The Queen's University BGRS is an annual conference hosted for and by biology graduate students to share their research. For the 2021 virtual symposium, presenters have the option of giving a 15-minute live or pre-recorded, 5-minute lightning, or 15-30-minute lab group presentation.






Opening remarks: Dr. Brian Cumming

Land acknowledgement: Monica Garvie


Plenary speaker: Dr. Alex Little


Graham Mushet, Emma Eberl, Hana Thompson (15 minutes each)


15-minute break: Warrior Yoga


Riley Gridzak, Bridgette Simmatis (15 minutes each)


Isabella Asselstine, Sarah Gordon, Heather Vanderlip (5 minutes each)


Plenary speaker: Dr. Maria Aristizabal


Lunch break (30 minutes)


Poster session break-out rooms (30 minutes)


Keynote speaker: Dr. Andrea Reid


Emma Sinclair, Kristen Hayward, Thakshila Dharmasena (15 minutes each)


15-minute break: Warrior Yoga


Plenary speaker: Dr. Sarah Yakimowski


Meghan Hamp, Xinyu Sun, Hayden Wainwright, Lee Marie Raytek (15 minutes each)


Closing remarks: Dr. Virginia Walker

Understanding your responsibilities under the dish with one spoon wampum: Resource for todays land acknowledgement, provided by Monica Garvie


09:45-10:30 individual presentations

Graham Mushet (Cumming Lab)

Ongoing work in the Brian F. Cumming lab (PEARL)

The Paleoecological Environmental Assessment and Research Laboratory (PEARL) uses paleolimnological techniques to understand long-term environmental change. Here, we will highlight ongoing work on the Brian Cumming side of the lab. This includes decadal-scale paleolimnological analyses to understand the distribution and impacts of pollutants in the St. Lawrence River, and millennial-scale work at multiple sites throughout Canada to understand long-term climate changes and associated impacts on lake ecosystems.

Emma Eberl (Friedman Lab)

Ecological and genetic mechanisms of evolutionary transitions in plant reproductive strategies

Plants show incredible diversity in their reproductive strategies, and a central problem for evolutionary biologists is to understand the selective forces and genetic mechanisms that are responsible for the origins and maintenance of this diversity. Our research focuses on major reproductive transitions (such as the evolution of annual and perennial life history strategies, the evolution of polyploidy from diploidy, or the evolution of wind pollination from animal pollinated ancestors), and integrates field experiments with quantitative and population genetics, theory and comparative biology, to look at both phenotypic and genetic models of selection. Our research falls broadly into three themes. 1) We are investigating the evolutionary transition between annual and perennial reproductive strategies and the underlying phenotypic and genetic trade-offs between vegetative and reproductive allocation, and how climate change and pollinator loss impacts these associations. 2) We are using a combination of theoretical and empirical studies to examine the evolution of wind pollination and to understand the evolution of reproductive morphology that impacts the efficiency of pollen dispersal and pollen capture. 3) We are combining theory, comparative studies, and manipulative greenhouse experiments, to understand how the interaction between polyploidy and perenniality impacts the success of polyploid establishment, and whether polyploidy provides a mechanism to deal with the stress of urban living. Combined, our research provides an integrative framework for examining how plant reproductive diversity is the result of natural selection and adaptation, and how climate change and human-impacted environments might alter selection in the future.

Hana Thompson (Eckert Lab)

Why do species have range limits? Current research in the Eckert lab

Adaptation has produced the incredible diversity of species seen on Earth today, but no species lives everywhere. Why does adaptation often fail? Why do species experience geographic range limits rather than continuously expand through incremental adaptation? In the Eckert lab, we test theory-motivated hypotheses that seek to explain the ecological mechanisms that enforce range limits, and the evolutionary constraints that prevent range expansion. We study a variety of study systems, from the Pacific coastal dunes to the Canadian Rocky Mountains to the wetlands of Ontario. We answer our questions by conducting large-scale geographic surveys, experimentally translocating species, modelling species distributions, measuring natural selection, and assaying the genetic structure of populations. Plants are particularly interesting for this work because they evolve geographical divergence in important traits that influence adaptive capacity at range margins. Range dynamics are thought to be influenced by the amount and distribution of genetic variation at the range edge, which in turn is influenced by reproductive variability (sexuality vs. asexuality, outcrossing vs. self-fertilization) Plants often exhibit dramatic variation in reproductive mode, but the impact of this variability on range dynamics is largely unknown. A greater understanding of the factors that impose range limits is becoming increasingly important to better anticipate the capacity of species to adapt and potentially shift their ranges in response to anthropogenic environmental change, such as habitat loss and climate change. This is particularly relevant for managing Canadian species-at-risk because most occur as peripheral populations at their northern range limit in southern Canada.

10:45-11:15 individual presentations

Riley Gridzak (Aarssen Lab)
Small but mighty: strategies for small species coexistence
Plant competition is considered an important force for regulating species coexistence in highly productive communities. According to traditional theory, a large body size is indicative of a competitive advantage. However, this notion of a large mature size being advantageous (the ‘Size Advantage’ hypothesis) contrasts with basic observations that small species are ubiquitous and abundant within plant communities. If competition tends to be intense in natural, crowded environments, and large species are competitively superior, why are there so many small species? This question has been of interest to members of the Aarssen lab for the last two decades. Previous work has indicated that small species may avoid being outcompeted because of trade-offs large species exhibit, such as inefficient use of niche space (‘Physical Space Niche’ hypothesis), or failure to reach minimum reproductive thresholds (‘Reproductive Economy’ hypothesis). More recently, we have begun to explore questions regarding how small species in natural communities respond under various fertilization regimes, and under a competition gradient (Ph.D. Student Riley Gridzak). We are also exploring other mechanisms that small species may benefit from, including potential shade tolerance strategies of small species (M.Sc. Student Kelly Balfour), and small species altering their temporal niche by having an earlier flowering time window (Undergraduate Research Technician Zoe Kane). Examining the relationship of size advantages and species loss can also add to our understanding of ecosystem diversity and community assembly rules. This research can thus provide further applications to global issues such as plant community response to climate change or habitat loss.


Brigitte Simmatis (Smol Lab)

Paleoecotoxicology of invertebrate assemblages affected by varying degrees of metal-smelter impact (Sudbury, ON, CA)

Refined metals are important components of the Canadian economy and modern society; however, atmospherically deposited contaminants resulting from the processing of metal ores can leave persistent environmental legacies. In Sudbury (Ontario, Canada), historical smelting emissions acidified lakes with low buffering capacities and contaminated lakes adjacent to smelter stacks with a variety of metals. With subsequent mitigation efforts. numerous studies have demonstrated chemical and limited biological recovery in Sudbury lakes, however data on lake conditions prior to smelting operations are often unavailable. Paleolimnological techniques have been used to better understand changes in biological communities prior to smelting operations in Sudbury and, in the 1970s-1980s, was a crucial technique used to demonstrate the role of smelting emissions in anthropogenic lake acidification. Paleolimnology is the study of biological, physical, and chemical proxies in lake sediments to infer past environmental changes. Despite the diverse studies examining environmental change in the Sudbury region, little is known about long-term and pre-impact trends in invertebrate communities (cladocerans, Branchiopoda: Cladocera; chironomids, Diptera: Chironomidae). Aquatic invertebrates are central to aquatic food webs as trophic intermediates between algae and fish/invertebrate predators. Here, the modern distribution of cladocerans and chironomids relative to modern lake water chemistry are examined. Cladoceran assemblages were structured primarily by lake-water specific conductance, colour, and nutrient concentrations. In contrast, differences in chironomid assemblages were more subtle and primarily related to lake depth, water-column calcium, and water-column chloride concentrations. These data provide useful information for future environmental inferences from sedimentary cladoceran and chironomid assemblages in metal smelter-affected regions.

11:15-11:30 individual presentations

Isabella Asselstine (Bendena Lab)

Exploring the Role of Neuropeptide receptor 14 (NPR-14) in Caenorhabditis elegans Sleep Behaviour

Studies in human and animal models have revealed a causative link between instances of narcolepsy, a sleep disorder which presents with fatigue and episodes of cataplexy, and disruptions in the orexin signalling pathway. In C. elegans, a G-coupled protein receptor called neuropeptide receptor 14 (NPR-14) has been identified as a potential ortholog to the human orexin receptor-2 (OX2R). Previous phenotypic analyses of npr-14 knockout strains revealed a marked reduction in adult locomotion and mechanosensory stimulation compared to wildtype. These findings, along with the proposed orthologous relationship to OX2R, suggests that npr-14 is involved in the regulation of sleep in C. elegans. The Raizen lab has shown that C. elegans displays two distinct sleep pathways: the developmentally timed sleep (DTS) pathway, and the stress induced sleep (SIS) pathway. The objective of our research is to elucidate whether npr-14 plays a role in the DTS and/or SIS pathways. This will be achieved by observing DTS and SIS behaviour in npr-14 knockout worms alone and in combination with knockout and overexpression mutations of known components of either pathway. Results of this research may uncover epistatic interactions between NPR-14 and components of DTS/SIS, therefore suggesting its potential position within either pathway. Successful characterization of npr-14’s role in C. elegans sleep may provide a model system in which the pathology of narcolepsy and other fatigue-presenting conditions may be explored.

Sarah Gordon (Grogan Lab)

A Tale as old as Thyme: Temperate Mesic Old-Field Meadow Plant-Community Responses to Changes in Climate and Herbivory

Imbalances in the soil nutrients available to terrestrial plants could negatively affect food security, human health, global economic and political stability. Plants will have to adapt to increases in extreme droughts and alterations to plant community structure due to herbivory. Terrestrial ecosystem community structure is heavily influenced by soil nutrient availability, and plant communities are often co-limited by nitrogen and phosphorus. The grazing of herbivores can often influence plant productivity above-and-below-ground and alter community composition. This leads us to question how will plant community structure in a temperate mesic old field meadow site respond to gradients of moisture, nutrients and herbivory presence? To answer this question, I will be sampling from a mesic old field meadow site within the Queen’s University Biological Field Station this summer, where I plan to complete a full biomass harvest of the plots that have been maintained since 2010. These experimental plots were randomly assigned to one of 12 treatments which are a full factorial combination of three watering levels (reduced, control and added), two soil nutrient levels (control and fertilized) and two deer herbivory levels (ambient and control). My project is significant as it will have a particular focus on interspecific competition between native and introduced species, novel below-ground biomass harvesting, and soil pH measurements. It will integrate these additions with previous research to produce a study with over a decade’s worth of data on plant community response to climate change and herbivory in Southern Ontario.

Heather Vanderlip (QE3 Research Group)

Do bans work? Analyzing the effectiveness of the Stockholm Convention on legacy flame retardants in Canadian herring gulls.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) is an international treaty aimed at protecting humans and the environment from harmful contaminants. Among the various POPs, Halogenated flame retardants (HFRs) are an ongoing concern, as they are long-lasting in the environment, can be transported long distances from their sources, and have a variety of negative effects on human health and wildlife. They are used in everyday life and have become ubiquitous in the environment. My work aims to see if and when declines of HFRs are seen in the Canadian environment following their regulation on an international scale. I will use herring gulls as an indicator species, which have been used in long-term contaminant monitoring programs in Canada for nearly half a century. My work will test trends of contaminants over both space and time across Canada using breakpoint analyses, which allows us to pinpoint when changes are seen. By better understanding when contaminant burdens begin drop off following their regulation, policymakers may better understand when the best time to act is to better protect the environment from POPs.

14:00-14:45 individual presentations

Emma Sinclair (Bonier Lab)

Do endocrine phenotypes predict urban success in birds?

Urbanization of natural areas is increasing around the world, contributing to rapid biodiversity loss. However, while most wildlife disappears from urban habitats, some species survive and even thrive in cities, though the traits that allow them to do so are poorly understood.  Urban environments present wildlife with myriad challenges, which may limit the ability of some species to persist in cities. A key component of organisms’ ability to adaptively cope with environmental challenges lies in the function of several endocrine axes, which integrate external cues to produce physiological, behavioural, and life history responses, often with important fitness consequences. As such, evolved differences in endocrine phenotypes such as glucocorticoid and androgen levels may play an important role in determining how well species cope with urban challenges. To test the hypothesis that interspecific variation in endocrine phenotypes predicts species responses to urban habitat, I am performing a broad analysis of the association between three key endocrine traits and estimates of urban occurrence in 71 bird species from around the globe. This study provides the first ever among-species comparison of endocrine phenotypes across urban and non-urban bird species, offering novel insight into how evolved differences in endocrine traits may impact species’ ability to cope with ongoing urbanization. As the human population expands and many of the world’s natural habitats continue to be developed into urban environments, this knowledge will be crucial in understanding how wildlife will cope with our changing world.


Kristen Hayward (Lougheed Lab)

New ways of non-invasively monitoring Canada's polar bear populations

Effective management planning for polar bear (Ursus maritimus) subpopulations is limited by infrequent surveys and data deficits that preclude robust estimates of population trends. Genetic monitoring using non-invasively collected scat samples is an alternative that can mitigate some of the challenges associated with traditional monitoring, and provide opportunities for collaboration between Northern communities and Western scientists. We have developed and validated a new genomics method called Genotyping-in-Thousands by sequencing (GT-seq) that can identify individual polar bears from non-invasive scat samples. We show that our new method has an 85.7% genotyping success rate for non-invasively collected fecal samples if polar bear DNA is present (i.e. from cells shed from the gut lining) and also show that we can comprehensively characterize polar bear population structure using an optimized, cost-efficient GT-seq panel of 324 Single Nucleotide Polymorphism markers (SNPs). This GT-seq test will provide the foundation for non-invasive toolkit for polar bear monitoring and contribute to community-based programs - data from which can inform management, conservation, and policy.

Thakshila Dharmasena (Monaghan Lab)

Investigating the function of a family of multi-function enzymes in Arabidopsis thaliana

Phosphorylation and ubiquitination are two major post translational modifications that co-exist in nature. Phosphorylation is catalyzed by protein kinases, while ubiquitination is carried out by E3 ubiquitin ligases. The interplay between protein kinases and E3 ligases has been well documented in many signal transduction pathways. While these enzymatic domains are usually encoded by distinct genes, we identified a small family of proteins that contain both domains, likely the result of an ancestral fusion, which we call ‘E3Ks’. I will present my proposed and ongoing work aimed at understanding the biological and molecular function of this intriguing protein family in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana.

15:30-16:30 individual presentations

Meghan Hamp (Grogan Lab)

The effects of current and future warming and growing season length on plant community composition, biomass, and net CO2 exchange in a mesic low arctic tundra ecosystem

Identifying the impacts of climate warming on terrestrial carbon cycling in Arctic tundra is crucial to understanding future regional and global carbon balances. Arctic ecosystems hold about 50% of the global soil organic carbon. Long-term experimental warming is known to influence carbon fluxes, but the impacts of warming in tandem with a longer growing season are unknown. Additionally, whether warming will produce a net positive or negative feedback to atmospheric CO2 concentrations is uncertain and is dependent on a range of abiotic and biotic variables. My research will investigate the outcome of increased growing season length on tundra net carbon balance under current and future warming conditions. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fieldwork was postponed until the 2021 field season. I will investigate the impact of growing season length on carbon flux using greenhouse long-term warming plots, early snowmelt plots (spring melt date advanced), and control plots. Soil respiration and net ecosystem exchange and its component fluxes (gross ecosystem production and ecosystem respiration) will be measured weekly in all treatments using a LI-COR infrared gas analytical system fitted with a customized ecosystem flux chamber. Plant species composition and phenology data will be collected at each flux sampling time. I predict that both an advanced growing season and long-term warming will increase gross photosynthesis, enhancing carbon uptake over the growing season and the tundra’s potential to act as a net carbon sink. This information will greatly enhance predictive models estimating tundra carbon fluxes presently and under projected warming conditions.

Xinyu Sun (Arnott Lab)

Examining interactive effects of increased salinity and heatwave on freshwater zooplankton communities and the influence of timing

Lake chloride concentration is rising associated with the application of road salt. Meanwhile, lakes are experiencing increasing frequency and intensity of heatwaves. The combination of elevated salt concentration and heatwave has not been thoroughly studied in freshwater communities, limiting our ability to predict and mitigate outcomes of future disturbances. We conducted a mesocosm experiment to investigate interactive effects of increased salinity and heatwave on freshwater zooplankton community structure and function when they occurred simultaneously and when a heatwave was proceeded by an 8-week increase in salinity. We found that individually, salt and heatwave both impaired zooplankton communities with largest effects on copepod nauplii and cladocerans. Together, heat and salt resulted in antagonistic effects on total zooplankton abundance and biomass in both simultaneous and sequential scenarios. Our experiment illustrates the potential for past disturbance to shape community stability in the presence of the stressor predicted to worsen with global climate change.

Hayden Wainwright (Lougheed Lab)

Monitoring Canada’s polar bear populations using genetic mark and recapture methods

Anthropogenic activities are impacting species distributions and population sizes on an unprecedented scale. This is especially true of the Arctic where human caused climate change is affecting many species. Monitoring polar bears can provide information on changes in not only the bear populations’ health but also on the overall health of the Arctic ecosystem. However, census estimates of polar bear management units are infrequent due to the prohibitive costs and logistical challenges associated with traditional sampling methods. Two key parameters that can help inform species management are census population size (N) and effective population size (Ne). Census size is an estimate of the number of individual bears present within a management unit while effective population size relates to genetic diversity present within polar bear populations. Both parameters are important when developing management plans and can provide insight into the long-term stability of this species. My research uses data from a new genotyping technique, Genotyping-in-Thousands by sequencing (GTseq) to perform a fecal and biopsy based genetic mark and recapture study. We have genotyped approximately 2000 bears across the Canadian range of the species with samples spanning 1999 to 2020. Using open population models, I am exploring census estimates that accommodate immigration and emigration rates among subpopulations. I will also explore methods for estimating Ne using two different estimators and our GTseq data. This will allow us to demonstrate the current state of polar bear populations in Canada’s Arctic and gain insights into the demographic history of this species.

Lee Marie Raytek (Plaxton & Snedden Labs)

Overview on the importance of plant phosphate metabolism

Inorganic phosphate (Pi) has a crucial role in plant development, yet it is often the most limiting macronutrient of many soils. Pi starved (-Pi) plants elicit a Pi starvation response (PSR) that alters gene expression and metabolism to enhance their efficiency of Pi acquisition and use. Our recent collaborative study assessed the impact of Pi nutrition on the intracellular phosphoproteome of suspension cell cultures of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. Following Pi-resupply to -Pi Arabidopsis cells, some of the most hyperphosphorylated proteins out of 761 identified were glutamate decarboxylase-1 (GAD1) and glucose-6- phosphate dehydrogenase-6 (G6PDH6). GAD is a key enzyme across plants, animals, and microorganisms, important for its role in converting glutamate into 4-aminobutyrate – an important yet enigmatic ‘stress’ 10 | P a g e metabolite and major inhibitory neurotransmitter in animals. G6PDH6 catalyzes the first committed step of the oxidative pentose phosphate pathway, which produces carbon skeletons and reducing power in the form of NADPH. These findings have served as the genesis of new projects in the Plaxton lab, with the goal of teasing apart the functions and mechanisms of N-terminal phosphorylation of GAD1 and G6PDH6. In conjunction, the Plaxton lab has also been working to wrap up a study analyzing the effects of autophosphorylation on kinase activity. Autophosphorylation has generally been thought to activate kinases, but recent results show that this may not always be the case. Assessing the interplay between Pi nutrition and protein phosphorylation may facilitate the development of Pi-efficient crop varieties, urgently needed to reduce agriculture’s overuse of nonrenewable and unsustainable Pi fertilizers.



Virtual symposium date:

Friday, April 23rd, 2021, 9am—4pm EDT

Deadline to submit an abstract:

No longer accepting abstracts


BGRS 2021 Organizing Committee

Allen Tian (chair)

Heather Vanderlip

Sean Vanderluit

Alyson van Natto

Isabella Asselstine

Meghan Hamp

Jonas Lafave

Emily Cervenka