Biology: Marianne Porter
As a vertebrate biomechanist and functional morphologist, Marianne Porter (BS Zoology 2000, MS Biology 2002) uses experimental techniques from engineering and physiology to examine the mechanistic relation between skeletal materials and locomotion. She studies elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays), focusing on how skeletal structural mechanics impact movement: e.g., how vertebral column stiffness dictates swimming speeds and styles in fishes. Her questions apply engineering principles such as materials science, mechanics, and bioinspired/biomimetic robotics to biological systems. Her research is applicable to the emerging movement ecology paradigm, specifically exploring how animals move on small scales.
During her dissertation research at the University of California, Irvine, Porter found that shark vertebral cartilage is a comparable skeletal building material to mammalian bone. She also showed that vertebral shape, rather than number of vertebrae, predicts the maximum body curvature a species can achieve during swimming, which influences maneuverability. As a postdoctoral scientist and Faculty Research Associate at Vassar College, Porter now studies the whole vertebral column and how its mechanics change along the length of the body. The tools she uses in her research can be used to explore a broad variety of other biological systems, including plants and invertebrates.
"Although I am currently entrenched in marine research, my time at NAU left an indelible mark on my scientific training," Porter says. "My year of statistics courses provided the rigorous training needed to analyze data. Another pivotal experience was taking Field Ecology, which taught me to develop a question, hypothesis, and set of experiments in many different systems. This skill set is important because field biologists often travel to remote locations, experience equipment malfunctions and uncooperative organisms or weather, and must develop quick alternatives. Finally, the mentors, colleagues, and friends I interacted with at NAU really solidified the way I think about science. Those same people continue to influence the way I see the world and the work I do."