To understand courtship and mating behaviour, is to understand life on Earth at its most primal. Amanda Moehring’s lab in the Biology department features a unique split of Neuroscience and Biology students focused on categorizing the genetics and genomics that determine how species behave in situations with potential mates. Accomplishing research so implanted in the subconscious requires painting a comprehensive mosaic on how genes become functional from their inception as DNA to identify how females can distinguish males from their own species versus other similar species.
“The broad-scale research goals of my laboratory are to understand the genetic basis of variation in behaviour and the genetics of species isolation. One of the great unanswered questions in biology is how new species are formed and maintained. It is believed that selection initially acts upon standing genetic variation in mating behaviour within a continuous population, causing subpopulations to diverge and become individual species.”
The lab is constantly for new aspects to add to their growing portfolio of the genetic mechanisms behind behaviour. Recently, they added Lucas Khodaei, who represents a new research interest within the lab, and Biology at-large;
“I look at the genetic and neurological basis of aggression in the younger form of species that undergoes a metamorphosis (known as larvae). Larvae research in science has only been going on for 2 years — my paper will be one of the first master's papers on it. I also look at the transition from larval behaviour to adult behaviour.”
As principal investigator of the lab, Amanda Moehring tries to keep things interesting — sometimes through unorthodox methods. Lab meetings are prone to be hijacked by games of ‘Improv PowerPoint’, a game wherein students are asked to give a presentation on a slideshow they have previously never seen.
“I try to give the students practice in low stakes environments that can help them with anxiety for future thesis defences so that’s where the games at our weekly meeting come in.”
For students rigorously working to make a name for themselves, these humorous, yet practical tactics from their supervisor help keep things light during a stressful point in their lives. Sara Cullinski, a former honours thesis student who returned to volunteer this year, cites her experience within the Moehring lab as her primary reason for returning to Western;
“I had such a good time researching here that I wanted to come back. This work environment is incredible, Amanda’s a fantastic supervisor, she’s not over-bearing but she’s always there.”
Once a diligent researcher herself, Moehring never imagined seeing herself leave the research in her lab, but time has allowed her too, to take a step back and trust the students she affectionately refers to as ‘her people’:
“I would say I provide interspersed periods of intense guidance with large periods of very hands-off. A lot of my job is spent organizing and managing what questions still need to be answered. You treat people differently based on their experiences. If they’re experienced in the lab with flies, you can let them do their thing. Students who’ve expressed interest in the work that I do, I ask them what their goals are, what questions drive them, what elements are exciting and engaging. All those pieces come together to form a future project.”