Making Science “Cool”

The sound of croaking frogs might conjure up memories of summer evenings. But for Robert Miranda, a doctoral student in the Department of Biological Sciences, this summer song is key to his research in behavioral and environmental endocrinology at Northern Arizona University, and to understanding more about social behavior in both humans and animals.

"Frog calling is crucial to male frog mating rituals, and if that system is altered—as we believe it may be due to chemical pollutants—it could potentially impact a frog's reproductive capacity," he says. "In doing this research, you want to use an organism that can serve as something feasible for lab work and a species that has implications for other organisms, and the frogs provide that."

Miranda's lifelong interest in biology and conservation brought him into the lab at Northern Arizona University, where he studies how chemicals in the environment interact with frog brain chemistry and hormones. Miranda wants to understand how those chemicals might impact human reproduction, mental health, and associated disorders, including autism.

“My research, including work in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, found that specific common pollutants affect frog brain signaling, mating behavior, and their ability to reproduce. These results suggest that animals in contaminated areas could be at risk due to chemical exposure,” he explains. 

Science is cool

Miranda also works to impart his research enthusiasm to college students, and to teach youngsters just how "cool" science can be.

"I wish I had this exposure to science and research when I was younger," Miranda said. "It is important to bring young scientists onto campus because sometimes science in the classroom may not be that exciting."

In an effort to show young students just how great science can be, Miranda participates in the university's Integrative Graduate Education, Research, and Traineeship (IGERT) program, which does community outreach with area schools. Through this work, Miranda can see that he is making a difference.

"I helped a science teacher develop lab activities, and I organized a field trip to NAU," he says. "These children visited our teaching greenhouse, the vertebrate museum in biology, and the Rio De Flag water treatment facility. They started their semester seeing science at a cellular level by looking at organisms, and they finished their semester talking about the environment. This was fun. The students saw that science is interesting, and that science is cool."

Researching alongside undergraduates

Miranda notes that he is equally happy to work with university students. He says there are great opportunities for undergraduate students to conduct research—which can be a huge asset in encouraging would-be scientists to follow their dreams.

"The undergraduate students at NAU are a great asset, and it's definitely a good experience for them to be involved with research, acquire research skills, and to simply understand how science is conducted," he says. "What is also nice about our programs is that faculty, who may not be directly involved in our project, but may have something to offer due to their area of expertise, will step in. There is always great teamwork here."