New paper!

New paper lead by postdoc Nick Keiser examines the relationships between group composition, collective behavior, and disease transmission in ants.  Check it out in the Journal of Animal Ecology!


Thoughts from an undergraduate researcher

Stephanie Zhao, a superstar Saltz lab undergraduate, describes her experiences in the lab so far:

Lessons from Fruit Flies

Pooting? Watching fruit flies lunge at one another? Painting fruit flies? If you are slightly confused as to what these things are/what doing these things are like, you have come to the right place! For this blog post, I just want to briefly touch on some of the unusual skills and things I have gotten to do in lab as well as point out one of the main lessons I learned from working there.

First, please let me introduce myself – my name is Stephanie Zhao, and I am a rising senior Ecology & Evolutionary Biology major at Rice University. I joined the Saltz lab in the fall of my sophomore year and have been a part of the lab ever since. 😊

Now back to the lab matters at hand – what is pooting? Pooting was one of the first things I learned how to do once I joined the lab. It involves inhaling quickly into a small tube to draw a fruit fly up into the tube’s other end, with a small piece of mesh in between to prevent the fruit fly from being swallowed. The fruit fly can then be transported from its previous test tube into the small petri dishes that we used to conduct aggression trials. The aggression trials were a part of how we studied behavior in the lab. After pooting various flies (separated by genotype and whether they were fed drugs or not) into specific petri dish arenas, we observed the flies and noted how often they lunged at one another. The last interesting thing (but certainly not the only other interesting thing) I learned in the lab skills-wise was that it was possible to paint fruit flies and how to do so. To do this, we take specific flies that we want to identify during behavioral observations and then paint a small dot on their pronotum. While this takes quite a bit of hand-eye coordination and quite a few flies have been unintentionally sacrificed in the attempts of this, I can say that I have gotten at least a little better at it this past year.

With that said, my time in the lab thus far has been quite a learning experience, both skills wise through techniques discussed above and others, increasing my general scientific awareness through the papers that we read and discuss during lab meetings, and in everyday life through what I have realized upon reflecting on my lab experiences.

Noticing the little things around me has been perhaps the biggest non-technical lesson I have learned. Through the sorting of thousands of individual fruit flies by gender to painting them and watching their behavior, I have been encouraged to take in more of the little details around me. Easily missed or underappreciated things like the sun shining through the leaves of the trees on campus, the small ants artfully creating a trail on the side of the path, and how nice it is when the breeze blows the right direction so your hair is gently swept behind your face rather than in front are a few examples of things I feel I more fully appreciate because of my time in the lab.

If you had asked me what I would work with in college research, I honestly don’t think fruit flies would have been anywhere in my answer (or even the top 20 of potential answers). However, these past two years in the Saltz lab have been incredibly enlightening and I am so thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of it.”


Thank you Stephanie!

Painting Olympics 2017!

This year’s lab skills olympics (previously Pooter Olympics–2014, 2015) was focused on our most hand-eye-coordination-intensive task: painting flies!  You don’t actually paint the whole fly (if you’re doing it right…); you paint a small dot on the pronotum.  This allows us to identify individuals during behavioral observations.

4 teams competed in 4 events.  They had to:

Aim 1. Paint as many flies as possible in 1 minute

Aim 2. Paint a fly with as many colors as possible (record = 4 colors)

Aim 3. Cooperatively paint flies (one team member holds the fly in place while the other paints)

Aim 4. Finger painting!


Ben and Emma painting cooperatively!

Fun times ensued.

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The results!  Plotted as reaction norms because obviously.

As you can see, there was considerable rank instability of team performance across painting contexts.  Could this suggest tradeoffs?  Painting speed vs. painting accuracy?  Team vs. individual proficiency?  Clearly, further research is needed!

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Saltz Lab 2017! (some members missing)

Thanks to everyone who participated in this and more mundane tasks, like painting flies for science!  Go science!

New paper! Trait correlations in the genomics era

A new paper, co-written by me, Morgan Kelly, and (former Rice undergrad) Francie Hessel is now up on TREE’s website:  In this paper, we focus on the genetic reasons for correlations between traits, including tradeoffs.  Why are some traits correlated, but not others?  Why are some traits positively correlated and others negatively correlated?  How do trait correlations evolve and/or influence evolution?  How many genes should produce trait correlations?

We review recent knowledge about how genetic variation produces trait variation and puzzle through the implications of these recent findings for the evolutionary genetics of trait correlations.

I learned a lot while writing this paper and it was great working with Morgan and Francie.  Comments welcome as always.


All the symposia

I have a symposium-packed summer coming up and I hope you will join me at some of these meetings!

First up, I’ll be speaking at the Canadian Society for Ecology & Evolution Meeting in a symposium on the role of the social environment in ecology & evolution.

Next, I’ll be speaking at the American Genetic Association 2017 conference.  This year’s theme is “Evolutionary Quantitative Genetics in the Wild” and is organized by Anne Bronikowski.

Third, I’m co-organizing a symposium at the SMBE meeting called “Systems Approaches to Behavior” with Joyce Kao.  Abstract submission is open until February 1.

Hope to see you this summer!  Happy to answer any questions if I can.


New paper!

New paper is out in Heredity!  In this paper, I examine the consequences of genetic variation in social choice (in flies)–if flies got to choose their own social groups, why would that matter?

I assayed the group-size preferences of multiple natural genotypes, and then forced independent individuals from those same genotypes to experience their preferred or un-preferred group sizes.  Surprisingly, flies were attacked by other flies more often in their preferred group size!  This was important because experience of being attacked affected the flies’ later aggressive behavior, even towards a new opponent.

I am interested in expanding this work to longer timescales, in understanding the consequences of genetic differences in preferences for habitat choice and sexual selection, and lots of other things!

What do you think?  Check it out here:

Comments welcomed!



update: Rice did a press release about the paper that was picked up by Futurity and  Also an interview about the paper will be featured on the Heredity podcast–I’ll post the link once it’s live.

Discrimination is unacceptable

As a scientist and person, I am heartbroken by the discriminatory hate speech and violence that have broken out in the wake of the election.

My lab studies diversity.  At least in fruit flies, we find that diversity does amazing things.  It can change the relationship between genotype and phenotype.  It can change selection itself!  Outside of science, I deeply value the diversity of experiences, perspectives, and humans whom I have known in my life, and who are out there contributing to our society.  Targeting people because they are “different” (as if anyone isn’t) is disgusting.

I am committed to valuing and protecting all members of our community.  If you are a Rice community member and need a space space, I am available.  There are also resources available to you at the Wellbeing center.  If you have ideas about how we can stand against discrimination, please share them (  If you identify as a female scientist and want to join our Women in Natural Sciences group, please email me.

Stay safe.

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We have 3 amazing new people in the Saltz lab!  Postdocs Tracy Douglas and Nick Keiser, and EEB PhD student Madeline Burns.  We had a party at Valhalla to welcome them and I did weird things with my arms:


Check out their research interests on the people page!

Be my colleague at Rice! (so many options!)

Are you awesome?  Obviously yes because you are here.  Therefore, you should check out the fantastic job opportunities we have in the BioSciences Department right now.

Tenure-track jobs (yes… jobs plural): we are searching in the broad areas of Ecology & Evolution and in Biochemistry & Cell Biology.  Both of these could include behavior, genetics and neuroscience.  Please apply!  Go here.

Huxley Fellowships (yes… fellowships plural): we are searching for Huxley Fellows in Ecology & Evolution.  This is a unique position that is sort of like a very independent postdoc or a 2-3 year faculty position.  Basically, you get to do your own science, teach, and participate in the department, so it’s ideal for a very independent postdoc. Go here.

I’m happy to answer questions about these positions.
Not convinced?  At Rice…

  • You can buy coffee for $1 without waiting in line.
  • We’re right across the street from the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world with dozens of biomedical institutions.
  • Our students do things like this… (semi-voluntarily!)


And a million other great things!  Like amazing colleagues!  (But that one was too obvious.)  And, in case you’re wondering–no, we do not have “campus carry.”