Praying Mantis: More than Meets the Eye
"Fundamentally, I was an NEIU student. I was the first in my family to go to college, I was an adult-returning student, and I worked full-time," said Frederick Prete, instructor, biology. While completing his doctorate in biopsychology at the University of Chicago, Prete came across a praying mantis on the steps outside of the John Crerar Library. "I was immediately fascinated by the animal and began my research on mantises in an unused lab in the basement of Green Hall," he said.
Prete's research focuses on how visual systems operate in so-called "simple nervous systems," which aid in the discovery of basic processes that operate in larger, more complex nervous systems. Prete said praying mantises have less complicated neural systems, which make them easier to study than vertebrates. "For example, if you are learning car mechanics, you don't learn on a Lamborghini. You learn on a less complicated car. The same idea applies here because the operational rules for simple nervous systems are the same as those for complex ones." Prete and his students discovered that mantises have visual object recognition abilities that were thought only to exist in vertebrates.
The information gathered from Prete's praying mantis research will be applied to developing mobility aids and visual prostheses for blind and visually impaired children. This is a topic particularly close to Prete, as he has worked with blind students and understands the challenges that vision loss presents.
Prete began his 25-year teaching career as a special education teacher, and for many years he has tutored high school students in biology, chemistry and mathematics. Since 2005, he has been teaching general biology, vertebrate physiology and neurobiology at Northeastern. These teaching experiences have provided Prete the opportunity to watch students develop and understand how they learn math and science.
"I love teaching," Prete said, "and part of that is research. We have wonderful research opportunities here at NEIU that are just as good as anywhere else. More importantly, undergraduate students work directly with professors, and research opportunities are not reserved only for graduate students."
A number of undergraduates assist in Prete's research lab. Over the years, these students have co-authored several published papers and presented more than two dozen talks at local, national and international conferences.
Since joining the faculty, Prete has mentored students who have presented at five NEIU Student Research and Creative Activities Symposia and two Society for Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans (SACNAS) Undergraduate Research Symposia, among several other conferences. He has also participated in the first and second annual NEIU Faculty Research and Creative Activities Symposia.
Throughout his career, Prete has been invited to and participated in numerous conferences, and given a number of presentations and lectures on his research. He has published two books, including The Praying Mantids, which was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Biological Science Category for Outstanding Professional and Scholarly Titles in 1999 by the Association of American Publishers. Prete has also served as a guest editor and ad hoc reviewer for several scientific journals and has been featured as an expert in several media outlets, including the BBC and National Geographic.