Ali Stiller ’20 focuses on sexual dimorphism at the glandular level in salamanders under Dr. Nancy Staub at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA

Hi! My name is Ali Stiller, and I’m a rising Senior majoring in Biology. This summer I’m doing research at Gonzaga University. GU is in Spokane, Washington, which is just three hours northeast of Walla Walla. I’m working in Dr. Nancy Staub’s lab with three junior GU students.

The Staub lab focuses on sexual dimorphism at the glandular level in salamanders.

Plethodontidae, the salamander genus we study, has an elaborate courtship ritual that can last several hours and involves pheromone transfer from the male to the female. These pheromones help convince the female to engage/continue with courtship. Specific courtship glands in males secrete these important pheromones. Courtship glands have only been found in male salamanders and, consequently, are considered to be sexually dimorphic.

Recently, a possible courtship gland has been discovered on the ventral tail surface of female Aneides lugubris, a salamander species. This gland is called the modified granular gland. Although the function of this gland has not been confirmed, its possible role in courtship may suggest that communication during courtship may be bidirectional. This means that females may be communicating back to the males during their lengthy courtship—a totally new concept!

My research involves looking for modified granular glands in three different salamander species (Aneides flavipunctatus, Aneides ferreus, Aneides hardii). In order to do this, I need to dissect tissue from male and female salamander tails, embed this tissue in paraffin, section the tissue into very small segments, and stain the tissue. This is a multi-day process. Luckily, students have been working in the Staub lab for decades, so there is a plethora of already dissected, embedded, and sectioned tissue. All I have to do is stain and examine these tissue slides for modified granular glands. However, staining can be a long and troublesome process. The Quad stain that we often work with takes almost four hours and involves submerging slides in around thirty liquids that help salamander tissues react with four different stains. For the past four weeks, my lab team and I have been troubleshooting the Quad stain in order to determine how to make all four stains appear on each slide. Just recently, we got the Quad stain to work, so my next step is examining my tissue slides under the microscope for modified granular glands. My typical day involves looking at slides in the morning and staining slides in the afternoon.

I’m looking forward to the next few weeks, where I’ll prepare a research presentation for GU students doing summer research and continue staining and looking at slides.

My three coworkers, our lab (live) newt, and our super cool mentor has made this summer internship fantastic.


Experiences like Ali Stiller’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Mitzy Rodriguez

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