Congratulations to the following students on these competitive awards from the Rackham Graduate School.

Susan Lipschutz Award: Anat Belasen

The Lipschutz award will help fund Anat Belasen’s research on tropical frogs. “I will use Next Generation Sequencing techniques to examine the consequences of widespread human-caused fragmentation of native forests in southeastern Brazil. This information, combined with data on pathogen infection rates among frog populations, will allow me to assess whether habitat fragmentation is compromising the health and stability of frog populations. Amphibians are in global decline and are an integral part of wild ecosystems, so this research will provide important insights into conservation of biodiversity.” Belasen’s advisor is Professor Tim James.

Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship: Pascal Title

“Some of the most significant ecological patterns involve striking differences in numbers of species between climatic regions (e.g., tropics and temperate zone), yet there is no consensus as to the evolutionary and ecological mechanisms that underlie these patterns. Australia is home to 12 separate radiations of lizards and snakes, each of which occupies the continent’s climatic space in different ways. As this provides 12 independent replicates of diversification that have happened alongside dramatic climatic change, Australia is an excellent system to study the spatial distribution of species accumulation over evolutionary time. By generating climatic and phylogenetic datasets, and developing empirical methods, I investigate the geographic, climatic and evolutionary factors that have contributed to shaping the assemblages of species found at regional scales. The datasets and methods that I have developed over the course of my dissertation can be broadly applied to ecological patterns of diversity at a global scale.” Pascal Title’s advisor is Professor Dan Rabosky.

Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship: Joseph Walker

"The use of next generation sequencing data in systematics, specifically the incorporation of transcriptome data (phylotranscriptomics), has allowed the pursuit of evolutionary questions beyond species relationships. Transcriptome data is data of expressed coding sequences, and phylotranscriptomics is using this data in systematic studies. These studies give researchers more biological insight into the evolutionary history of lineages by providing information on gene family expansion, gene tree conflict, and ancient whole genome duplications (when an organism’s genetic material is doubled). In my thesis, I am developing new methods and programs that are specifically designed for phylotranscriptomics and help contribute to the synthesis of phylogeny and biology. My research has thus far resulted in a set of memory efficient programs specifically designed for large datasets, a method of clustering gene families from transcriptome data that bypasses the computational burden which has limited large scale phylotranscriptomics, and shown a high abundance of ancient genome duplications underlies the hyperdiverse families of carnivorous plants in the order Caryophyllales." Joseph Walker’s advisors are Professors Stephen Smith and Patricia Wittkopp.

Rackham International Research Award, with the International Institute: Pamela Murillo

The study of mites from an evolutionary perspective is fascinating not only because they are the oldest, most abundant, and diverse group of arthropods, but also as they are the only arachnids that have radiated into many worldwide habitats, Pamela Murillo explained. Her advisor is Professor Barry O’Connor.

“Within Acari, the family Acaridae has a worldwide distribution and the diversification of this group has allowed them to colonize and adapt to different niches, extending from forest to anthropogenic habitats. These mites present different levels of habitat specialization ranging from extreme specialists to complete generalists.” Murillo will test the evolutionary history of this family from a molecular perspective taking into account the habitat specialization of different species. The molecular analysis through the reconstruction of the phylogeny of this family will provide evidence to answer her main question: Can generalist species evolve from specialist ancestors? 

Her research will take advantage of the resource specialization and ecological diversity within this family and specifically provide a comprehensive phylogeny, infer cases of habitat specialization on the phylogenetic tree, and evaluate the transitions between specialization and generalization in this group.

The information generated will help to characterize the evolutionary patterns of this group and will increase the general understanding about the different modes of ecological specialization that make this group so diverse and successful at colonizing a wide range of conditions.

Rackham Merit Fellowship: Susanna Campbell

Susanna Campbell’s master’s thesis explored genetic variation in two functional genes, oxytocin and the oxytocin receptor. They explored correlations of the genes with known variation in behavior in howler monkeys. Howler monkeys are unique because behavior varies greatly between howler species in comparison to other primate groups. “This makes howlers a great system to study the genetics of behavior.” Information on her doctoral research plans was not available at this time.

Her career goal is to work as a museum curator, performing research and overseeing collections. She’d like to continue researching topics of interest, such as behavior, bioinformatics and genetics. Campbell’s Ph.D. advisors are Professors Liliana Cortés Ortiz and Ben Winger.

Rackham Merit Fellowship: Molly Choi

“I am developing and conducting a project that is looking at a suite of male reproductive proteins and their relevance towards the evolution of reproductive isolation in a howler monkey hybrid zone (Alouatta palliata x A. pigra) that diverged about three million years ago. I am using genomic data to characterize a collection of sequences that code for proteins related to proper male reproduction, starting with proper testicular development and spermatogenesis. The chosen candidate loci are known to be under rapid evolution, which can lead to substantial genetic differences that may act as barriers to reproduction. There have been several studies that have suggested rapid evolution in these proteins in primates, but whether they contribute to reproductive isolation in the evolution of recently diverging primate lineages remains largely unknown. My objective for this project is to determine if there are specific male reproductive proteins in Alouatta that are contributing to reproductive isolation in the hybrid zone and to infer the mechanisms by which they may be doing so.” Molly Choi’s advisor is Professor Liliana Cortés Ortiz.

Rackham Merit Fellowship: Chau Ho

While Chau Ho's general research interests are still developing, she will focus on tropical plant community ecology. “I hope to focus my research on impacts of climate change, and to incorporate mathematical modeling (theory) in much of what I do." Ho’s advisor is Professor John Vandermeer.

“I am deeply interested in exploring how species interactions will be influenced by future climate change, particularly in tropical plant communities. These interests stem from my undergraduate studies at Stanford University and developed through EEB’s Frontiers Master’s Program. I am a Vietnamese immigrant, a first-generation college student, and a member of the LGBTQIA community, and I am invested in the success of other minority students through mentorship and inclusive teaching. My goal is to become a professor at a research institution in order to expand our knowledge of natural ecosystems and to train a diverse community of future scientists.”

Rackham Merit Fellowship: Katherine McLean

"I’m studying how different parasites interact inside of a host and how those interactions may cause a parasite to evolve to cause more severe disease in the host. I’m also looking at how host populations can evolve resistance to infection over the course of an epidemic and whether that resistance persists from one year to the next." Katherine McLean’s advisor is Professor Meghan Duffy.

Rackham Merit Fellowship: Kristel Sanchez

Kristel Sanchez is a graduate of the U-M EEB Frontiers Master’s Program. For her Ph.D. research, she will develop her master’s thesis more broadly. Currently, her research is looking in three directions: 1) test algal extracts and toxins against Daphnia and human pathogens and try to pinpoint the compound(s) that are providing the antimicrobial effects she observed in her master’s project. 2) Perform studies to figure out if Daphnia can selectively graze (a highly contended topic in the field) and if so, can they self-medicate and how common is that in natural populations? And 3) what are the consequences of Daphnia self-medication for lake communities? Sanchez’s advisor is Professor Meghan Duffy.

Compiled by Cindy Carl and Gail Kuhnlein