods and colleting of wild Mexican ducks and mallards in order to band, take morphological and phenotypic measurements, and obtain blood for genetic analyses. Students will obtain experience working with wild birds, an understanding of and contribution to the ecology of a poorly understood species, and the importance of collected banding and genetic data in regards to conservation, in general.

Camilo Khatchikian

Assistant Professor, Biology

Proposed projects:

Females of desertic species of Aedes mosquitoes lay their eggs in crevices and depressions that are filled with water after a rainfall and where the larvae develop. Larval development time varies from weeks to months, depending on temperature, habitat quality, resources, and larval density. The larva, in contrast with the relatively durable egg, is not able to survive if the habitat dries out due to drought conditions. However, in some species not all eggs hatch at the same time, but hatch progressively after subsequent hatch stimuli inundations. This effectively scatters the egg cohort though time, and has been suggested as an evolutionary response to biological factors (such as competition) and to physical factors (such as desiccation), or more generally, as an adaptation to unpredictable environmental conditions. In such context, it has been proposed that the group has a “bet-hedging” (do not put all your eggs in one basket) strategy that reduce the risk that a rapid drying up of the larval habitat terminates all of the reproductive effort of the season. Interesting work have been done analyzing various ecological responses of mosquitoes adapted to template climates, but much ecological work is lacking to understand the life history strategies that allow desert mosquitoes to survive in such hostile environment.

The project intend to assess the taxonomic identity, phenology, and responses to environmental conditions of local mosquitoes existing in the IMRS. The work will involve an initial survey of breeding habitats and the subsequent deployment of traps to collect adults and eggs at selected locations. Samples will be taken to Dr. Khatchikian’s laboratory at UTEP, where they will be examined, including species’ identification and hatching response over time among other variables. The student will learn how to manipulate properly the samples, and how to collect and analyze the data using a variety of statistical approaches. The student will have the opportunity to present the data at students and/or professional scientific events. The data collected in this project will certainly be included in future scientific report(s).

Carl S. Lieb

Professor, Biological Sciences

Lizard malarias (Plasmodium sp.) are known from several different kinds of lizards, mostly from species that occur in tropical regions of the world, but also with some temperate and subtropical zone lizard species as well (Schall, 1996). Limited research on the transmission of the parasite to lizards has suggested the vectors are parasitic chiggers and mites (Bulte et al., 2009) and blood-feeding dipteran insects other than (or in addition to) mosquitoes (e.g., sand flies of the genus Lutzomyia, Ayala and Lee, 1970).  Transmission by chiggers seems unlikely, as these immature stages of free-living mites typically feed on integumentary fluids rather than blood.  Nevertheless, there are considerable logistic difficulties in linking the ability to host malarial infections among any given assemblage of blood-feeding dipterans; these difficulties are being enhanced by the spread of non-native mosquitoes and poorly understood species distributions of sand flies.

Germane to the roject described here, a single malarial species has been found in the Southwestern United States.  This form, Plasmodium chiricahuae, was described by S. R. Telford (1970) from Yarrow’s Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus jarrovi) in the Cochise Mountains of southeastern Arizona.   Since that time, this malarial species has been found in other Arizona Sceloporus jarrovi lizard populations (Mahrt, 1987, 1989), and putatively in the Tree Lizard (Urosaurus ornatus) and Crevice Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus poinsetti) from central Texas (Telford, 1978).   

Goals of the project:

1) Collect and identify mosquitoes and sandflies from habitats frequented by the Crevice Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus poinsetti) in western Texas and southern New Mexico, and in from the vicinity of the type locality of Plasmodium chiricahuae in southeastern Arizona (habitat for Sceloporus jarrovi).

2) Where specimens are taken that have ingested a blood meal, screen the ingested blood for type of vertebrate (e.g., mammal versus bird, reptile)

3) Screen as many individual vectors for the presence of the malaria organism, focusing on the sandflies from the host microhabitats.

Significance of the project:

Last summer’s (2013) REU student project on lizard malaria surveyed a variety of lizards and their ectoparasites for the presence of Plasmodium infections.  One of the findings of this study that the still unknown vector(s) for the disease in the only lizard impacted regionally (Crevice Spiny Lizard) were likely to be dipterans insects that occur in the humid microhabitats being used by the lizard as night refuges.  Specialized equipment will be needed to sample mosquitoes and phlebotomine sandflies from these microhabitats, and the identification of the latter will be challenging. Sandflies transmit a number of diseases to vertebrates, including human beings; the species involved in these transmissions are poorly known insofar as indigenous North American forms are concerned, and even more so for those that transmit diseases to reptiles. Additionally, although the mosquito genus Anopholes seems to have been mostly ruled out with respect to transmit of lizard malaria, other genera (e.g., Culex) have been suggested as possible vectors instead.   It is also possible that some invasive species of mosquito now prevalent in the Southwest that are already known to transmit an astonishing variety of blood-bourne pathogens to endothermic vertebrates, may eventually come to acquire ectotherm malarias as well.

Vanessa L. Lougheed 

Associate Professor, Biological Sciences

Dr. Lougheed is head of UTEP’s Aquatic Ecology Lab and PI of the Biology Green Roof. Research in my lab focuses on nutrient cycling (N, P, C); bioindicator development using plants, invertebrates and algae; and the use of remote sensing in monitoring ecosystem change. 

Project Description:

My research utilizes interdisciplinary approaches to improve understanding of the causes and consequences of ecosystem change, degradation and restoration. Two main projects are available for REU students:

1)         Examining ecological restoration at the Rio Bosque Wetlands Park, which is a wetland restoration project owned and managed by UTEP. This is a rare desert wetland that creates a unique environment for aquatic organisms in the Chihuahuan Desert within the city of El Paso, TX. Starting in 2016, water availability has become more permanent in the park, with water present during the summer months for the first time in over a decade, creating a unique research opportunity. REU students will examine water quality, aquatic macroinvertebrates and/or wetland plant communities in different sites and how they have changed over time in response to the restoration. Students could use Geographic Information Systems (GIS), if interested.

2)         Tracking plant structure and function on the UTEP Green Roof. The UTEP Green Roof was created as a platform for both research and education in 2009, and reopened in 2016 (after repairs). Students can look at the growth and success of native plant species, how these can be tracked using automated technologies, and how Green Roofs can mitigate the effects of climate change through carbon uptake.

Jennie Mc Laren

Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences

Dr. McLaren's research focuses on effects of vegetation communities on ecosystem properties using techniques from both community and ecosystem ecology. Projects include identifying relationships between desert plant community composition and ecosystem functioning. Please see further description of research interests at

Proposed Projects:

Research in my lab primarily focuses on exploring how changes in plant community structure influences the way that ecosystems work. Depending on student interests, projects will involve a combination of field sampling, as well as laboratory incubations and experiments. Students will learn skills in field plant survey techniques, both field and lab techniques for sampling soil chemistry and microbial activity and other ecosystem properties, and statistical methods for analyzing data.

Potential projects will focus on the effects of woody plants in controlling soil carbon processes in Chihuahuan Desert. There has been a dramatic increase in the cover and abundance of woody plants in numerous ecosystems worldwide, including arctic tundra, grasslands and desert ecosystems.  “Restore New Mexico” is a large scale woody plant removal in New Mexico, being maintained by the USDA and BLM, with the ultimate goal of restoring desert grasslands. Students will examine the influence of woody shrub removal on nutrient cycling and microbial processes in soils in these Chihuahuan desert ecosystems, focusing on impacts on C-cycling.

Rosa A. Maldonado

Associate Professor, Biological Sciences

Ecology of disease - Chagas’ disease or American Trypanosomiasis is caused by the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, and it is one of the most lethal infectious diseases in Latin America. It can be transmitted to the population by triatomine insects popularly known as kissing bugs (natural transmission), blood transfusion and organ transplantation. Chagas disease is an emerging disease in the USA due to increasing immigration from endemic countries as well as recent cases of natural infection. It is a potential threat for recipients of blood transfusion and organ transplant. Patients with Chagas’ disease may die from heart failure associated with cardiomyopathy during the chronic phase of the infection.

In Southern Texas there have been reports of dogs with acute Chagas’ cardiomyopathy as well as kissing bugs infected with the parasite. Recent preliminary studies carried out by Prof. Steve Aley (UTEP) in the Texas border region of Big Bend showed triatomines infected with some species of trypanosomes (personal communication). Furthermore, our group detected an infected kissing bug in the metro area of El Paso.

The goal of this research is to determine the prevalence of infected kissing bugs at the IMRS as well as to identify the triatomine species that serves as vector of the disease in this region. In the REU program the students will be involved in an ecology of disease project, in which they will learn field and molecular biology methodologies. The study proposed will have several phases:

  1. Collection of kissing bugs [Field work at IMRS and/or El Paso County]
  2. Morphological and molecular (PCR) identification of the insect species [Taxonomy and Molecular Biology]
  3. To determine if the insect is infected with T. cruzi (PCR). [Molecular Biology]Mac

Manuel Miranda

Associate Professor, Biological Sciences

Dr. Miranda’s research interests focus on structure-function relationships and trafficking mechanisms of neurotransmitter transporters. In the central nervous system of vertebrates, the neurotransmitter transporters regulate the intensity and duration of neuronal signaling and therefore functions such as vision, pain perception and breathing among others.  In the laboratory we investigate molecular and biochemical features of these transporters, and the location and connections of the cells carrying these proteins. 
Characterization of glycinergic cells in the retina of frogs and snakes from the Chihuahua desert


In mammals, fibers and terminal regions most immunoreactive for two glycine transporters (GlyT1 and GlyT2) are found throughout the spinal cord, brain stem and cerebellum. Interestingly, GlyT1 is expressed at higher levels in glycinergic amacrine neurons from the retina, where GlyT1 is juxtaposed to glycine receptor containing postsynaptic specializations. However, the fine location and architecture of glycinergic cells is poorly understood for lower vertebrates, such as amphibian and retile groups. To shed light into the fine location of glycine transporters expression, the goal for this summer project is to perform a comparative study of the cytoarchitecture of glycine transporter expressing cells in between lower vertebrates such as  frogs and snakes with more evolved vertebrates like rodents.

Significance of the work:

Unlike other neuronal pathways, glycinergic circuits have been poorly explored in mammals and completely unknown in lower vertebrates. Given that glycine transporters are essential for animal survival and the strength of clinical and pharmacological data suggesting GlyT1 and GlyT2 as a potential drug target in schizophrenia and pain perception, respectively, it is highly relevant to characterize the neuronal circuits containing GlyTs. In this study, we propose to use the retina as a model for the following reason: the retina is easy to obtain and enriched with GlyT1 containing synapses in mammals and highly specific antibodies against GlyT1 and GlyT2 are available in the laboratory. The results derived from this study will shed light into the basic architecture of glycine transporter containing cells in the amphibian and reptile retina, potentially providing insights into the role of glycine on vision in lower vertebrates.

Methods to be learned by students:

The students will gain experience in cell and molecular biology of the neuron, and skill the following techniques:
  • Immunohistochemistry and Fluorescence Microscopy.
  • Basic Tissue Culture Staining Techniques.
  • Biochemical Methods such as Protein Quantitation and Analysis.

Michael Moody

Assistant Professor, Biology

Dr. Moody’s research focuses on the evolution, distribution, and molecular ecology of invasive and rare endemic plants. The research topics available to REU students are: systematics, conservation genetic, plant DNA fingerprinting or population genetic techniques in desert ecosystems and population genetics of invasive plant species.

Projects-: The Chihuahuan Desert flora still holds some mysteries regarding species identification and distributions. A project will be to choose a group of plants, rare species or poorly known invasive and use molecular and field based methods to gain a better understanding of the plants of choice in Chihuahuan desert flora. These projects will help students learn skills in field survey techniques, the use of scientific collections and literature, genetic analyses, and statistical methods for analyzing data. The idea of the project is to have students develop skills in design and completion of a research project during the course of a summer.  

Elizabeth J. Walsh

Professor, Biological Sciences

Elizabeth J. Walsh (Professor, Biological Sciences): Dr. Walsh’s lab focuses on the evolution and ecology of freshwater invertebrates, especially of Chihuahuan Desert zooplankton. Her lab investigates how species adapt to temporary habitats in aridlands and how these adaptations lead to genetic differentiation and speciation. 

Proposed projects:

1.  Investigating how invertebrates dispersal and colonize aquatic habitats in aridlands.  In a past REU project, students constructed artificial ponds (mesocosms) at a local state park and monitored species colonization. Students will replicate and expand this experiment. The mesocom design will enable us to determine the relative roles of wind and insects in facilitating dispersal of the dormant stages of aquatic invertebrates. We will also monitor species diversity in sediment eggs banks in surrounding ponds as well as in dust collected on-site. Students will learn experimental design, how to identify common zooplankton colonists, and how succession occurs in temporary habitats.
2. Investigating life history adaptations to temporary habitats. Students will determine key life history features of selected zooplankton that inhabit ponds that vary in their permanence. For instance, production of a resting stage is critical in temporary habitats to ensure persistence of the population through drought. Students will determine whether populations from temporary habitats have higher diapause stage production than their counterparts in more permanent habitats. A variety of other features can also be tested (uv tolerance, desiccation resistance, timing of sexual reproduction).
3. Investigating biodiversity and cryptic speciation. Lake Lucero located at White Sands National Monument is a remnant of an ancient lakebed, geochemically distinctive and geographically isolated. These three features combine to facilitate speciation. Recently, we isolated four morphologically distinct forms of the rotifer Brachionus plicatilis co-occurring in the lake. This species can be the dominant member of the zooplankton and thus an important contributor to its production and transfer of energy to higher trophic levels. Students will use both molecular tools (DNA sequencing) and lab experiments (microcosm competition experiments) to explore genetic variation and ecological differentiation among these morphotypes.
4. Investigating the Tree of Life using molecular tools. Rotifers are an enigmatic group of zooplankton. Although they are very important in nutrient cycling and trophic interactions in most freshwater habitats, little is known regarding their phylogenetic position. Students will use molecular techniques and morphometric analyses to investigate the phylogenetic position of a genus of sessile or colonial rotifers.  Students will collect field samples from springs in Big Bend National Park and other regional state and national parks. They will then isolate, amplify and sequence DNA from a chosen taxon. Students will learn how to construct phylogenetic trees from DNA sequence data. This project will contribute to a larger project recently funded by the National Science Foundation.