Undergraduate Research Program

Abby Burtner 

Major: Biology (Intended)
Mentor: Chris Law, UW Biology

Contact: aburtner@uw.edu

Current research project:1) The evolution of mammalian body plans: a case study in squirrels and 2) Understanding the origin of bat flight: evolutionary modeling of mammal limb morphologies


Abby is a sophomore in the Interdisciplinary Honors department studying biology. She is interested in understanding the evolutionary and environmental processes that influence anatomy. She is currently working on a project quantifying the diversity of mammalian body plans and another project examining how bat flight may have evolved. Her research is based at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, where you can find her measuring squirrel and bat skeletons. In her free time, Abby enjoys going on runs and bike rides around Seattle and hiking in the beautiful PNW.


Translate your work so that we can all understand its importance
An overarching goal in biology is to understand how form and function are intertwined and serve as adaptations to different habitats. In mammals, the range of body plans from small, elongate weasels to large, robust elephants is one of the most striking patterns of phenotypic variation on a macroevolutionary scale. The diversity of body and limb shapes in mammals is not well studied, so my work quantifies body plans across the squirrel family, Sciuridae, using skeletal specimens. The squirrels serve as a perfect model group to study whether the different squirrel ecotypes’ (flying, ground, and tree) body and limb shapes reflect adaptations for their different lifestyles. These findings can then contribute to an understanding of mammalian body plan evolution as a whole. On a related note, within mammals, the bats have an especially striking body plan, as they are the only mammals capable of true flight. Due to a deficient fossil record, the evolution of bat flight is still not fully understood, but is hypothesized to be the result of an ancestral transition from gliding to flying. My project uses evolutionary modeling in the program R to test whether elongated bat forelimbs may have evolved from glider forelimbs. Both of these research projects contribute to an understanding of the major patterns of phenotypic variation, a central goal of evolutionary biology.



When, how, and why did you get involved in undergraduate research?
I got involved in undergraduate research during Winter quarter of my freshman year through an opening on the URP’s Undergraduate Research Database. I wanted to get involved with research to 1) gain a sense of community that would make UW feel a little smaller, 2) engage with biology, a subject I love, outside of the classroom, and 3) make the most out of my first-year pandemic experience. I’m happy to say being involved in research has justified all of these reasons and more. It’s been a very formative experience in my undergraduate years so far.


What advice would you give a student who is considering getting involved in undergraduate research?
I would advise them to not to be afraid of not knowing! It can be terrifying to go into a research experience not knowing what’s going on, but remember that everyone didn’t know what was going on at some point. Interest and commitment will get you a long ways, as undergraduate research is all about learning stuff you’re excited about!