Ball State University’s Dr. Jessica Ward, associate professor of Biology, has been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to investigate how embryos of aquatic animal species learn about the world before hatching. 

The project will test multiple hypotheses of learning mechanisms to determine when learned behaviors are first expressed in embryos, and how and from whom embryos learn. The results will also provide insight into how animals perceive and transmit information among siblings in the nest prior to hatching.  

The research team, led by Dr. Ward and accompanied by graduate and undergraduate students, will use associative learning techniques to train embryos to recognize the identity of a specific predator olfactory cue, and then manipulate the composition of clutches to consist of naive and experienced embryos and test them in response to predator cues. 

For some experiments, the team will selectively ablate the sensory receptors of the lateral line system to help determine what sensory channels are used in embryo-to-embryo communication in the nest. While the insights of the research won’t be particularly applicable to humans, it will speak to some larger general questions about how embryonic experience shapes behavior later in life.  

The nearly half-million-dollar grant will fund research expenses, stipends and tuition for two Ph.D. students, as well as paid summer research opportunities for multiple undergraduate students each year. The students will help design and conduct the research, analyze the data, and disseminate the results through peer-reviewed papers and presentations at national scientific meetings. A significant portion of the grant—almost $200,000—will directly support student stipends and wages to meet their educational and research goals. 

This award is the most recent example of Ball State’s cutting-edge research in the sciences, following a $750,000 grant to develop a S-STEM program to increase retention and graduation rates, and another grant award to study the human-mediated spread of aquatic invasive species. 

“We are proud of the work being accomplished by the departments in our new Foundational Sciences building,” said Dr. Maureen McCarthy, dean of the College of Sciences and Humanities. “Grant awards, such as this one, recognize the dedication and pursuit of excellence shown by all of our faculty here at Ball State University.”