Katie McMahan, 5th Year Masters student

Katie MeMahanI first became involved in the Foster/Baker lab in the summer preceding my junior year, after taking Dr. Foster’s Evolution course. At the time, I was pursuing a psychology degree, but found myself drawn to her work – particularly as pertaining to the evolutionary underpinnings of animal behavior. As I took more courses I grew an interest in studying behavior organically, with a focus on genomics. In my first summer in the lab, I worked under former M.A. student Lily Hughes on her project addressing assortative mate choice in threespine stickleback. While Lily’s project didn’t strictly address my academic interests, it was my first foray into research and I loved the experience.

The following summer, I was generously granted a Lise Anne and Leo E. Beavers fellowship, and worked with fellow senior Ali Berlent on a project addressing evolutionary mismatch and the stress response system in stickleback. Using prolonged egg retention as a stressor and the steroid hormone cortisol as a stress indicator, we sought to ascertain the influence of stressors on the evolution of the stress response system in benthic and limnetic stickleback ecotypes. Additionally, we were interested in determining the influence of chronic maternal stress on offspring fitness.

Presently, I work under Ph.D student Melissa Graham on a project looking at differential gene expression in stickleback of different ecotypes when presented with alternative stimuli (including conspecific males, females, and foraging groups). We recently finished our first set of trials and will be analyzing our data in the coming months. To this end, the university offered me a unique opportunity to attend the 2013 Gene Expression Analysis workshop at the University of Illinois. This was a fantastic experience wherein I learned both hands-on laboratory techniques, including RNA extraction, and complex data analysis methods using R. I was able to learn from and collaborate with members of the Bell Lab at University of Illinois and become involved with the project at all levels, from experimental design to data analysis.

I am very excited to soon be embarking on my Master’s research, which will allow me to make use of threespine stickleback as an ideal model system for the study of psychiatric disorders and diseases. Chronically stressed wild stickleback have been observed to display a repertoire of aberrant and self-sabotaging behaviors not unlike those displayed by humans suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Through comparative whole-genome analysis of chronically stressed experimental stickleback, wherein some stickleback display PTSD-like symptoms and some do not, we may be able to identify novel differentially regulated genes involved in the production of PTSD. These genes will be ideal candidates for targets of gene therapies in related taxa, with the ultimate goal of use in humans.

Outside the Laboratory

Before I began working in the Foster-Baker lab, I worked as a police dispatcher at CUPD and as an EMT-Basic on Clark EMS. More recently, I’ve finished my biology and psychology degrees. Outside the lab you can often find me reading, cooking up some spicy food or puzzling over new findings in the cognitive sciences.


  • Lise Anne and Leo E. Beavers II Summer Research Fellowship, 2012
  • Dean of the College Student Travel Award