EEB graduate students Jon Massey and Jill Myers, and postdoc Sonal Singhal, mingle during the poster session.

The Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology held its 13th annual Early Career Scientists Symposium on Saturday, March 11, 2017 on central campus in Ann Arbor, Mich. Nearly 150 attended the event at Palmer Commons themed ecology and evolutionary biology of phenotypic plasticity.

First things first. What is phenotypic plasticity? It’s the ability of an organism to change its phenotype (the composite of an organism’s observable characteristics or traits) in response to changes in its environment.

The keynote speaker was Cameron Ghalambor, professor, Department of Biology, Colorado State University. Eight early career scientists who study topics in ecology and evolution related to phenotypic plasticity, presented their work and participated in panel discussions, along with Ghalambor.

Attendees hailed from over a dozen institutions and nearly 30 disciplines from anthropology to zoology. They came from across the state from Michigan State University, Hope College, Kalamazoo College, Wayne State University and more and from as far as Brazil’s Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul and New Mexico Highlands University. A few of the diverse disciplines represented included biopsychology, complex systems, civil and environmental engineering, environmental sciences and medicine.

The early career emerging leaders included: Karin Burghardt, postdoctoral fellow, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center; Oana Carja, postdoctoral researcher, University of Pennsylvania; Yuheng Huang, postdoctoral researcher, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Holly Moeller, assistant professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, University of California, Santa Barbara; Ben Parker, postdoctoral research associate, Department of Biology, University of Rochester; Clare Rittschof, assistant professor, Department of Entomology, University of Kentucky; Daniel Schwab, Ph.D. candidate, Indiana University; Laura Stein, NSF Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Biology, Colorado State University; Maggie Wagner, NSF Postdoctoral Fellow, North Carolina State University.

The outstanding lineup of speakers presented their research examining effects of alterations in the environment on organisms on time scales from the metabolic fluctuations in cholorplast-stealing marine ciliates to herbivory-induced plant defenses on nutrient cycling in whole ecosystems, from developmentally-induced wing polyphenisms in aphids to transgenerational effects of predator exposure in stickleback fish. Methods employed to study these questions include large-scale field surveys, manipulative laboratory experiments, theory, and experimental evolution.

And in less technical jargon, the symposium covered research that showed that how mother dung beetles pack lunch changes their offspring later in life, how honeybees get angry and what it does to their brains, how one carnivorous oceanic microbe preys on phytoplankton in order to not only eat it for nutrients but also to steal its superpowered ability to photosynthesize (by taking its chloroplasts), and how a small freshwater fish prepares its offspring for dangers they haven't experienced, and more.

Holly Moeller presents "Trade, borrow or steal: how acquired metabolism confers phenotypic plasticity."

“EEB’s Early Career Scientists Symposium is one of the intellectual highlights of our academic year, bringing talented young scientists to our department to discuss their groundbreaking work on a focal topic of interest,” said Diarmaid Ó Foighil, EEB professor and chair, “This year’s ECSS theme of organismal plasticity was particularly apt as it gets at the capacity of species in nature to respond to environmental change, a key factor in the resilience of natural communities in a time of unprecedented global change.”

“As an early-career scientist, it can be difficult to stand out in a crowd and to find opportunities to talk to big names in your field,” said Wagner. “The ECSS really provided that opportunity for me. It was wonderful to spend time with Dr. Ghalambor, whose work has influenced my own research direction so strongly.

“A symposium for early career scientists is also a special opportunity to meet peers working on similar questions – since we are at a similar career stage, we are likely to be working in the field, together, for a long time. So it’s great to form relationships with like-minded researchers.”

Interesting research

“I was fascinated by Laura Stein's work that looked at how genes are turned on or off in response to challenging life events,” said Sonal Singhal, EEB postdoctoral fellow. Stein studies stickleback fish. “In this case, dads that saw a predator had children that turned on genes in their brain in response to that. Note that the offspring never saw a predator. What's cool is that Laura and her colleagues showed that other children (whose parents had never seen a predator) turned on almost all the same genes after they saw a predator.”

“Holly Moeller talked about how symbiotic relationships between organisms can impart phenotypic plasticity; for example, an animal or protist that acquires photosynthetic ability by consuming algae is exhibiting metabolic plasticity,” said Wagner.

“One talk especially interesting to me was given by Professor Ghalambor,” said Yuheng Huang . “They experimentally transplanted guppies in nature and showed that some traits exhibited adaptive plasticity while some others exhibited non-adaptive plasticity. And the plasticity of the trait can alter how selection acts on it and its related traits.” Adaptive plasticity is when an organism has a trait that changes depending on the environment it experiences, and the trait expressed in each environment helps it survive better and produce more offspring. Think of a snowshoe hare that is white in winter and brown in summer.  Non-adaptive plasticity is when there's no clear benefit of the plastic trait change across environments.

EEB graduate student Jacqueline Popma presents her research during the lunchtime poster session that was open to all students and postdoctoral fellows.

Common themes

“Integrative approaches are common to phenotypic plasticity study,” said Rittschof. “The nature of the approach (integrating complex multifaceted environmental cues, integrating across levels of biological organization, integrating across timescales, integrating the actions of multiple species in an ecological context) varies based on the question. Plasticity is multidimensional and most modern studies incorporate several dimensions at once (experimentally or theoretically) rather than more simplistic one dimensional empirical approaches.”

Future directions

“There seems to be a great deal of interest in figuring out which genes underlie variation in phenotypic plasticity (i.e., genotype-by-environment interactions),” said Wagner.

“From my own perspective, understanding the genetic basis of phenotypic plasticity is needed, as well as how the plasticity of one trait influences the mean and plasticity of the other traits,” said Huang. “For instance, the plasticity of the expression of a gene may reduce the plasticity of the expression of another gene in the same pathway. Or the plasticity of survival traits may facilitate the change of reproductive traits.”

“The field seems poised for multidisciplinary integration that scales levels of biological organization,” said Rittschof. “It was striking to me that researchers studying phenotypic plasticity from disciplines including physiology, ecology, behavior, evolution and genomics communicated well and highlighted many similar emerging questions and challenges.”

Advantages of ECSS

Rittschof said it was inspiring to meet and spend time with other young, energetic scientists with fresh ideas. “It's nice that it was interdisciplinary which meant unlikely or surprising collaborations could emerge.”

Huang appreciated the opportunity for early career scientists to present their research and gain exposure to the scientific community. He called the event an “absolutely great experience!” and said the symposium was well organized with a great selection of diverse speakers.

“It was an energizing experience,” said Rittschof. “I'm inspired by our potential to contribute new ideas to the academic community.”

Singhal called ECSS a great opportunity to create community across young leaders in their field. “I love learning about a new field in a focused way – this symposium is a real gem in the EEB department.”

With special thanks to the ECSS organizing committee comprising graduate students, postdocs, faculty and staff: Wei-Chin Ho, Andrea Hodgins Davis, chair, Jill Myers, Annette Ostling, Mary Rogalski, Sonal Singhal, Carol Solomon, Earl Werner. Thanks also to Dale Austin, photography; Gail Kuhnlein, event publicity;  Jacqueline Marsack, on-site support; John Megahan, graphic design.

The first 11 symposia were funded by the late alumna Dr. Nancy Williams Walls. Funding is also provided by EEB and the David Bay Photography Fund.

There was a great deal of collegiality and discussions across disciplines at the Early Career Scientists Symposium.