Unisexual Ambystoma

Unisexual Ambystoma

Friday, November 30, 2012

SciFund Round 3: Jenn Hellmann

The SciFund challenge, a crowd funding experiment for science, is once again going strong this year. Since this blog started with my own SciFund campaign, it is only fitting that I use it to promote some of the fascinating research done by other students.

This funding cycle, there are three other students in my department at Ohio State who are sharing their science with the world and looking for members of the public to participate with them. One of these students in Jenn Hellman
Jenn looking for fish in all the wrong places.
Jenn's research centers around social networks in animals. Particularly, she observes the behavior of African Cichlid fish to better understand the interactions between individuals and groups. Why is this important? These relationships are complex, and the effects of how animals interact in a social network has massive influences on their evolution and ecology. 

Jenn is planning to use donation to fund an expedition to Lake Tanganyika, in East Africa, where she will be able to observe these animals in the wild. 

As part of her campaign, Jenn answered some questions about what she does, why she does it, and what makes her tick:

Tell us about yourself, where you are from, and where you see yourself going.
I'm a second year graduate student at The Ohio State University. I'm originally from Philadelphia, and I did my undergraduate at Messiah College. I took a year off before graduate school to work with kids and to travel, but I came to graduate school last year and I love it. I love being paid to do research and teach, and working in an environment where everyone is here to learn. Because of that, I would love to be able to work as a faculty member at a university eventually. 

Graduate student multitasking at its best.
How did you get involved in your research project?
I came to graduate school knowing that I wanted to do fish behavior, but I didn't know much more than that. I actually got into social networking by reading some of primate literature for a class. The article talked about how certain individuals in the group are responsible for maintaining group stability, and when you remove those individuals, the group gets really aggressive. Later, I was reading some articles about intergroup movement in colonies, and it just struck me that social networking is probably really important in this species too. Since some individuals have many more opportunities to interact with their peers than others, that probably has pretty significant effects on the decisions that they make. 

Why is your research important to you? Why should others fund it?
I think that sociality in general is fascinating and relevant. So many different species, from ants to humans, have evolved extremely complex social systems. Exploring the benefits of social networking can help us compare social systems between species and help us understand why they are so different. Why do ants live in huge colonies with one queen and many helpers, versus fish that cooperatively breed, versus primates that raise their offspring in groups? In all of these types of organisms, their social system is key to their survival and without it, they would not be successful in their environment. 

Exploring social networking is one of the best ways to understand social systems.  It tells us a lot about species: how they find mates, how they maintain social stability, and which individuals are most important in a group. It helps us understand how evolutionary pressures have caused species to adapt a certain way of living, and we can use this information for many things, such as improving conservation plans, anticipating how species will react to disturbances, and tracking the spread of diseases.

Do you have a favorite story that came from working on your research project?
I've had to learn how to SCUBA dive for this trip. The first practice dive that we took as a research group, I was using someone else's equipment and so my BCD (the vest that controls your buoyancy) was too big and the weights around my waist were too heavy. I spent about twenty minutes bobbing up and down between the surface and the bottom of the lake before I got out and fixed it. It was not my best practice dive! 

Why did you decide to particpate in the SciFund Challenge?
The purpose of SciFund is two-fold. First and most importantly, I want people to understand how science applies to their lives. There are all types of research happening that people don't know about and may not care about. I hope that SciFund can at least show people what type of research is out there, and make people interested in it. I think a lot of people see science as this unapproachable and hard-to-understand topic, but it's not if it presented in an understandable way. Second, I want to raise money to help fund my field season to Africa. My research is much more suited for field work than laboratory work (because of space constraints in the lab), but it's expensive to travel to Africa and I need some help!

What was the most difficult aspect of building your SciFund Proposal? What was your favorite? 
The most difficult was definitely the video. I also had to sit outside in 30 degree weather filming without a coat for about an hour, and then couldn't use the footage because of all the background noise. I've never done a video before (ironically, my brother was a film and sound production major), and I'm just lucky that there are programs out there that can help anyone make a movie. The best part was figuring out how to explain my project to the more general population, because it gave me the opportunity to really think about how it is so related to what we see in human society, even though they are 'just' fish. 

Tell us something random. Something funny. Something borrowed. Something blue.
Something random... okay, well a 'Philly cheesesteak' is not actually a Philly cheesesteak unless you are in Philly. You can call it a cheesesteak, but they are definitely not the same and not as good. Anyone from Philly will tell you that!

If you would like to donate to Jenn's SciFund campaign (I did!), go here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Get to Know a Grad Student: Juli Goldenberg

Next up for Get to Know a Grad Student: Juli Goldenberg, Masters student at San Diego State University
Juli in her native environment. She is demonstrating the extremely difficult "No-look pipette transfer".

What kind of research do you do? Please give the scientific version and the non-scientist version.

(science-y version)
The broad goal of my research is to improve coalescent-based methods of multilocus species tree inference and species delimitation. Specifically, my project focuses on elucidating the species limits and phylogenetic relationships within the Western Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) species complex - a wide-ranging group of rattlesnakes that currently contains three recognized species and nine subspecies.

(non-science-y version)
My research focuses on elucidating the evolutionary history of the widest-ranging group of venomous reptile in North America, the members of the Western Rattlesnake species complex. Using genetic data, I am trying to determine where the species limits lie within this group, and I will be using these new species groupings to reconstruct the species tree of the complex.
A western rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) found while night driving in Arizona this summer.

Why is what you study important?

Evolutionary biology lies at the root of every biological science. I love observing the genetics and population genetics that underlie speciation because it is here that we observe the union of micro- and macro-evolutionary processes. I never lose my sense of amazement while working at this fundamental intersection!

Also, rattlesnakes are definitely the coolest study taxon.

Looks rough.

What was your path to graduate school like?

I first found that I wanted to attend graduate school through an education abroad program through UC Berkeley. During the first semester of my junior year of college, I had the opportunity to attend a field-based marine biology and terrestrial ecology program in Queensland,Australia. After exploring Queensland from the outback to the Great Barrier Reef, I was hooked on pursuing biology as a career. Upon my return to Berkeley, I spent the remainder of my undergraduate tenure assisting in a herpetology and evolutionary genetics lab, which cemented my desire to study evolutionary biology.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? How do you feel about your work-life balance?

My number one hobby is brewing beer. You can follow all of my homebrewing adventures at brewbunny.wordpress.com (yep, shameless plug for my blog). Aside from that, I love exploring the outdoors - especially the beautiful Southern California deserts.

I am lucky enough to be studying what I love, so striking a balance between work and free time is effortless. I never feel like my work is a chore.

If you touch your chin, you may contaminate DNA samples

Describe a normal day in your life.

A normal day for me usually consists of balancing lab work, reading, writing, various journal and lab meetings, seminars, helping out my fellow students as much as I can, and constant data analysis. In addition, twice a week I teach the night class for human anatomy. After work I usually have some sort of social activity set up, be it craft night, game night, or just grabbing a beer with some buddies.

What are your career plans for the future?

I’m currently in the last year of my masters at San DiegoState University. After I complete my degree, I plan to continue on to a PhD and eventually devote my career to evolutionary biology research, hopefully remaining in academia.

What has surprised you about graduate school?

I have been most surprised by how much I have learned that is not related directly to my research. I anticipated that my thesis would be central to my educational experiences during graduate school. Rather, I have learned more from coursework, teaching, seminars, and my fellow students than from anything else. This eye-opening and integrative perspective has dramatically changed my outlook on biology.

What do you struggle with the most in graduate school?

It was very difficult to find a balance among all of the seemingly disparate tasks required by graduate school. The first semester was definitely the most difficult for me because of this. Once I got settled in to graduate school, though, the work became a lot more fun.
What has been the best moment of your career so far?

The best moment of my career so far has definitely been giving my first oral presentation at a major international meeting. This past summer, I had the opportunity to present my research at the World Congress of Herpetology in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Although I was absolutely terrified at first, I ended up feeling so proud of my research, and the collaborative networking that resulted from the presentation was invaluable to my project.

How do you feel about the dynamic of research, teaching, and outreach in your career and in the future?

Integration of research, teaching, and outreach is essential to furthering any scientific field. Because of this, I have consistently maintained a volunteer relationship with natural history museums throughout my academic career, having volunteered at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley during my undergraduate education, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco during my “year off”, and now the San Diego Natural History Museum. Research cannot persist without maintained public education and community outreach.

 Who are your academic role models?
Dr. Stephen J. Gould with his pet stegosaurus (credit: famousscientists.org)

What advice do you have for other aspiring grad students in your field?

If you are interested in pursuing a career in evolutionary biology, I think that the two most important steps you can take are talking to researchers currently involved in evolutionary research, and chronologically reading the “classics” of evolutionary thought (which is an incredibly fun pursuit!).

Thanks Juli! Next time we will have Chris Thawley, PhD student at Penn State University.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Get to Know a Grad Student: Kyle Weichert

Kyle contemplating science with field assistant
The second installation of the Get to Know a Grad Student series is Kyle Weichert. Kyle is a Master of Science student at California Polytechnic State University in Dr. Emily Taylor's lab. I've never met Kyle in person, but have talked to several reliable sources that say he's a swell guy. Good enough for me, and lucky you for getting to hear his point of view.

Here is what Kyle thinks about being a grad student:

What research do you do? Scientific and non-scientist versions, please. 
I am studying the physiological factors that affect the Western fence lizards’ (Sceloporus occidentalis) ability to kill the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. This bacterium is responsible for causing Lyme disease in humans. By combining the blood plasma of fence lizards with a culture of B. burgdorferi and counting the bacterial cells that die in response, I can quantify the lizards’ innate immune abilities. I am comparing this response across males and females, coastal and inland lizards, and fall vs spring samples.

Obtaining blood from a fence lizard
For non-scientists, I am researching what makes some individual lizards better at killing bacterial infections than others. The bacterial infection I am studying causes Lyme disease in humans. Learning more about this can give us a better understanding of the vectors and potential risks of contracting the disease.

Why is what you study important? 

My research incorporates techniques across multiple disciplines of biology, containing elements of herpetology, physiology, immunology, and bacteriology. The results of this experiment will be of interest herpetologists, immunologists, and disease ecologists alike.

My specific line of inquiry will elucidate the physiological factors that affect the western fence lizard’s ability to effectively kill the bacterium responsible for Lyme disease. This research will contribute to the overall body of knowledge regarding the spread of this vector-born disease. My research will also identify specific factors that lead to a reduced immune function in lizards.

What was your path to graduate school like? 

I worked with Dr. Emily Taylor for the last year of my Bachelors degree, studying the natural history of rattlesnakes by radio-tracking them. I enjoyed that experience very much and when graduation time came, Emily suggested I stay at Cal Poly and work with in her lab on a Master’s degree. At the time, I was ready to spend some time away from school and get some work experience, but I always intended to come back. I worked at a few different biology jobs over several years. I decided to go back to school when it became apparent that the job I had worked for the last 3 years had no room for upward growth. At that point I contacted Emily again, and emailed a handful of other Master’s advisors. Emily had some great ideas for new projects. So, I bought her a few drinks and asked if she had room in her lab for me. (Rob: for most potential advisors, buying drinks may not be the best strategy, but your mileage may vary)

Photo by Walter Siegmund

What do you enjoy doing in your free time?How do you feel about your work-life balance? 
I’m lucky that I have found a field that I do both for work and fun. I enjoy nature and the outdoors very much. In my free time, I enjoy bird watching, herping, hiking, insect collecting, and gardening. Also, I’ve played the guitar for many years, and still enjoy doing that when I have the time.
As far as the work-life balance goes, it’s tough. I have much less free time than I did when I was out of school. But, the time I spend on school feels worth the effort. I’m lucky because my wife is very understanding of the time and effort I am investing in my education! 

Describe a normal day in your life. 
I usually wake up around 7am, get up take the dog out to use the yard. While he does that, I make coffee and my lunch for the day. My wife and I live about 30 minutes from campus, so I usually don’t get there until about 9 am, but that depends on when I have class, or teaching, or research. On a typical day I have anywhere from zero to 4 hours of class. After that, I work in my office and hold office hours for about four or five hours per day. I teach about 9 hours per week, and that takes 2-3 hours of grading and prep time per week. Some days I work in the lab to try to get some thesis work done. About 6pm to 8pm I return home and work from there for another 3-4 hours after dinner. Most days I spend about 12-15 hours working on teaching, classes, and research. 

What are your career plans for the future? 
After completing my Master’s Degree, I plan to go on and pursue a PhD. The overarching goal is to become a professor of biology. My favorite part of academia is teaching, so I would definitely like to end up at a school that is teaching oriented. 

What has surprised you about graduate school? 
I have been most surprised by the amount I learned in such a short time. When I first started graduate school I was amazed by the amount the professors knew about their subject. The information stored in their brains seemed inexhaustible. But now I understand how it is possible. I have learned more in just one year of graduate school than I learned in the whole of my undergraduate career. I was also not prepared for the crazy hours I have to keep.

Kyle and his wife, Audrey, often work as a research team.
What do you struggle with the most in graduate school? 
The thing I struggle with most in graduate school is keeping everything balanced. The life of a graduate student can be quite a juggling act. I have to balance teaching, research, classes (and grades!), as well as my personal life. Of those, the one I struggle most with is the research. I find that I often don’t know what I’m doing in the lab. But, from that, I end up learning more.

What has been the best moment of your career so far? 
Well, I have not necessarily had a prestigious or particularly impressive career so far, but I would have to say that earning some research money from a grant proposal to the Chicago Herpetological Society was a high point so far. Another moment that sticks out is presenting my undergrad research in a poster at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists conference in St. Louis. 

How do you feel about the dynamic of research, teaching, and outreach in your career and in the future? 
So far, I absolutely love teaching and outreach opportunities. They are my favorite part of the whole graduate school experience. The research, for me, has been laborious, especially to fit into the schedule. I am starting to understand, however, that the research is a fundamental part of the science. It is through the research that I learn the most, and can do my best teaching. For example, I have four undergrads working with me on my research, and it’s been fantastic being able to teach them skills, etiquette, and scientific responsibility.

Kyle and others out in the field. Looks pretty rough.
Who are your academic role models? 
Without a doubt, one of my biggest role models is my advisor, Dr. Emily Taylor. She seems to be able to balance all of the facets of higher education extremely well. Not only is she a fantastic teacher, she is also involved in other programs and aspects of the department. Another role model of mine is my former lab mate, Tony Frazier. He has an amazing knack for asking the best scientific questions about anything. And lastly, a coworker of mine: Jason Dart. Jason is one of the best naturalists I have ever met. He has incredible knowledge of virtually every group of organisms one could observe in California. 

What advice do you have for other aspiring grad students in your field? 
My advice for aspiring grad students is to keep saying “yes” to all opportunities and inquiries that come their way, even when they are busy. It is through all those extra tasks that one learns the most and builds important relationships with their colleagues. Find ways to get more involved with others’ research and help them with tough questions. This helps make one well-rounded.

I'd like to thank Kyle for taking the time to answer my questions. Next week: Juli Goldenberg from San Diego State University. Til' then.