Dr. Sarah P. Saunders, postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Integrative Biology, believes that inspiration often comes when it is least expected. In her case, it came in the form of a pigeon.
“During college, I had a summer internship at World Bird Sanctuary outside of St. Louis, and one of my tasks was to clean the pigeon loft each week,” Saunders said. “On a particularly hot summer day in the pigeon loft, I watched a single bird search among a pile of sticks, retrieve a suitable specimen, and return it to his mate to construct her nest. He repeated this process for over an hour. This pigeon captured my curiosity that day, reminding me that every animal is a unique individual with a distinct personality. No matter how different pigeons and humans are evolutionarily, we are connected by our common basic behaviors, such as providing for our mates. Although I have always been interested in the biology of animal behavior, it was this realization that instigated my passion for conservation biology.”
Saunders received her bachelor’s degree in Biology from Washington University in St. Louis in May 2010. Following graduation, she began her PhD with Dr. Francesca Cuthbert at the University of Minnesota and completed her degree in March 2015. While a graduate student, Saunders also served as a conservation intern at the Minnesota Zoo for one year, studying tiger breeding success and cub survival. Saunders joined the lab of Dr. Elise Zipkin at MSU shortly thereafter, studying the dynamics of the eastern North American monarch butterfly population in the Department of Integrative Biology.
Since starting at MSU in the spring of 2015, Saunders has had five manuscripts published or in review, adding to her previous eight publications and six invited talks. Saunders successfully received independent funding from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Grant, and also was the co-author with her PI, Dr. Zipkin, on a major NSF grant that was recently awarded.
“Sarah is among the most talented, hardworking, and motivated young scientists I have ever met,” Zipkin said. “In addition to being highly productive, Sarah is extremely likeable, helpful to the graduate students in our lab, and a natural leader among her peers. She has an excellent future ahead of her.”
Her current research focuses on adapting cutting cutting-edge quantitative techniques for biological conservation. She is building integrative models which synthesize multiple data types and sources of uncertainty into a unified structure to assess future population viability and efficacy of potential management strategies for piping plovers – the birds she studied for her PhD at the University of Minnesota – and American woodcock, a game species of conservation concern. This research will provide a comprehensive framework for analyzing data on threatened populations and shaping conservation actions at regional to continental scales. Saunders said her research has helped shed light on ecological mysteries, aid in recovery of endangered populations, reveal mechanisms of species invasion, and address urgent conservation priorities.
“Effective species conservation depends upon understanding factors driving changes in population abundance and distribution through the advancement of statistical models, and developing and linking management approaches to empirical data to alleviate threats to species persistence,” Saunders said. “This two-part research goal has been, and will continue to be, my motivation throughout my scientific career. I plan to continue my development as a quantitative conservation biologist in a research agency. I am interested in working in either a government or non-government organization where the mission is focused on advancing wildlife conservation through rigorous scientific monitoring and research. I have really enjoyed working with long-term monitoring data and I hope to continue to do so to better understand the dynamics of threatened and declining populations.”
Outside of the lab, Saunders has been co-instructor for the graduate level Quantitative Methods in Ecology and Evolution course, developing course lectures, assignments, and in-class activities to enhance student learning. She is currently supervising and mentoring several graduate students in the Zipkin lab on a project for the Reproducible Quantitative Methods course that seeks to model population dynamics of game species of conservation concern.
The MSU Postdoctoral Excellence in Research Award is a $1,000 cash award. Saunders said she plans to use her award to purchase a new laptop computer with more advanced computational abilities.
“I am very honored to receive a 2017 MSU Postdoctoral Excellence in Research Award,” Saunders said. “I am most passionate about being able to directly impact the recovery of endangered and declining populations, whether it is through statistical modeling, publications, or on-the-ground management actions. Receiving this award means that others are just as excited about my research, and its importance to animal conservation, as I am. I love being able to help solve pressing ecological problems and this award further encourages me to keep developing statistical models to better understand the dynamics of at-risk populations across the United States.”
Dr. Andrew L. Eagle, postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Physiology, has always been fascinated by abnormal behavior associated with mental illness, particularly in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug addiction.
“I have both personal and professional interest in psychiatric disease,” Eagle said. “These disorders are serious problems and share many things in common, most notably we tend to see overlapping brain regions and circuits involved in these diseases. I find it fascinating that perturbation of similar brain networks can lead to very different outcomes. For example, susceptibility to depression in one case and addiction in another. I want to know why these diseases develop in certain individuals and the brain mechanisms that become dysfunctional after drugs and stress, both as an interested scientist and as a concerned citizen who sees a real problem in our society.”
Eagle began his academic career at Delta College and Central Michigan University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in Psychology, followed by a master’s degree in Experimental Psychology, and a PhD in Applied Experimental Psychology with Dr. Justin Oh-Lee in 2010. After completing his doctoral work, Eagle began his postdoctoral training at Wayne State University, studying behavioral neuroscience in the lab of Dr. Shane Perrine. He came to MSU in 2013, joining the lab of Dr. AJ Robison in the Physiology Department, where he studies the role of the transcription factor delta FosB in learning and memory.
Eagle has published 11 peer-reviewed articles, including eight during his time at MSU. He was awarded a position on the NIEHS Training Grant through the MSU Institute for Integrative Toxicology, and is currently competing for funding through K01 and R21 grants. Notably, Eagle won the prestigious National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression Young Investigator Award from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, in total, receiving enough awards to completely cover his time at MSU.
“Andrew is the exact type of independent scientist and leader that enhances the positive image of the postdoctoral experience at MSU,” Robison said.
His current research focuses on the neurobiology of psychiatric disease. His work takes a multi-faceted approach to examine the physiological and molecular mechanisms that underlie behavior, using animal models of psychiatric disease. Treatments that target activity changes in individual neurons, or groups of neurons, within a brain network can be transformative for the development of therapies for psychiatric disease, and possibly provide cures to lifelong diseases such as addiction and depression.
“You would be hard-pressed to find a person in the U.S. who doesn’t know someone close to them, such as a family member, friend, or co-worker, that is struggling with addiction or depression,” Eagle said. “I have family members and friends who struggle with these diseases and some of my closest friends have died from their drug addiction. I think we can attribute this growing problem to the stigma associated with mental illnesses such as depression and addiction. Therefore, it is my wish that my contribution to understanding the mechanism for these diseases can lead to more efficacious treatments. While we are still far from a cure for these diseases, this research is critical to paving the way for future treatments.”
Eagle is actively involved in the MSU neuroscience program, presenting research and educational outreach both within the MSU community and the broader East Lansing area. He regularly teaches undergraduate courses in neuroscience and psychology, and has independently mentored four students at MSU.
The MSU Postdoctoral Excellence in Research Award is a $1,000 cash award. Eagle said he plans to use his award to help cover the cost of the 10-year wedding anniversary trip he has planned for him and his wife.
“Receiving this award means that my research is respected and valued by my collegial peers, namely other postdocs at MSU,” Eagle said. “Postdocs keenly understand the hard work and determination to complete high-impact research, so it was a pleasant surprise to learn my peers value my work. Additionally, in research we often tend to become very secluded from other areas outside our field. Although I find my own work fascinating, it felt great to hear that others thought it was interesting as well. Finally, receiving this award from the MSU Postdoctoral Association and the MSU Office of the Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies reinforces the idea that the university is committed to supporting their postdocs who make a substantial, but often underrepresented contribution to the success of the university.”