EEB graduate student Jon Massey has been awarded a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Janelia Graduate Research Fellow for his work on genetic mechanisms underlying species differences in behavior and pigmentation.

Fellowships are awarded based on candidate’s scientific accomplishments and potential. The program allows exceptional students to spend time at the Janelia Research Campus in Virginia to work on their thesis research. Massey's advisor is Professor Patricia Wittkopp.

“My work focuses on understanding how behavior and pigmentation evolve at the level of genes and genomes,” said Massey. “In animals, colorful pigmentation traits like those seen on peacock feathers often evolve together with courtship displays, but it remains unclear how this happens genetically. The HHMI Janelia Graduate Research Fellowship will help fund my major Ph.D. project that aims to identify the specific genetic changes responsible for causing courtship display and pigmentation to co-evolve between two closely related fruit fly species. Our goal is to understand whether evolution has used the same or different genes to cause one species to simultaneously lose the presence of wing spots and the ability to display these spots during courtship. At the Janelia Research Campus, I will apply high-throughput sequencing technology in Dr. David Stern’s lab and machine learning approaches in Dr. Kristen Branson’s lab to answer this question.”

For the uninitiated, high throughput sequencing is a fast, inexpensive way to analyze large genomes. Machine learning is an application of artificial intelligence that gives computer systems the ability to learn and improve from experience without specific programming. 

“Jon’s goal when he started in our Ph.D. program was to understand the developmental and evolutionary links between pigmentation and behavior, both of which are classically considered to be adaptive traits, and he has done exactly that,” said Wittkopp. “This interdisciplinary project, which began by combining Jon’s expertise in studying insect behavior with my knowledge of pigmentation development and evolution, has expanded to include collaborators with expertise in biochemistry, neurobiology and video tracking. Jon’s selection as a recipient of the Janelia Graduate Research Fellowship, will allow him to deepen his own training in behavioral genetics by working directly with experts in this field for an extended period of time.” 

The prestigious award is for three years of graduate study toward his doctorate degree and includes a generous annual stipend, health insurance and other benefits and related travel expenses.