The lab of Bryan Brown has become a hub for young researchers – summer undergraduate researchers in particular.

Since 2013, Brown’s work on Southern Appalachian crayfish has helped several undergraduates gain advanced research experience as part of the Fralin Life Science Institute’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

Brown, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, studies community ecology, and one ecological system in particular: the relationship between crayfish and their worms.

These aquatic worms, known as branchiodellidans, eat the biofilm and sediments that accumulate on crayfish bodies. In exchange, the worms live on the crayfish in a systemic relationship commonly known in biological research as a symbiosis – a bond in which both species mutually benefit.

Recently, several summers of hard work culminated in a paper co-authored by former Fralin fellows Samuel Doak and Meredith Leonard.

Sam Doak (pictured left) and Meredith Leonard.
Sam Doak (pictured left) and Meredith Leonard.

Along with Brown and colleague Robert Creed of Appalachian State University, Sam and Meredith spent months – even years – performing fieldwork and analysis to further explore the crayfish-worm relationship, which serves as an effective biological model for various research fields.

“We were fortunate to have these incredible undergraduates help with the research,” said James Skelton, lead author on the paper who, at the time, was a Virginia Tech doctoral student with Brown; Skelton is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida.

“They learned how to catch and identify species, so we were able to collect a huge mass of data and make observations that paint a more thorough picture of how community dynamics change the relationship between crayfish and worms.”

With Sam and Meredith’s help, the team was able to observe that, among other things, when the worms are beneficial to the crayfish, they are more diverse in abundance and interact more. However, this changes as crayfish age, which shifts the relationship dynamic from parasitic to mutually beneficial.

Learn more about Sam and Meredith by reading their stories here.