Welcome!

Thanks for your interest in graduate studies with Dr. Dunn.  

If you are interesting in joining my lab, please email me (pdunn@uwm.edu) with a letter detailing your research interests (including why you want to work with me), your background and reasons for pursuing a graduate degree, and GPA and GRE scores.  Note that applications are due by early January each year, and there is only one admission time for new students (September).

Over the past ten years, my research has focused primarily on the mating and parental behavior of common yellowthroats, tree swallows, and house wrens.  I am particularly interested in extra-pair mating, which can reach extremely high levels in tree swallows (almost 90% of nests contain young sired by extra-pair males !).  

Currently, however, my main focus is the conservation genetics of prairie-chickens, in particular the genetics of the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC), which plays a key role in the recognition and presentation of foreign antigens as part of the adaptive immune response.  If this topic interests you, then you've come to the right place.

MHC variation in populations of greater prairie-chickens

Habitat loss and fragmentation often lead to reduced genetic variation in populations and increased inbreeding.  However, there is mixed evidence that this loss of variation leads to lower fitness in natural populations. These mixed results have led to a long-running debate about the relative importance of genetic variation to fitness in small populations and, in particular, to immunity and disease.  One of the limitations of most previous studies is that the loss of genetic variation is only measured at neutral genetic markers (e.g., microsatellites), and it is often unknown whether there is also a decline in variation at genes related to fitness, such as the Major Histocompatability Complex (MHC), which plays a key role in disease resistance. If strong selection on MHC genes maintains their diversity, then they may not show a decrease in variation following population declines, and this could help to explain why fitness is not always negatively impacted. 


Since 2000 my lab has been studying the effects of severe population declines on genetic variation in the greater prairie-chicken, which is one of the most threatened species of bird in North America (we have published five papers on prairie-chickens and one is submitted). In Wisconsin, there were over 30,000 prairie chickens around 1930, but the population suffered a severe decline in the 1950s (due to hunting and habitat loss) and now there are only about 1200 individuals in a small isolated area in the central part of the state around Stevens Point. Using samples from before and after the decline, we have found that the population of prairie-chickens in Wisconsin lost genetic variation at neutral DNA markers (microsatellites mtDNA); however, it is not known if these specific regions of DNA are related to an individual's fitness.  

Using MHC primers developed from domestic chickens, we are testing whether genetic variation at the MHC has also declined at the same rate as the neutral markers.  The MHC genes are related directly to fitness because they encode molecules that are critical in the initiation of an immune response.  Increased susceptibility to disease is thought to be one of the major problems arising from inbreeding and decreased genetic variation.  This is a unique opportunity to examine fitness related genes from samples before and after the decline of a threatened species. I currently have a post-doc, Dr. Jenny Bollmer, and PhD student, John Eimes, studying MHC variation in prairie-chickens. Our first general paper on prairie-chicken MHC has just been published in Genetica (Eimes et al. 2009) and we have another submitted comparing MHC variation before and after the bottleneck in Wisconsin.  Contrary to the prediction above, we concluded that MHC variation has declined, but the loss of variation was actually greater than expected from just genetic drift, because gene conversion also homogenized variation across loci.

We have recently been awarded a three-year NSF grant (DEB-0948695, 02/01/10-01/31/13) to examine MHC and other disease-related genetic markers in populations of prairie-chickens throughout their range. This work is being done in collaboration with my former PhD student, Dr. Jeff Johnson, now an Assistant Professor at the University of North Texas. 

Our approach is unique because we are using our existing samples from before and after declines in each population to detect the direct effect of demographic changes on genetic variation. Previous studies have only examined contemporary samples and made inferences about relative levels of variation by comparison with other populations (with potentially different demographic histories) or different species.  We are also involved in genetic monitoring of a translocation of prairie-chickens from Minnesota to Wisconsin. The objective of this project is to restore genetic variation in the Wisconsin population that was lost 50 years ago.  We may also try to study mating succes and how it relates to MHC variation in the WI population. If these topics interest you, then please contact me.

My expectations of students

I am interested in supervising students who have a strong desire to become professional biologists. I expect students to be devoted to their research and to work diligently towards the completion of their research projects. You should  be highly self-motivated and have a passion for scientific research.  You should also have a very strong interest in conservation genetics and evolutionary ecology.  I only have time and resources to supervise students working on my projects, so please be sure that my current research  In general, students should seek out supervisors whose research interests align closely with their own.  

I am currently only accepting Ph.D. students because they have much better financial support from the University. Please note that we have many applications and I can only accept 1 or 2 students per year, so the application process is very competitive.  

How long will it take to finish your degree?

As long as it takes to publish a good scientific study !   I expect my students to produce a publishable paper from their "thesis". As I tell my students, "it's not science until it is published", and these days it takes time and effort to publish a study that is new and exciting. To facilitate publication, my students write their "thesis" in the format of a paper that can be submitted directly to a journal.   Regardless of your future career track, a published paper will be much more valuable than a thesis that gathers dust in the library.

Students in my lab generally complete their Ph.D. degree within five years.  

My Lab

I work together with Dr. Linda Whittingham on avian mating systems, sexual selection and parental care. We have two labs fully equipped for paternity analysis using microsatellite markers, including our own ABI 373 automated sequencer. We also have several computers and office space for student use.  

During the academic year, we have a weekly lab meeting with all of our students and post-docs to talk about recent papers, proposals and development of research ideas.  We also have a Behavioral Ecology discussion group with three other faculty and their students (plus some from Anthropology) interested in sexual selection and communication in insects (Rafael Rodriguez) and frogs (Gerlinde Hoebel) and conservation genetics (Emily Latch).

During the course of your program I expect you to develop a research proposal, apply for research grants to supplement your project and to publish the results of your work.  We have a relatively small lab group (2 students currently), so we can work closely with our students at all stages of their project.  All of our students have published their thesis work in major international journals, and these papers have been co-authored with us.  We encourage our students to write proposals for research money, because it is important for students to establish their own record of winning grants, and it is also an important exercise for focusing one's ideas. All of our students have received awards from nationally recognized granting agencies and organizations.

UWM Biology

Getting in

Minimum requirements for admission to the Biology Department include an overall GPA of at least 3.0 and GRE scores (both verbal and quantitative) in the 50 percentile (or better).  These are minimum requirements for the Department and getting into our lab is very competitive.

Your financial support

Our students are supported primarily by Teaching Assistantships during the 9 month academic year and additional funds during the summer from our research grants when available. There are also Chancellor awards of up to $4000 annually for exceptional students.  

Most graduate students at UWM receive a stipend through teaching assistantships (TA). There are also University-wide fellowships that are generally based on GRE/GPA and given to students after they have been here for one semester (several of our students have had such fellowships). TA appointments are usually made at the 50% level. A typical graduate student is considered working as a TA 50% of the time (you are supposed to be doing your research the other 50% of the time). If you have a 33% or higher TA, then you do not pay tuition and you are eligible for the University Health Insurance Plan.

In general, TA's are available to all graduate students that want one. Generally if students are accepted to the program they can expect TA support for 3 years as a MS student and 5 years as a PhD student.

You can find more information about TA positions from the Graduate School.

 

How to Apply

If you are interesting in joining our lab, please email one of us (pdunn@uwm.edu or whitting@uwm.edu) with a letter detailing your research interests (including why you want to work with us), your background and reasons for pursuing a graduate degree, and GPA and GRE scores.

The official application forms can be requested by e-mailing the UWM graduate school (gradschool@uwm.edu ) or you can apply online. Please contact us directly beforehand.

Living in Milwaukee

As for the city and campus, below are some web sites that you may find useful

UWM Welcome site (look near bottom for more links)

Off-campus housing (for checking out housing costs etc)

Area guides and Attractions (UWM site)

Digital City