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John Carroll University Professor and a JCU Alum Receive Half-Million Dollar NSF Grant to Support Undergraduate Biology Students in Studying Tropical Poison Frogs

Undergraduate Biology students from John Carroll University and the University of Scranton will collaborate on novel research to study the physiological effects of a toxic diet on poison frogs.The students will be mentored by JCU Biology professor Dr. Ralph Saporito and his colleague, JCU alumnus Dr. Vincent Farallo ’06 at the University of Scranton. The pair earned funding for this research through a competitive federal grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).

Pick Your Poison Poison frogs are toxic because they eat a diet of poisonous arthropods, however, there is very little existing research on how this ability affects the frog’s physiology. Frogs may need to “pick their poison” when navigating potential trade-offs between the costs of consuming a toxic diet, and the protective benefits provided to the poison frogs. Through the NSF grant, students from John Carroll and Scranton will have the opportunity to collaborate on research that aims to understand how a toxic diet impacts important physiological processes, such as metabolism, in these frogs.

Dr. Saporito’s lab focuses on chemical ecology, in particular how poison frogs obtain and use their toxins for protection against predators and pathogens, while Dr. Farallo’s lab specializes in eco-physiology, which focuses on how the environment (e.g., their diet) impacts how the frogs function. Students involved will gain invaluable hands-on experience in both disciplines as they head off into diverse careers, from medical school to PhD programs, following graduation.

A Symbiotic Partnership Dr. Saporito and Dr. Farallo have a long history together of studying these tropical frogs. In 2005, when Dr. Saporito was a Ph.D. student at Florida International University, he was assigned a mentorship role during a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program in Costa Rica. While there, he mentored Farallo, who was an undergraduate Biology student at John Carroll at the time. During the trip, the pair began preliminary research on the same frogs they continue to study today. Now, with a three-year grant commitment from NSF, their students will engage in a cross-institutional research project.

Some of the funds are set aside for transportation between JCU and Scranton laboratories where students will learn the skills to study both chemical ecology and eco-physiology. Additionally, thanks to the NSF grant, all of the student researchers will have the ability to attend and share the results of their study at various scientific conferences, giving them the experience of sharing their findings with established professionals nationwide. Lastly, the students will be paid for their work on this research project, something that isn’t always part of the undergraduate research experience.

Post-graduate outcomes for biology students are heavily influenced by the participation in research, and a multi-year study such as this one can set these students apart in their future careers. According to Dr. Saporito, “One of the most exciting things is to be able to support undergraduates in being involved in this really exciting and timely research question, and to expose them to new and cutting-edge scientific research.”

Foundations for Science This NSF grant is a catalyst for future scientific research opportunities within JCU’s biology program and beyond. Additionally, JCU students will develop practical research skills, friendships, and an expanded network of professionals in their field which will serve them for life.

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Mike Scanlan '06