Highlander Highlights: Week of July 24, 2023

Every two weeks, Highlander Highlights shares with readers some of the extraordinary research and accomplishments happening on and off campus through the tireless work and curiosity of our students and faculty. 

Math major, biology faculty explore genetic structures of bats and salamanders

Abbi Green majors in statistics at Radford University, but during her first two years here, she has become pretty comfortable navigating the world of biological research.

Since she was a freshman, Green has been working with and applying her math skills to research conducted by Assistant Professor of Biology Tara Pelletier, exploring the genetic structures of bats and salamanders. In June, Green spoke about her role in the research at the Society for the Study of Evolution conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico.


The rising junior from Elkton, Virginia, elaborated on Pelletier’s work looking into “how genetic diversity is influenced by environmental and geographic variables across the globe,” Green explained. “It is really fun to apply my mathematical knowledge to biological problems.”

Green said she and Pelletier use open-source genetic data from online databases and publicly available environmental layers as the basis for their projects.

“I think this is really exciting because it allows us to reuse data collected by other researchers around the world that otherwise might not get used outside of the study it was collected for,” Green explained.

The conference is the joint annual meeting of the American Society of Naturalists, the Society for the Study of Evolution and the Society of Systematic Biologists. The meeting is one of the premier opportunities for sharing research on evolutionary biology each year.

It wasn’t the first time Green spoke at a conference on biological research. In 2022, she presented at the 50th Annual North American Symposium and the 19th International Bat Research Conference in Austin, Texas.

“While I am a statistics major at Radford,” Green said, “I really enjoyed meeting biologists at the conference and learning about lots of new things I might not have been exposed to otherwise.”


Biology faculty turns tragedy into research with  ‘silver linings’ playbook

In mid-February 2022, Professor of Biology Karen Powers and a student discovered about 55 American robins lying lifeless on the ground around Whitt, Floyd and Stuart halls in what they describe as a “mass mortality event.”

In the two weeks that followed, almost 30 more robins were found dead in those same locations.

The birds perished from the trauma of falling to the ground, according to necropsy test results of five of the robins conducted by the Laboratories for Wildlife Disease Diagnostics. Those results, however, could not reveal one important factor: why the birds fell.

“Although it’s hard to detect, they likely died from consuming fermented, toxic American holly berries from multiple mature American holly trees near the recovery site,” said Powers, a certified wildlife biologist. “American holly trees are native to the Radford area, and berries can ferment in the spring after multiple freeze-thaw events.”

Over the last year, the unfortunate circumstance has developed into a collaborative project that Powers and Associate Professor of Biology Sara O’Brien call “Finding a Silver Lining in the American Robin Mass Mortality Event at Radford University in Spring 2022: Collaborations, Connections and Student Scholarship.”

O’Brien and Powers said the sample of 80 American robins from the same flock “constitutes a unique chance to learn a great deal about a single migrating flock.” Therefore, they said, “multiple collaborators at Radford University and additional partners have initiated several student-inclusive research projects to fully utilize the whole carcasses available to us.”

So far, the team of researchers consists of five Department of Biology faculty members, five Radford undergraduate students majoring in biology, employees from the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center in Roanoke, Virginia, and researchers from Virginia Tech. Retired Professor of Biology Bob Sheehy worked on the project, too, identifying ectoparasites using DNA barcoding.

O’Brien and Powers also coordinated efforts with the Virginia Museum of Natural History to permanently house 69 robins prepared as museum specimens.

This work has created impactful professional opportunities for Radford students already. Earlier this year, three Radford University students – Liliana Dailey, Tessa Harmon and Bianca Plowman – were selected as winners for Best Undergraduate Student Poster for their research on ectoparasites of American robins at The Wildlife Society state chapter annual meeting in Martinsville, Virginia. Victoria Fisk and Katie Wheeler presented their work on microplastics in the robins at the meeting.

The research is also affording students an opportunity to broaden their networks, working with researchers from Virginia Tech and Fairfield University.

“This is an opportunity for our Radford University students to network with scientists and professionals from a wide range of institutions,” O’Brien and Powers said. “Our students are learning hands-on approaches to how scientists working in different disciplines and in different geographic areas work together to answer scientific questions.”

As for the research findings, the faculty duo believes “it will be a nice snapshot that will be well-received and inform future research endeavors ranging for population health, migratory biology, pollution impact and more.”

Decisions, decisions, decisions

We’re all faced with countless decisions throughout each day. Some of those carry more weight than others, whether it’s choosing a movie to stream or whether to purchase, say, company X that comes with a $44 billion asking price.

Everyone wants to make the correct choices no matter the circumstance or consequence, but to Radford University Assistant Professor of Management Zachary Collier, there is a distinction between a good decision and a good outcome. Collier, whose research explores risk and decision analysis, describes that a good outcome is getting the outcome you want, while a good decision is about the process that goes into decision-making.

In a column published on July 19, 2023, on the Credit Union Management website, Collier offers a six-part process for “good decision-making.”


“You know that you have made a good decision if the six elements of decision quality are as good as they can reasonably be,” Collier wrote.

In the article, Collier briefly explores Elon Musk’s decision – to purchase the social media company currently known as Twitter. Was it a good or poor choice?

If reading Collier’s article whets your appetite to learn more about making decisions, the Davis College of Business and Economics faculty member is scheduled to lead a workshop, “Making Decisions and Navigating Risks,” on Aug. 11 at the Roanoke Higher Education Center. 

Katz formally receives nurse practitioners award

In January, Radford University associate professor of nursing Katie Katz, D.N.P. ’13, M.S.N. ’09, learned she was the 2023 recipient of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) State Award for Excellence in Virginia. Five months later, in New Orleans, Katz received official recognition at the AANP national conference, which focused on “Restoring, Recharging and Renewing the Nurse Practitioner Community.”

“I am very honored to have been selected to receive this award,” Katz said in January. “I have been blessed to have wonderful mentors, colleagues, and patients who have all contributed to this recognition.”

In addition to her teaching role in Radford’s School of Nursing, Katz works with Everside Health, overseeing a workplace wellness clinic at a manufacturing facility in Salem, Virginia. 

Jul 28, 2023
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761