Taking Students Under His Wing
Biology professor Troy Murphy brings students into avian research inside and outside the classroom
Friday, April 16, 2021
Troy Murphy sets up bird catching net

At large research universities, research opportunities are often reserved for graduate students and undergraduates are left doing menial tasks such as cleaning beakers. But, at Trinity, that’s not the case.

“No one is washing dishes in my lab,” boasts Troy Murphy, associate professor of biology.

Instead, students in his lab, like all undergraduate researchers at Trinity, are leading and developing their own research projects and agendas.

“At Trinity, students are actively pursuing knowledge," he says. "Especially at this stage in their education, undergraduates thrive when given the opportunity to become someone who can create knowledge rather than just digest it. When a student makes that transformation - and contributes to discovery, it provides a boost of confidence that pushes them forward with whichever path in life they have chosen. When I see that spark in students, it never fails to bring a huge smile to my face."

Murphy runs an avian research lab of eight undergraduate students. Currently, he and his students are examining the evolution of cooperative and competitive behavior of the bird, the black crested titmouse. They spend hours-long days at local field sites monitoring behavior of radio-tagged titmice as they visit feeders and nest boxes the group has placed throughout the site. 

Murphy's research students study the black crested titmouse at a field site in Texas Hill Country.

The titmice live in groups of multiple related and unrelated birds for approximately seven months of the yearan unusual phenomenon in songbirds, and one that poses an evolutionary conundrum. Unrelated individuals are not typically accepted into social groups. Recently, three Trinity students from his lab, along with international collaborators from The Netherlands, published a paper in the journal, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, examining the idea that being in such a group provides a benefit in territory defense. Their findings indicate that juvenile birds are more aggressive than adults and are likely to fend off intruders, providing a benefit for the adult birds who let these young ones live with them. These results support the evolutionary game-theoretical model referred to as “pay-to-stay,” which predicts how unrelated individuals reward altruists for cooperative acts. The paper received an award for the “Best Student-Authored Paper” from the journal.

Murphy's research lab studies the behavior and evolution of the titmouse.

“When mentoring students, my goal is for them to take their research from an initial question through to an answer.  This means that students go all the way from an idea through the long process of collecting data, analyzing it, thinking back to how we startedand then testing that hypothesis and predictions. We then go through the challenging process of writing a scientific paper and combining all those ideas into a story that makes sense and reflects the data in an objective way,” Murphy says.

Murphy, who joined the Trinity faculty in 2009, extends this experiential learning from his research lab into the classroom as much as he can.

Murphy takes his students to nearby field sites to have experiential learning experiences as much as he can.

"Here at Trinity, we're not just teaching science from a textbook using ‘cookbook’ lab procedures with known outcomes; we're testing questions that are open ended and that sometimes yield ambiguous results. I feel it is imperative to teach students to appreciate both the power and the limitations of science. We live in a science-driven culture, and scientific data can be powerful if interpreted correctly, while in contrast, the same data can be dangerous when misinterpreted. This is especially apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. The open-ended nature of our classroom research projects allows students to dive deeper into their understanding of the process of science, and they walk away knowing the difference between absolute proof (which does not exist in science), and what it means to say that there is support for a hypothesis."

For example, Murphy teaches an upper-division experiential learning based biology course in ecology and evolution. He takes students enrolled in the course to the same field site where his research lab studies birds in the Texas Hill Country. Here his classroom students study the biotic and abiotic interactions that limit reproductive success. They follow individually marked birds to test how ecological pressures favor or limit evolutionary change. Students also learn techniques of catching, tagging, and observing the behavior of these birds. They then help collect data for many of Murphy’s ongoing projects in his research lab.

Murphy shows his students how to catch titmice and add radio-tagged identification bands so that individuals in his study population can be traced over time.

Murphy cites the high caliber of students that Trinity attracts as the reason this kind of hands-on classroom learning is possible. "The quality of our students allows us to bring real-world research into the classroom. Students eagerly accept the challenges, and I am always pleased to see the collaborative spirit between them. We always have fun and oftentimes we learn something new," he says.

And those discoveries alongside Murphy aren’t just limited to students in the biology department. Murphy crossed disciplinary boundaries to advise a group of senior engineering science students on their year-long capstone design project. He is lending his expertise in avian signaling to help the students design a cat collar that will warn birds of the cats’ presence and protect local biodiversity. 

The project began after a casual conversation in the Center for the Sciences and Innovation with Luis Martinez, director of entrepreneurship, who suggested Murphy pitch his idea to the engineering science department.

“That's the nice thing about Trinitywe have these collaborative collisions,” Murphy says. “You can walk to the mailroom and bump into colleagues in different departments and strike up conversation. And that conversation can lead to the generation of these really cool, collaborative ideas."

While Murphy loves the teaching and research opportunities he has at Trinity, if you ask him why he came to Trinity, the answer is simpleTrinity has amazing students. And Murphy does his best to establish meaningful connections with them as they grow from student to scientist.

Murphy and his students monitor nest boxes across his field site throughout the breeding season.

On a Saturday a few weeks ago, Murphy’s students gathered around the porch in his backyard for more than seven hours. They laughed and smiled as they shared stories, ate pizza and snacks, and built avian traps. The day was spent preparing for the upcoming field research season. But more importantly, Murphy and his students were bonding and building a close-knit community. 

"This kind of community and the sense that this group is family is really important to me, and I think it's really important to the students too,” Murphy shares. “Let’s remember that these students are deeply committed to the multiple classes they are taking across campus. So it is truly amazing that my research team eagerly invests their Saturdays to our research projects. There is something powerful about working towards a common goal with your friends and collaborators. This is the fabric of our community, and this level of commitment is not something that you see at many universities. It is truly inspiring."

Photos by Molly Schroeder

Madison Semro '21 helps tell Trinity's story as a writing intern with Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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