Beatriz Otero Jimenez engaged in her research in Chiapas, Mexico. Image credit: Michigan News International.

EEB graduate student Beatriz Otero Jimenez has been selected as a 2016 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam Fellow for Advanced Study in recognition of her promise as a scientific investigator, potential for leadership in the scientific community and commitment to diversity and inclusion in the sciences.

A panel of distinguished scientists selected 34 awardees out of 142 applicants nominated by their graduate programs. The prestigious award is for three years of graduate study toward a doctorate degree in a biomedical or related scientific or engineering field. It includes a stipend of $33,000 per year, an annual fellow’s allowance of $3,000 and an annual educational allowance of $10,000. Her advisors are EEB Professors Priscilla Tucker and John Vandermeer.

Otero Jimenez is interested in using genetic tools to understand the impact of agricultural systems on tropical biodiversity.

“Beatriz’s research interests are in the area of landscape genetics, an emerging discipline that combines the fields of population genetics and landscape ecology,” wrote Tucker. “She is especially interested in the effects of habitat loss on small mammal communities resulting from agricultural practices.”

She works with the common forest mouse Heteromys desmarestianus in coffee farms in Chiapas, Mexico. Analyzing the genetic population structure of mice populations in coffee farms and adjacent forest patches, it is possible to determine how different coffee management practices promote or impede dispersal of H. desmarestianus across the landscape. The mice, forest specialists, are the most common small mammal in the region and act as important seed dispersers.

Otero Jimenez’s work is highly interdisciplinary requiring specialized knowledge in ecology and genetics. “While her primary training is in ecology, as a first year Ph.D. student she took the initiative to more fully develop her expertise in genetics through the Genetics Training Grant program,” Tucker wrote.

“Her research, to date, provides novel information on dispersal ability of a forest dwelling small mammal and her results are useful for identifying how agricultural practices of varying intensity impact a tropical small mammal species.”

“For her doctoral dissertation she is continuing with this work, adding two more features to her program,” wrote Vandermeer. “First, she plans on an extensive sampling of a natural population in an old growth forest, focusing on the nearby biological reserve, El Triunfo. This work will provide her with the background information on genetic structure of this species in a non-human-modified context for comparison with the structure in the coffee landscape. Second, she will add another species, Peromyscus gymnotis, to her program. H. desmarestianus is known to be a forest specialist so its existence in the coffee landscape may be only as a fugitive species, surviving only in the highest quality matrix type and restricted to smaller patches of non-coffee vegetation within the low quality matrix type.

“In contrast, P. gymnotis is a generalist, apparently surviving and prospering quite well even in highly disturbed habitats. Examining the genetic structure of both of these species will allow her to better characterize the nature of matrix/fragment dynamics for small mammals more generally. It is a very clever approach that could result in significant breakthroughs in our understanding of how matrix/fragment dynamics is related to the nature of particular species.”

To begin the fellowship, Otero Jimenez will attend the annual Gilliam Fellows meeting September 26 - 28, 2016 at the HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Md. She was nominated by John Moran, Professor of Human Genetics and program director of the Genetics Training Grant Program.