Goldwater Scholar Jennifer Chaffin studies aggression in crayfish.

Goldwater Scholar Jennifer Chaffin studies aggression in crayfish.

BGSU biology major wins prestigious Goldwater Scholarship

Eavesdropping isn’t the most admirable trait in the human realm, but in a crayfish’s watery world, it may just help the offender survive.

That’s what Jennifer Chaffin is trying to find out in her research as a biology major at BGSU. And next year, as a senior, she’ll do it with the help of a recently awarded Goldwater Scholarship, an academic-based honor that pays up to $7,500 per year for tuition and fees, books, and room and board.

Chaffin, who has a 4.0 grade point average, is one of 278 Goldwater Scholarship recipients for the 2009-10 academic year. Those sophomores and juniors are among 1,097 science, engineering and mathematics students who were nominated by faculty at their institutions nationwide.

“This scholarship is given to those undergraduates who show significant promise as a future scientist and is considered the premier scholarship for those students in the sciences,” said Dr. Paul Moore, biological sciences, who nominated Chaffin for the award and has overseen her research. 

With a specialization in ecology and conservation biology, Chaffin described that research as working “with agonistic (aggressive and defensive) interactions” between crayfish, which are naturally aggressive.

The crustaceans release chemicals as they fight as a form of posturing to others, the Cincinnati resident explained. In her work with Moore, two crayfish fight in a tank where a third is unable to see them but may be able to sense what’s happening through its ability to smell the released chemicals in the water—eavesdropping, in this usage.

Because crayfish are nocturnal, and not necessarily able to see because of the darkness, the research is aimed at learning if they can “eavesdrop” even if they can’t see and can glean information that could enhance their survival, she said. The effect is tested by pairing the third crustacean with yet another crayfish and trying to determine if its earlier eavesdropping makes that crayfish more likely to win or lose the subsequent fight, or to escalate it more quickly, added Chaffin.

“Jennifer’s research is essential in understanding how animals acquire information,” Moore said. “Humans are so visually oriented that we tend to ignore how important chemical signals are in other animals’ lives. Jennifer’s work clearly shows that the aquatic world is a lot more complex than we thought it was, and that crayfish are capable of performing some fairly advanced behaviors.”

Before beginning her senior year at BGSU, Chaffin will serve a summer internship at the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge near Wells, Maine, just south of Kennebunkport at the state’s southern tip. There, she will remove invasive species—mostly plant species in this case—in a coastal salt marsh and restore habitat for the New England cottontail rabbit, which is approaching endangered status due to its declining numbers. The rabbit needs a thicket habitat, which has been degraded by development, said Chaffin, who will plant native species in an effort to help restore the ecosystem.

The daughter of Ernie and Suzanne Chaffin of Cincinnati, the 2005 Anderson High School graduate plans to spend more time in both the classroom and the field after earning her undergraduate degree next year.

“In the long run, I would like to go to grad school and then work with sustainable management of natural ecosystems and do some teaching” at the college level, she said.

May 11, 2009