Mentor List

Mentor List

Mentor List

Below is the list (in alphabetical order by last name) of graduate student mentors and a brief description of their research and opportunities to participate.  Please see the mentoring program page for details about the program format and goals.  This list is updated at the beginning of each semester (sometimes more frequently).

Graduate students: If you would like to update or add to this page, please contact Kate LeCroy (

Updated September 2017.

Alice Besterman
I am generally interested in intertidal coastal ecosystems, especially the distributions and trophic interactions of organisms in those environments. My current work focuses on the way in which macroalgal mats blanketing mudflats impact the spatial organization of trophic interactions among shorebirds, their benthic invertebrate prey such as polychaetes, snails, and amphipods, and the microalgal biofilms on which those invertebrates feed. I also study how these spatial dynamics result in animals acting as biovectors for marine bacteria which are pathogenic to humans (Vibrio spp.)

Mentees would gain experience with microscopy by handling and identifying benthic invertebrates and macroalgae. Mentees would also gain experience with general lab techniques such as drying and weighing organic samples. Mentees may also gain experience with spectrophotometry, the method used to quantify benthic microalgae. Mentees can begin immediately (fall 2017) and continue until work is completed, likely sometime next spring 2018. For now only volunteer positions are available; however, pay may become available dependent on funding.

Kate LeCroy
In the big picture, we want to “save the bees” — we’re seeking to understand the status of native and exotic solitary bees in Virginia. We’re doing this by interacting with citizen scientists all over the Commonwealth to collect nests of solitary bees, screen bees for disease, and estimate population abundances. The effects of stressors such as habitat loss, pesticide use, introduced species, and disease dynamics on bee populations are becoming increasingly well-documented, especially for the honeybee and some bumblebees. However, we still have not evaluated impacts of these stressors on wild populations of many native bee species that also provide critical pollination services to both our crops and our natural ecosystems. Mason bees (genus Osmia) are of particular concern, and we seek to track their populations. Mason bees readily nest in empty cavities in nature, and they have been found to use “bee hotels.” Bee hotels provide cavities for solitary bees as nesting resources, and they are popular among the public. These bee hotels may be of great utility for many of Virginia’s native bee species that are losing nesting resources due to habitat destruction and other pressures. However, bee hotels may inadvertently attract more non-native bees than native species, and they might serve as “hotspots” for disease spread among its inhabitants.

Bee hotels were distributed to 100 participants in spring 2017 and collected June 2017 for analysis of population distributions, relative abundances, and disease. This data will hopefully reveal information about the status of native and exotic wild bees. Students who are interested in gaining hands-on experience with careful dissections, documenting disease spread inside nesting structures, and learning more about native bee nesting habitat structure are encouraged to join our team! A student joining our research group will assist us in opening up bee hotels that were placed out all over the state. Mason bees will be in a dormant (inactive) phase, and we will open up their cocoons for species identification and disease screening. The student will also have the opportunity to visit a UVa Environmental Sciences field station and meet other research faculty and students, schedules permitting. Most importantly, the student will be considered an integral part of the project’s success while receiving high-quality mentorship

Ariel Firebaugh

Artificial light pollution is a growing ecological threat. Streetlights, overlit buildings, skyglow, and other anthropogenic sources of light pollution already affect 20% of the terrestrial surface of the Earth, and are increasing spatially at a rate of 6% per year. Ecologists are only just beginning to understand how light pollution may be impacting individual species, their larger communities, and ecosystem function; however, the biological impacts of light pollution are expected to be strong because light/dark cycles serve as critical organizers of biological activities.
Our group studies how arthropods may be affected by light pollution. During summer 2015, we collected insects and other arthropods in plots that received either light pollution (lit) or no light pollution (dark) treatments. We need help identifying these specimens during Spring 2016. Interested students will develop a strong skillset in insect and arthropod identification. No prior experience is required, but an attention to detail and curiosity about the natural world would be a plus!

Kelcy Kent
Ecology/Molecular Ecology

Mangroves make up a vital coastal ecosystem that provides invaluable services such as sediment stabilization, water filtration, wave and storm energy attenuation, and increasing biodiversity/supporting fisheries by acting as a nursery for innumerable aquatic species. Climate shift and global warming has set a path for global ecosystem shifts, one of these being the northward and inland mangrove migration/displacement of salt marshes by mangroves. Many abiotic factors play an important role in determining whether or not new areas can be successfully colonized into a mangrove mangle, but the role of genetic diversity is still largely a mystery.

My current proposed work employs molecular ecology for coastal ecology and population studies. I plan to study reproduction patterns in mangrove populations along the Florida and Texas Gulf Coast in order to assess changes in frequency of self-pollination vs cross-pollination, comparing breeding patterns in new/leading edge populations and historic/within-range populations. I hope such work will aid in predicting future mangrove expansion and colonization, ultimately aiding in the proper management and conservation of northern salt marshes and mangrove forests in response to coastal ecosystem shifts.

Students will be trained in molecular ecology lab skills (DNA extractions, pipetting, making working stocks of DNA, electrophoresis, etc.) and will learn about the application of molecular ecology to large-scale ecological studies. Will mostly entail hands-on lab work and discussing experimental design. Opportunities for field work available depending on student motivation, interests, and summer schedule. If you are interested, please shoot me an e-mail including a brief description of relevant experience or relevant courses, and a summary of availability.

Atticus Stovall

The global aboveground storage of carbon across the Earth’s surface is primarily held in forest ecosystems. Whether you are considering forests from tropical to boreal regions, confident estimates of carbon storage can help us understand forest function and their role in the global carbon cycle. However, our current knowledge of the location of forest carbon has high uncertainty – most plot level carbon measurements are not measurements at all, but estimates based on a small number of accurately measured trees using the difficult and time consuming process of destructive sampling. Clearly, accurate estimates of forest carbon will lead to reduced uncertainty at the global scale, but this goal cannot be realized without a better way to measure the carbon of individual trees.

My research is focused on addressing the high uncertainty of terrestrial measures of forest carbon. I use a newly developed instrument – terrestrial LiDAR – to three-dimensionally model the volume and structure of individual trees for estimating carbon. Detailed models of trees have the potential to revolutionize the way we measure and understand the forest. The novelty of this project and technology has produced several potential research opportunities:

  1. The student will use terrestrial LiDAR to model trees and create local allometric relationships of biomass carbon in the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s SIGEO forest plot. These relationships will be used to model biomass carbon across the forest. The environmental drivers (e.g. topography, competition, etc.) of biomass variation are of particular interest in this research and will be investigated.
  2. The student will use terrestrial LiDAR to model individual tree and forest plot vertical structure in the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s SIGEO forest plot. 14 1/10th ha plots have been measured with LiDAR. The relationship between the structure of individual trees and biomass will be determined at each plot location. The plot level biomass estimates will also be related to plot level vertical forest structure.
  3. I am open to discussing other potential projects involving terrestrial LiDAR that the student may be interested in pursuing.

Jon Walter

I am broadly interested in how populations and communities of plants and animals change through time and from place to place, why these changes occur, and what this tells us about how to mitigate species loss, the spread of invasive species, and the loss of system stability and function. I am currently working on a few topics in population/community/invasion/conservation ecology, including: a) Long-term patterns of bird population dynamics across North America, the role of climate change in driving changes in bird populations, and implications for spatial conservation planning; b) variation in Allee effects, a phenomenon causing slow population growth and extinctions of small populations, and the consequences for conservation and invasive species management; c) population dynamics of insect pests; d) Determining the structure of networks of populations linked by synchronous fluctuations in abundance. I am happy to work with students on any of these topics. I primarily use analyses of existing data sets and mathematical models in my work, which means: a) if you’re looking for field or lab experience, I’m not your best contact; b) most opportunities to work with me are either data prep (low commitment, low intellectual reward) or developing a research project aligned with my work (high commitment, high intellectual reward). Prior experience with tools like GIS and coding for statistics/mathematical modelling (R, Matlab, SAS) is NOT required, but if you want to do more than data prep with me you will learn one or more of these skills, or if you know them a little your proficiency will increase. I will help you learn them, and these skills are highly desired by employers and academics (if you’re considering graduate study) so they are often worth the investment. However, it does take effort for you and for me, so you should be willing to make that investment.

When: Spring or fall semesters, summer 2018.
How: Volunteer or academic credit during Spring 2018. There is a high likelihood I will have an opening for a paid position during summer 2018.

Amber Slatosky
I study how bumble bees respond physiologically and behaviorally to parasitic infections caused by a parasitoid fly (Diptera:Conopidae). Bumble bees are social insects that form colonies each year.; queens emerge from hibernation in the spring and found colonies by producing worker bees. The colony grows until the queen produces daughter queens and males. These daughter queens hibernate through the winter until they emerge the following spring to found their own colony. Conopid flies attack bumble bees in the summer while the bees are gathering resources for their colony. The fly lays an egg in the bee and the bee continues to forage. Later, the egg hatches and a larva begins to grow within its bumble bee host. As the fly grows, the bumble bee experiences some changes to how it forages and how long it remains away from the colony. When the larva has finished growing, it causes the host bee to dig into the soil. The larva then pupates and hibernates underground within its host until the following summer.

Mentees working with me will learn: 1) about host-parasite interactions 2) how to identify and safely handle bees 3) how to identify parasites in bees.

Depending on the season, mentees may learn 1) How to use RFID technology 2) How to rear bumblebees in captivity 3) How to test immune function in bees.

Between Feb-May (spring semester) a mentee would learn how to rear bumble bee colonies in captivity and earn academic credit through observations of colony development. In the summer, students may volunteer at Blandy Experimental Farm and assist in monitoring these colonies as they are exposed to parasites. RFID technology and video monitoring are used to identify changes in bee behavior. In the fall semester, students may gain academic credit assisting in a disease transmission experiment. You may determine your own level of involvement in this project– from volunteering a few hours a week to having your own project that uses this study system. I am an experienced mentor.

Please contact me by email and let me know which season(s) you are interested in and what your availability looks like.