The Wilson Ornithological Society awarded Francesca Foltz, a biology senior, and her mentor Kristen Covino, assistant professor of biology, the 2020 Burtt Mentoring Grant for their project titled “The Feasibility of Using Excreta Samples to Quantify Hormone Levels in Breeding Gulls.”
Currently, the most reliable and common way of assessing hormone levels in birds is from blood samples, explained Foltz. “Analyzing fecal samples to quantify hormone levels is common in mammals,” she said. “But it’s not very common in avian species.”
“I think the value of doing research for undergraduates is gaining experiences to help them figure out what they want to do,” said Covino. Through this project, Foltz, who is planning to pursue veterinary school, is able to work with animal samples and learn more about animal physiology. She also has the opportunity to work with a veterinarian who is another collaborator on Covino’s project.
“I love all this,” said Foltz in reference to the experiences she’s gained while conducting research mentored by Covino. “I thought I was going to be in the lab running hormone assays all day,” but her experience has run the gamut. From learning how to use a freeze dryer, to changing the oil in a vacuum pump, to learning to solder and code, Foltz has connected on every curveball thrown at her.
After an extensive literature review, Foltz and her partner Alllie Waller, a junior biology major, identified the most common hormone extraction methods for avian species. “We’re working on trying to run our own tests against each other to see what extraction method works best,” said Foltz.
This project is part of a larger study led by Covino that examines how aggression is mediated by hormones in birds. “Something that’s very interesting about this species is that they are very aggressive during the breeding season,” said Covino. “Our work will help determine if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between hormones and behavior.”
Results from their work could be used by other scientists as an additional method to examine avian hormone levels; the results will also contribute to a deeper understanding of the species’ physiology and parenting methods.
The Burtt Mentoring Grant is named for Jed Burtt, a former president of the WOS, the second largest ornithological society in North America. “This grant is an opportunity and a reminder of the type of researcher and mentor that I want to be,” said Covino. “The grant’s namesake did such a good job at drawing out the best research from undergraduates, while also helping them develop as scientists.” As an undergraduate, Covino had the opportunity to meet and interact with Burtt, an experience that strongly impressed her.
Winning this grant was a validating experience for Foltz, who transferred to Loyola Marymount University as a sophomore. “Because of my health, I’ve taken a very non-linear route to studying at LMU,” she explained. “I did a GED for high school and then went to Marymount California University for a year to stay local for my health. So, getting this grant means a lot to me.”
In addition to winning the $1,000 grant, mentor-student teams are also funded for the student researcher to attend and present their research at a subsequent meeting of the WOS.
“Looking back at where I was when I started at LMU versus where I am now, I feel like I’ve grown so much in a short amount of time,” said Foltz. “I think that is a uniquely LMU thing that you get to have. It doesn’t feel like you’re cramming in a lot. It just feels like you’re taking advantage of every opportunity you can.”
Foltz speaks from experience. She is a biology teaching assistant, student researcher, participant in LMU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program, sorority member and part of the Crimson Players, an LMU improv group.
“I just love the entire Biology Department so much,” said Foltz. “Starting out in the general biology labs, you’re just thrown into it right away, but in the best of ways.”
It’s a sentiment that extends to her mentor. “Dr. Covino is the absolute best. She always has a fantastic attitude and is super passionate about what she does. She doesn’t coddle us. She’s a great example of what it means to be a researcher and scientist. You know she really wants to see her students succeed, both in the classroom and in the lab. It’s pretty empowering having someone like that in your corner.”