For many of us, the sound of croaking frogs at sunset on a summer evening might conjure up memories of childhood vacations near inland lakes or ponds. But for Robert Miranda, PhD student in the Department of Biological Sciences, this sunset song is key to his current research in behavioral and environmental endocrinology at Northern Arizona University, and it might help him understand more about social behavior in both humans and animals.
"Frog calling is crucial to male frog mating rituals, and if that system is altered, as we believe it may be due to chemical pollutants, it could potentially impact a frog's reproductive capacity," he says. "In doing this research, you want to use an organism that can serve as something feasible for lab work and a species that has implications for other organisms, and the frogs provide that."
It was Miranda's lifelong interest in biology and conservation that brought him into the lab at Northern Arizona University, where for three years he has studied how chemicals in the environment interact with frog brain chemistry and hormones, and how those chemicals might affect other living creatures in areas such as reproduction, mental health, and associated disorders, including autism. Reflecting on his work, Miranda acknowledges that patience is important to the scientific process.
"I am just now getting to the good stuff, the really interesting stuff that will have large implications for wildlife and for humans," he says. "My research definitely takes a new direction. Some existing research has looked at the disruption of the system but nothing to the point where we are."
His work in an NAU biology lab answering current and crucial questions about pollution and its effects on organisms is not all that fuels this scientist's passion, however. Miranda works to impart his research enthusiasm to college students, and to teach youngsters just how "cool" science can be.
"I wish I had this exposure to science and research when I was younger," Miranda said. "It is important to bring young scientists onto campus because sometimes science in the classroom may not be that exciting."
In an effort to show young students just how great science can be, Miranda participates in the university's Integrative Graduate Education, Research, and Traineeship (IGERT) Program, which does community outreach with area schools. Through this work, Miranda can see that he is making a difference.
"I helped a science teacher develop lab activities, and I organized a field trip to NAU," he says. "These children visited our teaching greenhouse, the vertebrate museum in biology, and the Rio De Flag water treatment facility. They started their semester seeing science at a cellular level by looking at organisms, and they finished their semester talking about the environment. This was fun. The students saw that science is interesting, and that science is cool."
Miranda, who was recently awarded the Environmental Protection Agency Star Fellowship, which will support him as he continues his work with amphibians, notes that he is equally happy to work with college students. And, he says, there are great opportunities for undergraduate students to get hands-on research—which can be a huge asset in helping to encourage would-be scientists to follow their dreams.
"The undergraduate students at NAU are a great asset, and it's definitely a good experience for them to be involved with research, acquire research skills, and to simply understand how science is conducted," he says. "What is also nice about our programs is that faculty, who may not be directly involved in our project, but may have something to offer due to their area of expertise, will step in. There is always great teamwork here."