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Pink owls?

NMU biology grad student wins Three Minute Thesis

Plumage in the long-eared owl is the subject of Northern Michigan University graduate student Emily Griffith’s research and Three Minute Thesis. (Photo courtesy of Emily Griffith)
Feathers of long-eared owls glow pink under a black light. This is part of Northern Michigan University graduate student Emily Griffith’s research and the focus of her Three Minute Thesis. (Photo courtesy of Emily Griffith)
Northern Michigan University student Emily Griffith is this year’s winner in the graduate category in the Three Minute Thesis competition. She talked about plumage in long-eared owls during the competition. (Photo courtesy of Emily Griffith)

MARQUETTE — It was an enlightening subject, literally.

Northern Michigan University biology graduate student Emily Griffith won the Fourth Annual Three Minute Thesis competition on Monday, which was held virtually this year.

Her topic was “Sexual Dimorphism of Long-Eared Owl Plumage in the Ultraviolet Spectrum.”

If that sounds dull, consider that it focuses on pink owl fluorescence under a black light.

NMU’s graduate students and McNair Scholars presented their research in only three minutes in a language appropriate to a non-specialist audience, meaning that had to make it interesting and understandable.

Each candidate was limited to one static PowerPoint slide to help in the presentation of their original research.

The purpose of the McNair Scholars program is to help students in underrepresented parts of society prepare for their entrance in a Ph.D. program.

“This is my favorite event of the year because it’s all about the students, and the students do the talking and they tell us about their research and share some highlights with us,” said Lisa Eckert, dean of graduate studies and research at NMU. “They show off their knowledge and creativity, and we learn something along the way.

“This event highlights the

synergy between research and education and the magic that can happen when discovery and creativity combine into that ‘aha’ moment of clarity.”

Griffith studies birds, specifically their feathers, also called plumage, and the differences between males and females.

“When most people think about this, they think about birds like cardinals that have really, really bright-colored red males and more drab kind of brown females,” Griffith said. “But some birds and some species like owls, you can’t really tell the males from the females just by looking at them.”

That doesn’t matter to her.

“I’m not looking at birds in the visible spectrum,” she said. “I’m looking at them in a spectrum of light that we can’t perceive.”

Owls and specially her bird of study — the long-eared owl — can see in a wavelength of light beyond what humans can see, she said, noting that people can see only the visible spectrum.

On the other hand, owls can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, she said.

“Even more interestingly is that if you look at owl feathers under a black light, they will fluoresce a bright pink, which not only makes owls the best birds to party with, but also shows that they have a special type of pigment in their feathers that we necessarily can’t see,” Griffith said.

Her research involves looking at the feathers to discover if looking at these different pigment concentrations can determine if there differences between males and females.

She partnered with long-eared owl banders at the Whitefish Point Bird Observatory near Paradise, taking feathered tips from their banding efforts to genetically sex the birds. She uses the rest of the feathers to put into a high-performance liquid chromatography machine, which allows her to isolate the pigments that cause fluorescence and measure their quantity by visualizing them with a graph.

Griffith showed the graph in her presentation.

“So far, we’re finding that males actually do have a higher amount of fluorescence in these feathers than females do, which is super-duper interesting, and I’m super excited to see what the implications of this research may be on sexual signaling and how we understand plumage coloration moving forward in the future,” she said.

Griffith will compete at the Midwest Association of Graduate Schools competition. About 900 universities in 85 different countries participate in 3MT.

“I am honored to have been selected amongst all of the fantastic presentations that were given at the 2021 3MT competition,” Griffith said in an email. “It was fantastic to see my peers present their research — they are all doing such amazing things.”

Winners of the NMU 3MT competition were decided by a panel of judges consisting of local community members and research community. Audience members voted for their favorite presentation in the People’s Choice award category.

3MT was developed by The University of Queensland in 2008. The idea for the competition came about at a time when the state of Queensland was suffering severe drought. To conserve water, residents were encouraged to time their showers, and many people had a three-minute egg timer fixed to the wall in their bathroom.

As a result, the then Dean of the UQ Graduate School created the idea for the 3MT competition was born.

Runner-up among the NMU graduate presenters was Xochitl Delgado, whose presentation was titled “Fluoxetine as a Novel Treatment to Attenuate Cisplatin-induced Cognitive Impairments.”

The People’s Choice award went to Emily Klinkman, who talked about “Coordination Variability and Injury Risk in Experienced Collegiate Dancers.”

Winning the McNair segment was Stephanie Baklarz, whose presentation was titled “Effect of Foliar Applications of Methyl Jasmonate on the Terpene Content of Cannabis sativa L. as quantified by GCMS (global chromatograph mass spectrometer).”

Among the McNair Scholars, Ashley Martinez was runner-up for her presentation, “Culture of Remembrance in Austria about the Holocaust,” while Jalen Sims, who discussed “Alternative Materials of Architecture,” won the People’s Choice award.

The other participants were in the graduate category. They were: Tru Hubbard, “Carnivore Guild Structure: The Bobcat’s Role”; Casey Juntila, “Are You Infectious?”; Katie Elwell, “Functional Changes in the Anxious Brain’s Cerebellum Following Attention Bias Modification Therapy”; and Olivia Kingery, “The Sound a Body Makes: and Other Ruminations on Navigating Roadkill.”

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net

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