biological sciences - College of Engineering & Computer Science

biological sciences

ENS faculty and students honored for research and industry advancement

The following faculty and students from the TU College of Engineering and Natural Sciences recently have received recognition in their respective fields.

McDougall School of Petroleum Engineering


Williams Professor of Petroleum Engineering Hong-quan Zhang has won the 2020 Society of Petroleum Engineers International Production and Operations Award.


Wellspring Professor of Petroleum Engineering Evren Ozbayoglu and Eissa M. Al-Safran, a professor at Kuwait University, have been named SPE Distinguished Members. Also, TU PhD student Elias Gavrielatos is a 2020 recipient of the Henry DeWitt Smith Scholarship.

See the official announcement of 2020 SPE International Awards.

Department of Biological Sciences


Professor Akhtar Ali is the recipient of a new five-year, multi-institution, USDA grant to study diseases of cotton, corn and wheat. Ali’s lab will focus on developing techniques for early detection of cotton pathogens and disease. The total award is $578,000.


Professor Ron Bonett recently was awarded a third year of funding for a grant from the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation to study the “Distribution, Diversity, and Ecological Limits of the Ouachita Dusky Salamanders in Oklahoma.”



Genome research published in Science explains color differences in birds

A University of Tulsa researcher has helped discover the gene responsible for creating sexual dimorphism in birds. Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Matthew Toomey and an international team of biologists published the article “A genetic mechanism for sexual dichromatism in birds” this week in the prestigious research journal Science. 

Sexual dichromatism is a term describing the phenomenon observed in many bird species, in which males and females exhibit striking differences in coloration. Typically, male birds display flashy, colorful feathers, while females tend to be drab. Scientists have proposed that the explanation for this difference is that male birds are competing among other males for the attention of females. Although outwardly males and females can display very different color patterns, their genomes are nearly identical. How then do these color differences between the sexes arise? Toomey’s research collaboration explains for the first time how changes in the expression of a single gene can generate dramatic coloration differences between male and female birds. 

genome research
Photo courtesy of Geoff Hill.

To investigate the mechanisms of sexual dichromatism, Toomey and his colleagues studied the mosaic canary (pictured). This breed of canary was created by bird fanciers decades ago by breeding the yellow canary species, where males and females are the same color (monochromatic), with a sexually dichromatic species, the red siskin. The initial goal of the bird fanciers was to produce a red canary. In 2016, Toomey and the team found that these red canaries carry red siskin genes for an enzyme that converts yellow pigments to red. Along with monochromatic red canaries, bird breeders also produced mosaic canaries that carry the red siskin genes for both redness and sexual dichromatism. To identify the gene for dichromatism, Toomey and the group sequenced the genomes of the dichromatic mosaic canaries, compared them to the typical monochromatic canary and identified differences associated with the gene for enzyme β-carotene oxygenase 2 (BCO2). 

Toomey and his colleagues recently discovered that BCO2 plays a key role in breaking down pigments controlling the coloration of the beaks and legs of birds by studying another oddly colorful canary, the urucum breed. “We compared the urucum canary breed, which has uniquely colorful beaks and legs, to typical canaries, with drab beaks and legs,” he explained. “We found that the urucum birds have a mutation in BCO2 that renders it non-functional. The urucum birds become colorful in the beak and legs because they are not able to break down pigments the way a typical canary does. This result suggests that bright beak and leg coloration might be easily switched on and off through the course of evolution with simple changes in the expression of BCO2.” 

In the dichromatic mosaic canaries, the research team showed that the expression of BCO2 differs between sexes. Female mosaic canaries express higher levels of the enzyme than males, which destroys colorful pigments in developing feathers and leads to the relatively drab appearance of females. The research team also observed female-biased expression of BCO2 in other dichromatic bird species suggesting that may be a common mechanism of dichromatism amongst birds. 

This result paves the way for deeper investigations into how other factors such as mating systems, nesting behaviors, predation pressures and light environments affect bird coloration. Toomey explains, “We now have an unprecedented opportunity to trace how coloration has evolved in response to these evolutionary pressures, through specific genetic regulatory changes.”    

See the published research in Science.

Biology abroad: ISL student realizes her full potential with TU dual degree

Biological sciences and German senior Alyssa Williams is on track to become the first student to officially complete The University of Tulsa’s new International Science and Language program. Few students take on the challenge of earning two complex degrees in just five years, but Williams is expected to graduate next spring after studying both majors.

Biology + German

The Broken Arrow native took German language courses in high school, and when the program eventually was eliminated, she focused on her other interests in science. “I had a lot of cool biology teachers in high school, so I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said.

international scienceShe enrolled at TU to pursue biology, but during her freshman year, she met a friend who was studying German. Williams often did homework with her and by the second year of college, she was adding German classes to her schedule. A year later, David Tingey and Victor Udwin, associate professors of German and comparative literature, told Williams about a new program launching at TU. The International Engineering and Language or International Science and Language program enables students to study an engineering or science discipline while learning a foreign language. After completing the required coursework and studying and interning abroad for one year, participants graduate with bachelor’s of science and bachelor’s of art degrees. IEL and ISL participants are empowered with the tools, knowledge and experience to establish a career in engineering or science while communicating and working effectively in a second language and culture.

“I had never considered going abroad,” Williams said. “It always sounded really cool, but I didn’t think it was something I would do.”

A year in Freiburg, Germany

The application process was simple, requiring only a language competency exam to determine her level of German-speaking skills. Williams explained Tingey and Professor of Biological Sciences Estelle Levetin were instrumental in arranging classes and an internship abroad. With additional help from the global exchange organization Cultural Vistas, she received an internship offer within a month of applying and was matched with a lab ideal for her interests and location. In just a few weeks, she joined the program and prepared to embark on the adventure of a lifetime in the city of Freiburg, Germany. Her first semester, she took five classes at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg. The second half of the year, she worked in a plant lab at the same institution.

international science“I had a lot of biology credits, so I spent more time studying German,” Williams said. “The second semester was more focused on science and working with a species of plant called Arabidopsis thaliana. I learned new lab techniques and basics I can use in the future, and I helped my mentor with a project that involved growing and tracking 70 plant varieties in Petri dishes.”

Every few weeks, she was responsible for tracking the root systems and applying varying concentrations of salt and drying agents to record lateral root growth. The year abroad also offered Williams the chance to experience different living environments. The first six months, she shared a flat with other college students from China, Mexico and Germany. She met other Americans too and traveled frequently with student groups to other countries such as Prague, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and France.

“In Europe, everything is so much closer together,” Williams explained. “You can take these really cheap buses and just go see everything.”

Stepping out of her comfort zone

Exploring new countries and cities, experiencing the different cultures and practicing her German gave Williams the confidence to become more independent during the second semester abroad; she went to the government office in Freiburg and registered to apply for a Student Visa. She set up her living arrangements and lived by herself. English was not commonly used in many of the European cities she visited, so by the time she returned to America in July 2019, her proficiency in German had drastically improved. Williams said she also learned a lot about how other countries function differently in society.

“There’s definitely a cultural aspect to it. Germans are much more straight-forward. In the lab, they would use sticky notes to give instructions. To us, it would be considered passive-aggressive, but to them, they think, ‘there’s an issue, so we’re going to address it.’ Also in Freiburg, everyone dresses up, no one leaves the house just wearing sweatpants,” she said with a smile.

With graduation on the horizon, Williams plans to take the GRE and maybe apply to grad school but beginning her career in the research world also is an option. Either way, she said the ISL experience helped her grow as a person and realize her potential. “Before, I was a biology major and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Now, I’m a biology and German major who is more independent. I don’t necessarily know exactly what I want to do, but I can see the roads ahead of me.”