From Seal Whiskers to Fish, CELS Graduate Student is Getting in Touch with Sensory Biology

CELS marine biology graduate student Aubree Jones

If you’ve ever accidentally placed your hand on a hot stove, you know just how important our sense of touch is. But for other animals like fish, their survival depends on their ability to sense vibrations and currents underwater. As a College of Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) marine biology graduate student, this is exactly what Aubree Jones seeks to understand through her research in sensory biology. “It’s referred to as touch-at-a-distance,” says Jones, whose research on the mechanosensory lateral line system of freshwater fishes gained her a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. “You could liken it to whenever someone turns on a fan across the room and you feel the air movement. It’s the same sort of thing, just at a much finer, more sensitive level.”

Jones’ journey as a marine biologist began in the least expected place: the land-locked state of Oklahoma. As a high school student at an underfunded public school in Tulsa, her teachers encouraged her to pursue her interests in STEM, which led to a career in marine biology. “Maybe it was a way to get out of Oklahoma for a bit. It was definitely a way for me to go out and see the world,” Jones recalls. “I loved the ocean when I had the chance to visit it a few times. I just really loved ocean life and was really fascinated by it.”

Jones dove right in and began conducting research in a lab during her freshman year in the marine biology program at Texas A&M University at Galveston. It was there where she discovered her unexpected passion for sensory biology, the basis of her undergraduate thesis. “Which was actually on seal whiskers,” Jones says with a laugh. Seals are able to find fish to eat by using their whiskers to detect paths of underwater turbulence left behind by a fish.

Aubree Jones presenting her undergraduate research

Jones, a graduate student in Dr. Jacqueline Webb’s lab, now focuses on the development of sensory systems in trout and minnows. Similar to seal whiskers, fish use a sensory system known as the lateral line to detect flows underwater that are generated by prey and predators. Understanding the variation in the development and how different species use this sensory system has some very important implications. In a recent study, trout raised using aquaculture methods were shown to develop differences in their lateral line systems compared to wild trout, which may affect their ability to sense flows underwater. “Understanding how this sensory system is developing could affect the survival of the fish and how successful fish are when trying to reintroduce them,” Jones says. Additionally, as waterways become cloudier as a result of global change and increased pollution, fish are forced to rely less on sight and more on other senses to survive. Through understanding differences in the lateral line system among fish species, Jones’ research will help understand the increasing threats to fish populations in the coming years.

Jones’ dedication to her research has paid off. Last spring, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recognized Jones as a Graduate Research Fellow, a highly competitive award that includes funding to cover three years of her education plus an annual $34,000 stipend.

“When I found out I was very excited and very, very honored to have received the award,” says Jones of the NSF fellowship. “You pretty much get one shot. It’s kind of high stakes.” That’s because graduate students are only allowed to apply for the fellowship once during their graduate career.

From the high school teachers who nurtured her dream of becoming a research scientist to the support of her fellow graduate students within the CELS community, Jones recognizes how important it is to connect with others in academia and to ask for help when you need it. “My experience with this department and my old department at Texas A&M is that people are a lot warmer and more willing to help than they may seem,” she says. “Just ask for the assistance, and at some point in your career you’ll be in the position to return the favor. That’s something that I’m trying to do as well.”