Hepner, an artist from my home town of Pittsburgh, and I collaborate on art. Most of our collaborations involve dicussions
of how biological and digital code evolve and change.
Lectures to the publicGreater Pittsburgh Aquarium Society
September 28th, 2012
Why are African cichlids so special? Understanding their evolution in East Africa.
Guest blog posts
BEACON NSF Center for Evolution in Action: 11/2/11blog postFor as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by the natural world. Whether it is the chameleon with its capacity to change colors, ants’ collective behavior, or virus’s ability to highjack the machinery of cells, the great variety of organisms alive has inspired my curiosity. As I became more interested in biology I learned that despite the complexity of life forms, there were physical processes such as evolution by natural selection that are responsible for producing them...
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Why I became a scientist? A blog entery formerly hosted by www.callofscience.com
Why am I a scientist? It’s simple; I have always been fascinated by biology. As a child my neighbors, who I also consider a second set of parents, lovingly called me ‘bug-boy’. Embarrassing, I know. I was not so much fascinated with insects, but all things living. I grew up in a city so the only wild things that I could catch and study were bugs; flies near the garbage can, terrestrial crustaceans known as pill bugs living under damp rocks, spiders living on webs in the corners of basement windows, and lightening bugs at night. As you can tell from my descriptions, I was extremely interested in the adaptations of the organisms I caught; where did they live, what did they eat, and what traits did they use to live their unique lives. Today I study how viruses evolve traits to exploit new environments, or in other words, how viruses evolve to infect new host species. I am attracted to this work because viruses evolve rapidly and I can watch evolution in real-time, I can watch organisms evolve adaptations that are analogous to the ones I marveled over as a child. My research has implication for human disease, including what evolutionary processes led to the recent H1N1 pandemic, but my true motivation has been to satisfy this early desire to understand why the biotic world was so complex, so diverse, and seem to fit together so nicely.
My early interest may have provided the nuts and bolts for an eventual career in science, however there are many people who helped me put them together. I have an exceptional family who nurtured my interests, especially my younger brother Adam. Unfortunately for Adam, he was also considered a ‘bug-boy’, this is because he volunteered to carry a jar of my captured insects around as we (perhaps ‘I’ is more accurate) collected more samples. My parents took me to nature camp, fishing, and taught me about gardening, the neighbors I described before walked me through field guides, and my extended family listened to my many stories about my captured animals or what I had learned from the discovery channel. I was incredibly lucky to have such a strong support network that more than tolerated a young, perhaps annoying, nerd. I hope that other young scientists receive the same encouragement that I had.
Educational materialA challenge for teaching evolutionary biology is to convince students to believe in it since its lessons are unintuitive. Other sciences, such as physics have equally counterintuitive results, however their claims are not met with the same scrutiny. I believe the difference in students acceptances of the invisible forces of gravity as compared to their rejection of the invisible hand of natural selection is because students are unable to experience evolution like they can gravity. A few colleagues and I at the University of Ottawa have overcome this problem by designing a short (5-day) lab experiment with bacteria where students observe evolution in real-time. The bacteria evolve to adapt to new environments and luckily these changes can be seen in how they grow on agar plates. The proof for students can be understood by visual inspection of petri dishes, rather then through graphs or abstract data analysis. Below are links to the downloads for this exercise. These were written many years ago and could be improved. Please e-mail me with any questions you may have about this material. Good luck.
[lab description] [rapid evolution power point]
See the original paper where this study system was developed:
Rainey, P. B. & Travisano, M. (1998) Adaptive radiation in a heterogeneous environment. Nature 394, 69-72.
Research in the press
Virus evolves new function
Metaanalysis reveals patterns of bacteria-virus ...
A Collaborative project by myself and colleagues at Georgiech recieved some press, see an article [here].