Biomedical Research

Biomedicine is an important area of research at NMU. Several labs work on projects related to human health and often collaborate with researchers at other institutions, including hospitals. Broad areas of work range from microbiological disease research to the mechanisms underlying neurological disorders.

The Ottem Laboratory is interested in a class of proteins, neurotrophic factors, whose disruption is recognized as playing a role in progressive neuropathy and myopathy observed in motorneuron diseases (MNDs) and some muscular dystrophies (MDs).  A specific neurotrophin, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is essential for normal functioning of neuromuscular systems and is present in both motorneurons and muscles.  BDNF acts as a bi-directional messenger to convey signals that the motor unit is working and should be maintained.  While many studies have focused on the role that disrupted motorneuron-produced BDNF has on the progression of NMDs, the contribution of BDNF made by muscles to the health of the motor unit remains unclear.  Our laboratory utilizes transgenic mice that are missing the BDNF gene only in skeletal muscle fibers.  Behavioral and pathological data indicate these mice suffer from progressive myopathology and an adult-onset loss of neuromuscular functioning, similar to established models of neural-based neuromuscular diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).  These mice present the possibility that there may be a distinct muscle origin of some types of adult-onset loss of neuromuscular function that also leads to the atrophy of motorneurons.  We are currently investigating the interplay of muscular BDNF loss and presynaptic mitochondrial dysfunction in the onset of neuromuscular pathology.  Additionally, we are investigating the effect of muscular BDNF loss on retrograde transport processes in the axons of motorneurons. 

Confocal microscope image of a neuron

confocal microscope image of a motor neuron

Confocal image



Botany & Agriculture Research

Plant science is a growing area of research at NMU. While many projects relate to the Medicinal Plant Chemistry program, others are related to local food science. Basic science research in plant ecology, plant physiology, and microbial interactions with plants are also strong areas of interest in our department.

Chelsea Pearson and Rochelle Gawel (Biology - Botany Concentration) were recently awarded a Scheidemantel Research Grant Award to support their research on “Effects of Vermicompost and Beneficial Microbes on Nutrient Density in Pak Choy (B. rapa var. chinensis) in a Vertical Hydroponic Grow Tower Environment”. This research endeavor is addressing the problem that it is not possible to grow crops year-round in northern, zone 4 climates using conventional agricultural practices. Additionally, current industrial agricultural methods have a negative impact on the nutritional content of food, the health of the soil and the ecosphere. One solution to these issues is indoor agriculture and the use of vertical hydroponic grow towers. This plant growth system demands less space and inputs of resources and is a more sustainable method of agriculture compared to industrial agricultural practices. Through Chelsea’s DIY skills and creativity, a six-tower hydroponic grow system was manufactured. This year-long BI 488 Advanced Research in Biology project is investigating the impact of “worm tea” on plant growth. This “tea” is made from extracting organic nutrients and beneficial microbes from worm castings using aerated water. Can the input of this amendment increase the plant biomass and nutrient density of Pak Choy compared to plants grown under standard hydroponic mineral inputs? The data and knowledge obtained from this research will contribute to the emerging field of sustainable crop production through the use of indoor hydroponic systems.

Chelsea Pearson Inspecting Tower Garden Water Flow

Rochelle Gawel Monitoring Water Chemistry

Conservation & Management Research

The Biology Department fully engages in conservation research related to the preservation and restoration of natural systems. We also study human management of natural resources through research projects, often in collaboration with management agencies. These projects often cut across taxonomic lines and investigate how organisms are being affected by human activities at both the local and global level. 

Sarah Trujillo recently completed her MS thesis studying the ecological causes and consequences of gut microbiome variation in brown bears across Alaska. Gut microbiomes (GMBs), complex communities of microorganisms inhabiting the gastrointestinal tracts of their hosts, perform countless micro-ecosystem services such as facilitating energy uptake and modulating immune responses. While scientists increasingly recognize the role GMBs play in host health, the role of GMBs in wildlife ecology and conservation has yet to be realized fully. As a collaborative initiative with scientists at the National Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, her findings will be integrated directly into federal decision-making regarding the conservation and management of brown bears.

Sarah Trujillo working in the laboratory

Eli Bieri (Aug 2021 Biology-Ecology) recently received word that he received a Fulbright Futures Award to support his graduate (M.S.) research in Australia! Eli will be working with Dr. Jodi Rowley on a project involving amphibian diseases, wildfires, and citizen science at the University of New South Wales and the Australian Museum in Sydney beginning in February. Until then, Eli will be finishing up at NMU and also undertaking an NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) working with Dr. Kyle Summers at East Carolina University. They will be trying to determine how diet affects the expression of genes involved in pigmentation in Peruvian poison frogs. Congratulations, Eli!!

Eli Bieri holding frog

Marten gut
The American marten (Martes americana) is a species of cultural significance to Indigenous people across much of North America and historically was one of the most valuable furbearer species before overexploitation and habitat loss due to timber extraction resulted in this elusive forest carnivore being listed as threatened across substantial portions of their range. Across Alaska, however, American marten populations have historically and continue to occur at densities that permit a substantial annual harvest. The Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Science Lab at NMU is collaborating with Alaska Department of Fish and Game to take advantage of the annual American marten harvest in Alaska to collect data and biological samples from legally harvested animals (e.g., sex, reproductive condition, body condition, diet). With more than 10 years of American marten data and samples, we are examining how variation in American marten reproductive condition, physiological condition, and diet vary with ongoing climate change. Our finding will be used by Alaska Fish and Game wildlife managers to make science-informed decisions regarding the future of American marten harvest management. To learn more about this collaborative initiative visit:

beaver walking through marsh grassBeavers are an important ecosystem engineer. They create and maintain ponds and wetlands, which provide habitat for many species of wildlife. However, flooding as a result of dam building can damage human infrastructure. Lethal management isn't a bad thing, but it isn't always effective. Graduate student Jennifer Gendelman is studying how beavers respond to predator urine on their active foraging trails with Dr. John Bruggink. Her results will provide insight on a management strategy to mitigate human-beaver conflict.  Since beaver activity varies seasonally, Jen is testing if the effects of the urine treatment differs in the spring vs. fall. She will also observe if beavers become habituated to the treatment. Beaver responses to the urine will be monitored using trail cameras.

Collecting eggs from a live adult burbot   releasing a burbot after capture and egg sampling   unfertilized burbot eggs that are about 3 days before final maturation and spawning


Undergraduate Michael Woodworth has been working with Dr. Jill Leonard's lab to develop a new sampling protocol for wild burbot, a large coldwater fish native to the Great Lakes. Burbot are typically fished for during their spawning period in midwinter via ice fishing in both inland lakes and Great Lakes. There are also migratory runs that occur in local rivers. One of the management challenges with burbot is that it is hard to determine exactly when and where they are spawning. They appear to have a very short spawning period and spawning likely occurs in locations different from where most ice fishermen encounter them. The species is generally only modestly targeted by fishermen, but fishing pressure is increasing and understanding more about their reproductive biology will be useful for management. Woodworth is testing out a procedure where eggs can be collected from adult females prior to their final maturation; this procedure has previously only been done under hatchery conditions. The idea is to be able to use these egg biopsies to estimate how much more time the fish will need to ripen her eggs before actually spawning. Importantly, this egg biopsy does no harm to the fish who is released to spawn later. Developing this protocol is giving the Leonard lab a new tool to evaluate fish that are caught by fishermen and by the lab itself.

Ecology & Evolution Research

The study of the interrelationships of organisms with their environment, ecology, is a core discipline in our department with many laboratories studying many different systems. Projects are wide ranging from the response of northern animals to winter conditions to understanding the linkages between primary production and aquatic insect habitat use. Similarly, evolution is the fundamental principle of biology and it is also a focus of work in many of the research groups in the department. Project range from understanding the basic principles of animal speciation to considering the patterns of organism distribution following the last glacial period.

Dr. Neil Cumberlidge participated in an expedition in Sierra Leone that resulted in the rediscovery of two species of freshwater crabs that had previously been thought to be "lost to science".  One of these, Afzelius's Crab, was documented in 1796 and not seen since.  A second species, the Sierra Leone Crab, was last seen in 1955.  Dr. Cumberlidge collaborated on this project with Pierre Mvogo Ndongo of the University of Douala in Cameroon, and they will continue to work together to advocate for conservation of the threatened ecosystems that harbor these rare crab species.  This work was supported by the conservation organization Re:wild, which recently highlighted the rediscovery of one of these crabs.

Afzelius's crab
Photo by Dr. Pierre Armand Mvogo Ndongo


For her graduate research, Ellen Michels is working with Kurt Galbreath to investigate the history of post-glacial expansion in historically isolated phylogroups of northern short-tailed shrews (Blarina brevicauda), and interactions between these phylogroups across the contact zones where they meet. Blarina brevicauda are restricted to eastern North America, yet they exhibit three different mitochondrial lineages that diverged when historical populations retracted and became isolated from one another. Using a genetic and morphological approach, she is evaluating evidence for hybridization between these historically isolated populations by quantifying the distribution of genetic and morphological variation within and across contact zones. She wants to understand the consequences of glacial-age isolation and post-glacial expansion for the structure of diversity within the Great Lakes region.

Graduate student Ellen Michels doing field work


One of Darwin’s (1859) greatest insights was recognizing that species were not homogeneous units of ecologically equivalent individuals but that individual’s differ in traits such as sex, age, morphology, physiology and behavior and that these differences provide the substrate on which natural selection can act. In this time of unprecedented global change, understanding among-individual differences in food resource use is fundamental for safeguarding the critical resources diverse individuals need for responding to environmental change, particularly for populations of conservation and management concern. In collaboration with scientists at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the National Park Service, the Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Science Lab at NMU is using stable isotope analyses of biological tissues (e.g., claws, hair, muscle tissue) to evaluate the diet of American black bears (Ursus americanus) and brown bears (Ursus arctos) across Alaska. To learn more about this research initiative visit:

snowshoe hares and behavior diagram
Wildlife populations will respond in one of three ways to rapid climate change: move, adapt, or die. However, the potential for local adaptation through either behavioral modification or natural selection is poorly understood and rarely considered in the context of conservation planning despite the selective pressure that climate change inflicts on diverse species. As one of ~21 species worldwide that relies of camouflage for survival, snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) are an exciting eco-evolutionary model to investigate the response of seasonal coat color changing species to climate change. The Wildlife Ecology and Conservation Science Lab collaborates with a diverse network of scientists across the United States and around the world to experimentally investigate morphological, physiological, and behavioral responses of snowshoe hare to rapid climate change as well as contributing to studies applying cutting-edge tools such as next-generation sequencing, transcriptomics, and hormonal assays to unravel the genetic and hormonal basis of seasonal coat color change. To learn more visit:

Some of the undergraduate researchers in the Leonard Lab have been working hard to conduct studies evaluating different factors affecting fish behavior. In one study, they are interested in whether brook trout can detect the chemical firefoam used in fighting wildland fires (hint: they can) while in another they are evaluating personality differences in native strains of trout that hatch from larger or smaller eggs (hint: the fish from big eggs are braver). For both these projects, we have thrilled to have been able to acquire a new data acquisition system that uses the program Ethovision to track fish using video recordings. This system is amazing as it can follow an individual fish (or several in a group) and calculate time spent in particular areas, speed, activity levels, and many other behavioral metrics. We look forward to using this with many projects in the lab! This system can be used with any moving organism so it may well be used in other laboratories in the department as well.

The screenshots below show the analysis screen with a photo of a video with a brook trout in a behavioral testing arena avoiding our test substance (firefoam) and a heat map of the locations used by this fish in the area that is derived by Ethovision analysis of the video (source: undergraduate NMU student Josh Perry)

Screen shot of Ethovision screen and video of trout in a rectangular tank     heat map of locations used by trout detecting firefoam (chemical)

NMU undergraduate students Annika Desai and Cora Siuda are working with Kurt Galbreath to investigate the biogeographic histories of pikas, small rabbit relatives that live in North America's western mountains and across Central Asia and Siberia, by studying their endoparasites (tapeworms and roundworms).  The evolutionary histories of the parasites are allowing them to infer the number of times pikas crossed the Bering Land Bridge between the northern continents, as well as when those colonization events occurred.  These students are gaining experience with molecular genetic tools such as PCR, gel electrophoresis, and DNA sequencing, which are broadly applicable skills that are used in diverse biological disciplines.  They also are using methods of evolutionary analysis, and developing an understanding of host-parasite diversity and life history.

American pika sitting on a rock

Schizorchis tapeworm

Labiostomum pinworm


Neuroscience Research

NMU Biology partners with the Department of Psychological Sciences to offer a major in Neuroscience and also conducts research on the functioning of the brain in several laboratories. This work may focus on molecular mechanisms of neuron function or expand out to evaluate neurological controls of behavior.

Patients with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) are at an increased risk for developing seizures and epilepsy; a phenomenon thought to facilitate the rate and severity of cognitive decline and dementia. The relation between these two disorders has been supported by clinical data, yet the cellular mechanisms underlying phenotype are not known. One of the earliest events that occur in AD is synaptic dysfunction, which can lead to significant changes in excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission, creating a level of neuronal hyperactivity commonly seen in some epileptic-type neural disorder. In Giuseppe Cortese's lab, undergraduate students Haley Mattila and Anica Chesnut are utilizing primary cortical neuronal cultures with reduced ZCCHC17 expression by siRNA-induced gene silencing to assess physiological processes and explore mechanism. They are working to identify the functional consequences of reduced ZCCHC17 expression in these neurons by performing electrophysiological recordings to measure excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission. Mechanistically, they will perform Western Blot analysis to determine if reduced ZCCHC17 gene expression causes changes in the expression of pre- and post-synaptic proteins that are necessary to facilitate excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission.

Cortese Lab Research Graphic 1

Schizophrenia (SCZ) is a chronic mental disorder that affects 1% of the population globally. Primary characteristics associated with SCZ include hallucinations, delusions, social-withdrawal, and cognitive deficits. About 2% of Schizophrenic cases are due to a chromosomal microdeletion at region q11.2 of human chromosome 22. Clinically this is referred to as 22q11.2 Deletion Syndrome (22q11.2DS), which is the highest genetic risk factor for developing SCZ to date. Given limitations in human studies, the need for a reliable animal model to explore neurobiological mechanisms is necessary. Undergraduate student Abigail Poss is working with Giuseppe Cortese to uncover these mechanisms utilizing an animal model of 22q11.2DS, the Df(16A+/-) mouse. Previous work using this model found that mice carrying the microdeletion recapitulate behavioral and anatomical changes observed in SCZ patients. This model is being used to explore synaptic signaling mechanisms that may be result from the microdeletion. In addition, ~77% of individuals with 22q11.2DS have an immune-related disorder, and it is implied that immune dysfunction may underlie clinical symptomology. The neuroinflammatory contributions to phenotype are being explored by identifying the role of inflammatory mediators in disrupting neuronal function. 

Cortese Lab Research Graphic

Interdisciplinary Research

Biologists are active across campus, around the country and the world. While much of the research being done in the department is strictly biological in nature, biologists sometimes engage in truly interdisciplinary projects, often partnering with colleagues in different departments or off campus. These projects can be a little offbeat and unusual, but are always interesting! This diversity of activity enriches the department and helps make our group active and engaged with our community.

Service to the university is a big part of being a professor. Although I (Dr. Brent Graves) am a biologist, I spent a couple of decades working for our campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors. In that capacity, I represented the faculty in various collaborations with university administrators to improve the university. As an outgrowth of discussions about reorganizing the administrative units in academic affairs (departments, schools, divisions, colleges), I searched for scholarship that evaluated how other universities like NMU manage this. To my surprise, there was virtually none. So I began a project to document and assess the organization of academic affairs at all public master’s level universities in the United States. This resulted in a manuscript that is currently under review (cited below).

Similar questions were being asked at NMU about the administration of graduate studies. As an outgrowth of the project described above, I also endeavored to identify and evaluate the type of administrator and bureaucratic level assigned to graduate studies at all master’s level public universities in the United States. That work resulted in the second publication cited below, which has already been published.

Under Review. Graves, B.M. Colleges, schools, divisions, and departments: Organization of academic affairs in public master’s institutions in the United States. Research in Higher Education.

2020.  Graves, B.M. Administration of Graduate Studies at Public Master’s Institutions in the United States. Journal of Higher Education Management 35(3), 54-62. 

Who would have known that a cold call from a stranger at an art museum would have led Dr. Jill Leonard to the start of a project that has now been running, in various incarnations, for years? Dr. Leonard was originally contacted by the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) about providing information for an artist who would be traveling through the Great Lakes region learning about this place we call home as research for a series of paintings commissioned by the GRAM. Dr. Leonard was among many people that Alexis Rockman, a New York-based fine artist specializing in environmental art, talked to on his trip. Hitting it off well after coffee at Starbucks, the pair stayed in touch as Rockman developed and completed his paintings. The series, The Great Lakes Cycle, debuted at the GRAM in 2017 and then proceeded on a multi-year, multi-city tour throughout the Great Lakes region. At the same time, Dr. Leonard developed a collaboration with the NMU School of Art & Design, and especially painter/professor Taimur Cleary, to bring Rockman to NMU for a Artist in Residence program specifically aimed at drawing together students from the arts and the sciences.

Cleary and Leonard extended this program through a PRIME grant which allowed them to create an Online Education E-Text called A Deep Dive into The Great Lakes Cycle. The etext offers subscribers a resource that provides extensive background to the major paintings in the Great Lakes Cycle in a highly visual and engaging way. It includes background on science, art, history and social themes in the paintings augmented by video interviews with scientists from around the region working on the issues represented. The etext is highly visual and includes historical and artistic images that provide background for Rockman's art and the concepts he portrays. This resource is available to anyone, but has been used by educators in a variety of settings ranging from the Grand Rapids Public School system to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. If you are interested in subscribing to this etext, click here for more information.

Most recently, Cleary and Leonard have developed an asynchronous online course that will first be offered in Summer 2021 entitled INTT 222: Art Meets Science that expands on the theme of the relationship between art and science. The course touches on Rockman's work, but really expands away from it to look at this history of the relationship between these two disciplines. Students are then shown how to develop their own ideas about integrating science and art and the course culminates in individual projects where the students integrate science and/or art into their own discipline. The course is designed for students of any major or interest area and seeks to have them think integratively in order to break down barriers to creativity and appreciate the benefit of incorporating multiple disciplines into their own academic and professional path. Anyone interested in enrolling in this course should check the NMU registration process and Bulletin through the NMU Office of the Registrar. If you have questions, feel free to contact Dr. Leonard at

Alexis Rockman with Dr. Jill Leonard at a showing of The Great Lakes Cycle
Alexis Rockman and Dr. Jill Leonard at a showing of The Great Lakes Cycle
Home page for the online etext A Deep Dive into The Great Lakes Cycle
Home page for the online etext produced by Leonard and Cleary as a resource exploring Rockman' The Great Lakes Cycle paintings