From IWU Magazine, Fall 2012 edition

Cracking open a mystery


 Sarah Takushi examined the complex structure of cowbird eggshells to glean insights into evolutionary adaptation. With her research came the realization of “how complex nature is. Before, I’d look at an egg and see an omelet.”

Last spring, at IWU’s John Wesley Powell Student Research Conference, Sarah Takushi ’13 gave an oral presentation called “An Adapted Method for Measuring Gas Exchange Across Avian Eggshells.”

“I tried to give it the catchy title,” she says with a laugh.

As a pre-med biology major, Takushi “never expected to be so involved in the avian community, but eggshell research has been an interesting turn of events,” she says. “I’ve realized how complex nature is. Before, I’d look at an egg and see an omelet.”

Now, in the University’s Center for Natural Science, she looks under a scanning electron microscope and sees 3-D images of exquisite, complex structures. She is studying cowbird eggshells, trying to determine the rates of gas exchange through the shell’s pores. Gas exchange through these pores is essential for normal embryonic development.

Brown-headed cowbirds don’t build their own nests; they’re a brood parasite, meaning they drop their eggs in nests of other small perching birds and let them raise their young. It’s risky behavior, but it works, Takushi says. Cowbirds tend to hatch before any other eggs in the nest.

“Cowbirds have an evolutionary adaptation that gives them a shorter incubation period. Even if it’s just a half-day sooner, they’re stronger and better at begging than their nest mates,” she says.

Takushi hopes the research she began as an Eckley scholar and will continue through her senior year will help provide a better understanding why cowbirds have been able to make a success out of this risky evolutionary strategy.


William Jaeckle, associate professor of biology, encouraged Takushi to apply for an Eckley scholarship and says he only provided direction; she developed the project.

“If Sarah did not work on this particular project, it would not have been done,” says Jaeckle, whose own research focuses on aspects of the physiology and ecology of invertebrate animals and their developmental stages. “Every datum collected was collected by Sarah. She was not merely handed a project that had been developed by someone else. She made the project her own.”

Although the scholarship allowed the senior to spend 40 hours a week in the lab, she was there on weekends too, and seemed more than anxious to get back after taking 30 minutes away from it. “You get an attachment to the lab,” she says. “I spend more waking hours there than anywhere else.”

Takushi still plans to go to medical school but is considering both a gap year to do research and a possible career in biomedical research.

“This experience has made me appreciate the research lifestyle,” says Takushi, whose ornithological interests began as a junior when she studied birds in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador. “I can see myself going into biomedical research rather than medical practice. The most stressful thing is choosing from all the opportunities available.”

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