From NAU to the Audubon Center

Lauren Marks

For Northern Arizona University alumna Lauren Marks, winning the Hooper Undergraduate Research Award (HURA) was both a reward for her previous hard work as an undergraduate and an opportunity to gain valuable experience in her field prior to graduation.

The award provided Marks, who graduated in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, with an opportunity to conduct important research as an undergraduate, which eventually set her up for a job at the Riparian Institute (a non-profit education and recreation resource for riparian/river areas) in Gilbert, Arizona, a position she held until February.

Now Marks turns to the next chapter of her professional career after taking an opportunity in Washington following successful stops in Arizona, Louisiana, and New Mexico.                                                                                        

Researching an “evolutionary arms race”

Marks chose to pursue her bachelor’s degree in biology because she found it fascinating due to its competitive nature and how it affects the world around her.

“I really love the life sciences evolutionary arms race, where parasite and host are competing to out-evolve one another," she said. “I have always been interested in life sciences and the interdependence of organisms. I have a lot of other interests, but biology just made sense and I knew I’d end up working with animals at a fairly young age.” 

Marks used the HURA funds to study a local “evolutionary arms race” that particularly interested her. She examined how amphipods—crustaceans found mostly in marine environments— in Montezuma’s Well, a natural limestone sinkhole near Rimrock, Arizona, drive evolution and shape behavior.

Marks first became interested in studying amphipods while helping a graduate student conduct their research on leeches at Montezuma’s Well. She noticed the amphipods were a bright orange color, and learned that they changed color in order to make it easier for ducks to eat them. Marks quickly became fascinated by this host manipulation and began studying its effects in other indigenous creatures. After spending a year and a half absorbed in these in-depth studies, it made sense to apply for the Hooper Award.

“Writing a grant proposal is not something typically done by undergraduates,” Marks says of the HURA. “The demonstrated ability to get your own funding is highly desirable by potential research advisers or employment agencies, but it is also a valuable skill for anyone to have under their belt.”

She says winning the award and doing further research helped her grow as a student and prepared her for her future work immensely. Not only did Marks’ research pay off, but it also helped her practice her public speaking skills while she presented at conferences, including the NAU Undergraduate Research Symposium and the Wildlife Society.

Research early and often 

Though her research on amphipods was one of her earliest passions, Marks also helped many of her worked on a small independent study in North Carolina in 2010 about the grazing effects of the periwinkle snail on salt marsh cord grass. The research Marks underwent as an undergraduate gave her an edge in the professional world, and she urges current undergraduates to explore research early in their education—even as freshmen or sophomores.

“It’s never too early to get involved with research; it’s a really good opportunity," Marks said. “I gained so much experience with invertebrates, and most of the positions I’m applying for involve field work.”

Marks said students who engage in research activity early in their educational careers have more control over their research—and they gain the ability to work on projects that interest them. 

“If you get involved earlier, you can develop your own project,” Marks said. “Don’t wait until graduate school.”

Next up

Marks recently finished working as an avian field technician in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge surveying songbirds in order to assess riparian habitat health. Her next adventure begins in Washington as Marks has recently been offered a position as a logistical coordinator/educator at Salish Sea Expeditions.

Despite the constant relocation, Marks says taking a variety of occupations at her young age will help her round out her resume and teach her a variety of lessons applicable to her future goals of attending graduate school and working in education.

"I love moving from job to job because I am learning an abundance of skills to apply in different habitats and environments,” Marks said. “It's really giving me the ‘big picture’ while giving me a chance to travel and find out what I would like to focus on.”