• Romi L.Burks, Ph.D. holding an Apple snail in Ecology Lab
    Romi L.Burks, Ph.D. holding an Apple snail in Ecology Lab

Dr. Romi Burks, Professor of Biology and co-chair of the Environmental Studies and Animal Behavior Programs, describes her training as a ‘general aquatic ecologist’ with a particular emphasis in how ecological interactions between species structure habitat and communities of lake ecosystems.   Working with undergraduate researchers as collaborators, Burks’ research specialties have developed during her time at Southwestern.  Now, depending on the day, Burks can wear a science hat as a ‘malacologist’ (person that studies snails), ‘invasion biologist’ (person that focuses on exotic, invasive species), ‘conservation ecologist’ (person interested in how exotic species stress habitats) or ‘amateur molecular ecologist’ (person using molecular tools to answer ecological questions).  Her favorite hat to wear as a researcher will always be as a “community shallow laker” or a scientist that studies the species interactions that occur in lakes that do not undergo thermal stratification. 

When she arrived in 2003, Burks focused on understanding the behavioral patterns of an important algal grazer, Daphnia, and how the presence or absence of these small creatures contributed to environmental water quality.  These small crustaceans (commonly called water fleas) act as grazing cows in a sea of green lake water and help maintain clear water in shallow lakes.  The presence of aquatic plants often helps facilitate their survival.   In 2004, an Environmental Studies major, Rebecca Marfurt, changed the research trajectory of Burks dramatically by introducing her to a large, freshwater snail that had recently established populations in the canals and bayous of Houston, TX.    Now known as Pomacea maculata, the particular species established in Texas and along the southern Gulf Coast belongs to a genus that includes other successful exotic, invasive species and a family (Ampullariidae) known for its vast diversity.   Collectively, these apple snails play important roles as consumers of plants and algae, prey for many species (including some endangered ones), carriers of organisms that transmit diseases as well as nutrient cyclers within multiple types of aquatic ecosystems, including shallow lakes!   As Burks learned more and more about the generalist appetite of certain Pomacea species for aquatic plants, the connections with controls of water clarity in shallow lakes rose to the surface.           

Burks now works with undergraduates to investigate the diversity, distribution, ecology and life history traits of freshwater apple snails, both in exotic as well as in native habitats.  She recently co-authored a paper in the open-access journal PLoSOneKyle et al. (2013) offer a mathematical approach to predict the clutch sizes (a surrogate for reproductive potential) of apple snail species in native and exotic habitats based on the shape of the clutches laid.  She collaborates closely with Dr. Kenneth Hayes of Howard University and Dr. Rob Cowie at the University of Hawaii and routinely takes students to conduct research in South America, primarily in Uruguay.  A grant from the International Research Experiences for Students program at the National Science Foundation makes this work possible.  Southwestern University recently posted a story about the latest trip and also hosts a gallery.   Last summer, she worked with students as part of the SCOPE Program sponsored by Southwestern and made possible through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute institutional program in inquiry-based learning.  In addition to the her authorship efforts with students, Burks’ current writing projects include lead author on a chapter about Pomacea maculata, co-author of a comprehensive review on the family Ampullariidae and invited reviewer regarding the known biology and ecology of P. maculata for an Invasive Species Compedium project.  As part of the Environmental Studies Program, Burks teaches classes such as Biodiversity, Ecology and Writing about Science.