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Faculty Research

The Biology Faculty members are always looking for highly motivated, excellent graduate and undergraduate students to work with us.

meshackDr. Meshack Afitlhile

I study the role of major chloroplast receptors in the import of cytoplasm synthesized enzymes, mainly fatty acid desaturases. In my lab, we work with several different mutants of Arabidopsis that have specific receptors that are not functional. Some receptors work together, and all are required for protein import. There are three major chloroplast receptors, and one is the most abundant. We expected the abundant receptor to be essential for lipid synthesis and desaturation, but it turns out it is quite the opposite. The less abundant receptors are essential for the biosynthesis of chloroplast lipids.
Samantha Workman
Dr. Afitlhile's Grad Student

chrisDr. Chris Jacques

I am a large mammal ecologist, studying pronghorn and other game species. I am collaborating with my colleagues at South Dakota State University on large mammal research across the Northern Great Plains. Specifically, we're working on several landscape level analyses evaluating site fidelity, home range size, seasonal migration, and survival of pronghorns as influenced by heterogeneity of landscape characteristics across western South Dakota. Additionally, I have been developing a pronghorn sightability model using data collected during my Ph.D. research and anticipate working collaboratively with South Dakota game managers to develop a white-tailed deer sightability model. I hope to complete an ongoing analysis predicting prevalence of meningeal worm in eastern South Dakota as influenced by climate data and landscape metrics soon.
Studying a white-tailed deer.

andreaDr. Andrea Porras-Alfaro

I am a fungal molecular ecologist interested in the biodiversity, function and evolution of fungal communities and the impact of global climate change on their interactions. In my lab, we take advantage of a wide range of molecular and traditional techniques to study fungal communities. We benefit from an excellent team of students and collaborators, including faculty at WIU, the University of New Mexico, University of California-Berkeley, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Forest Service, IDNR, Sandia National Lab and Los Alamos National Lab.

Symbiotic relationships between fungi and other organisms have a direct impact on ecosystem processes and health. For example, in arid regions and alpine tundra fungi provide tolerance to extreme conditions as well as nutrients to plants. Although plant mycobiomes (fungi associated with plants) are commonly found in association with many different plant tissues, very few studies have been conducted to demonstrate the role of these fungi in symbiotic associations. Understanding the mechanisms that allow plant and fungi to survive extreme environments has the potential of providing core data on how symbiotic microbial communities affect plant survival and their establishment in these extreme environments. I expect that our research will provide information about how global climate change may affect ecosystem processes and plant-fungal systems in arid regions and other ecosystems. 

andreaI am also interested in other fungal pathogens and symbionts, including the diversity and distribution of Geomyces species associated with bats. White Nose Syndrome (WNS) is a fungal infection caused by a novel fungus Geomyces destructans. This fungal infection has caused a massive decline in bat populations in the US and Canada. In my lab, we are currently monitoring the presence of WNS in Illinois and studying other fungal symbionts commonly found in bats and caves. 

Sampling bats in southern Illinois



 You can learn more about Dr. Porras-Alfaro's research here:



ericDr. Eric Ribbens

For the past two decades I have been studying a small prickly pear found in the midwest, Opuntia fragilis. I also curate the herbarium at WIU, and I'm interested in teaching with active learning techniques, such as cases or clickers. I am also interested in herbarium digitization, and I am a scientist-mentor for the American Botanical Society's K-12 outreach program, "PlantingScience".

Opuntia fragilis is a small, cold-hardy cactus that grows in the upper midwest and throughout the west, extending into Canada almost as far as the Arctic Circle. In the midwest it is quite rare, and I have visited all but two or three locations where it is known to grow in five midwestern states. It usually grows on rocky outcrops, such as the one I am sitting on in the picture to the left. Here in the midwest the plants will ericsometimes produce flowers, but the flowers never set seed. This is due to a form of self-incompatibility, in which the plant recognizes and inhibits the growth of pollen from itself. Probably the genetic variation in this trait has been lost in the midwest, so I have never seen fruits with viable seeds in the midwest. It does reproduce sexually out west.

 You can learn more about Dr. Ribbens' research here:



Dr. Tim Spier

Dr. Spier is an Ichthyologist, studying especially big-river fish. "Right now, I have 3 students who are working on the diets, growth, and survival of sportfish (saugeye in Argyle Lake and largemouth bass in Spring Lake and the Emiquon Nature Preserve). Information from these studies will help manage these species and understand the differences in food webs in diverse habitats. We are also studying the invasive common carp in these systems in order to figure out ways to reduce or eliminate the carp. I have another student working on the influence of water quality on the response of fish when exposed to alarm pheromones. Many species of fish are sensitive to alarm pheromones which warn them of nearby predators, but this response might be influenced by degradation of water quality. Finally, we are studying sedimentation and water quality of Spring Lake. This lake gets a lot of sediment from the watershed, and we are hoping to determine where we can apply soil conservation techniques to reduce the sedimentation, which will benefit the lake in many ways."





jeanetteDr. Jeanette Thomas

Dr. Thomas studies the bioacoustics of mammals, both terrestrial and marine, with an emphasis on airborne and underwater hearing and echolocation abilities.  Most of these studies have been conducted on animals at zoos or aquaria (see Laboratory of Sensory Biology). She also studies the effectiveness of behavioral enrichment at zoos and aquaria. "Several of my students have studied whether animals in public display exhibits have adequate choices of ambient temperatures and how the season, age, sex, and species of an animal affects it thermoregulation." Finally, Dr. Thomas and graduate students have studied the effectiveness of educational programs at public display facilities."


Dr. Thomas adds, "In 2002, the Department of Biological Sciences at WIU established a Graduate Certificate in Zoo and Aquarium Studies to provide students with specific skills needed to work at a zoo or aquarium. Graduate classes include animal training, biological studies in zoos & aquariums, zoo management, a zoo practicum and a variety of electives. The program continues to grow, with about 30 students per year coming from over 30 states in the US. Students can combine these credits into a master’s degree in biology."




Working with a sea lion.