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Biology Students at Grad Research Symposium

Ghazi Mahjoub is this year’s winner of the Strikwerda Award for Excellence in the Natural and Computational SciencesThe 13th annual installment of the Graduate Research Symposium will be held this Friday and Saturday 21/22 March in the Sadler Center. Graduate students from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities will present their research during concurrent oral sessions and during poster sessions on both days. This year, over 160 students from W&M and 17 other regional colleges and universities will be presenting. The two-day symposium encourages interdisciplinary exchange, and has developed into the graduate research event of the season.

Typical of past years, the Biology Department will be well-represented, with our graduate students giving both oral presentations and posters. The Biology concurrent session starts at 8:30 on Friday morning in Chesapeake C and continues all morning, followed by the first poster session at 11AM. On Saturday morning, the Biology concurrent session begins at 8:30 in Tidewater B, followed by the second poster session at 11AM.

After Saturday’s poster session, a luncheon and awards ceremony begins at noon. This year, the Carl J. Strikwerda Award for Excellence in the Natural and Computational Sciences —given to the M.S. student whose thesis research paper was judged most outstanding by a multidisciplinary panel of William & Mary faculty and Graduate Studies Advisory Board members—will be awarded to Biology graduate student Ghazi Mahjoub. Ghazi is a student in the lab of Dr. John Swaddle, and his research paper title is “Excluding pest birds from socio-economically important areas using directional sounds”.

The Swaddle lab has been investigating the extent to which directional sounds, cast like a net over specific areas (like crops, or near runways), might be used to exclude birds by interfering with the birds’ ability to communicate using sound. Ghazi’s work with starlings has provided some of the first aviary-based, experimental data showing an effect of directional sounds on a pest species. Starlings cause 100s of millions of dollars of crop damage annually, so working with starlings was a good first step. Of course, Ghazi had to first catch starlings for his aviary work, and other graduate students have noted that Ghazi is a good fisherman but not particularly good at catching birds!

Ghazi expresses amazement that he finally caught a bird.  Unfortunately, it was not a starling…In the aviary, Ghazi was able to set up a sonic beam of “white noise” targeted over a food source. Feeding by starlings at those food sources was significantly lower than at control food sources without the sonic beam. In addition, Ghazi quantified the time-at-attention (vigilance) spent by starlings in response to a pre-recorded alarm call. In the presence of directed noise, the starlings spent little to no time paying attention to alarm calls, indicating they were unable to communicate and respond to the presence of danger to their flock. Collectively, the results of Ghazi’s experiments suggest that sonic nets decreased occupancy and feeding by the starlings. Field trials this summer by members of the Swaddle lab will test some of the conclusions that Ghazi developed in his aviary studies.

Ghazi is third in a line of consecutive Strikwerda Awards given to Biology graduate students. In addition to Ghazi in 2014, Courtney Turrin won in 2013 (Bryan Watts, advisor), and Morgan Niccoli won in 2012 (Matthias Leu, advisor). No other department can lay claim to a “Strikwerda Three-Peat” in the natural and computational sciences!