Generally, I apply an integrative approach to combine field and laboratory techniques to examine the impact of a wide range of stressors using wild songbirds and small mammals as animal models. I investigate proximate and ultimate questions related to the effects of naturally relevant stressors at the molecular and neuronal level and how these effects translate to neuroendocrine development and function and, finally, the subsequent effects on adult neuroplasticity, behaviour and, fitness.
Stress and glucocorticoids have well-known effects on the development and function of the nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. The HPA axis affects a range of integrated biological processes including immune function, life-history and breeding biology, development and aging, and neurogenesis. Nonetheless, the mechanisms governing the interaction between the environment and phenotype remain elusive. A growing body of biomedical research suggests that the connection resides in the epigenome, a fundamental mechanism that connects genes and the environment and the emerging area of ecological epigenetics is one research focus of my lab.
One of my primary study systems is a long-term marked population of wild Savannah Sparrows on Kent Island in the Bay of Fundy. A key feature of this population is that individuals born on the island have relatively high rates of natal philopatry, providing the unique opportunity to examine multigenerational effects in the wild. Using this songbird model system, I am conducting eco-physiological studies and currently testing the effects of post-natal stressors and the early life environment on juvenile survival, HPA responsiveness in adulthood, and fitness.
I have also been collaborating with the Kluane Red Squirrel Project to experimentally induce prenatal stress on wild red squirrels in order to understand the long-term effects on the offspring HPA axis, behaviour and fitness. Understanding the mechanisms and long-term effects of early-life stress on individual physiology and behaviour in a natural context is paramount to predicting the consequences of stress exposure on wild populations.