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A faculty member you should know: Flavia Barbosa

Assistant Professor of Biology Flavia Barbosa is interested in a particular part of evolution that most of us don’t consider: sexual selection in certain species. To study this, she looks at mating behaviors of insects, from katydids to moths, and has found that female preference plays a large role in evolution.

Barbosa, a new faculty member in the Department of Biology, attended the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais in Brazil for her undergraduate degree and the University of Missouri for her PhD in biological sciences. 

“I started this line of research as an undergraduate, and I‘ve been working with different types of animals ever since,” Barbosa said. “I’ve looked at a number of different things: for example, I’m very interested in how females will select who is going to be the father of her offspring.”

Barbosa currently teaches two classes—Sensing the Environment and Animal Behavior—and is a faculty member you should know:

Q: What is your area of research?

A: I am an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, and I study animal behavior. My research is on behavior and sexual selection. You might know that, for a lot of species, the males have showy traits that they use to attract females and to fight with rivals. I am interested in how those traits evolve. In the evolutionary process, I want to see what has caused males to have some of those traits and how the females use those traits to approach their mates.

Q: How do you conduct your research?

A: We do different types of experiments. To investigate female preferences, we can offer a female two choices and measure her preference for them. For example, we play different male mating calls to her, and the female will approach the one she prefers. We can vary different parameters of the song, and we can submit the females to different factors that may influence her choice—for example, her nutrition during development.

Q: What are you finding in your research?

A: Right now, I am very interested in how energy plays a role in mate preferences and mating signals. A male that spends a lot of energy in attracting a mate will have less energy for other functions, so you get trade-offs. I am investigating how nutrition and the social environment influence male energy allocation to different traits and female mating preferences. I have found that males will invest more in some behaviors if their social environment contains many other potential competitors. For example, they will copulate for longer. Female preferences can also vary: they become less selective when their social environment contains only low-quality males and when they receive less nutrition during development.

Q: What do you like best about Lake Forest College?

A: Honestly, the people—both the students and the professors. Everyone is amazing. It is a joy to teach here because the students are so excited about the topics and they ask questions. They’re genuinely interested in talking about it after class, and it’s always enjoyable when they come to my office and engage with me. It’s a wonderful working environment.

Q: What opportunities do you see at Lake Forest College going forward?

A: There are so many more opportunities now for students to research and collaborate with the science departments. This new science building is amazing, and it’s wonderful that we’re all under the same roof, or at least we will be once we all move in. There is a lot of talk among faculty on collaborations between disciplines, and I think this will be very beneficial for the students. They will benefit a lot from this if they want to get good research experience, but I also think this will help them see the connections between different topics in their classes.

–Tracy Koenn ’18