9th January 2017 – Kelsey Byers, University of Zürich

kelsey-byers-2Hi everyone!  My name is Kelsey Byers; I’m currently finishing up my first postdoc at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

I grew up in the northeastern United States near Boston and did my undergraduate degree in biology; the program was focused on molecular and cellular biology.  I decided after four years of that and a fifth year as a technician working on transcription factors that I wanted to shift to a more evolutionary focus, while maintaining molecular biology & genetics in my toolkit.  I moved out west to Seattle for a PhD at the University of Washington in the Department of Biology in evolutionary genetics and speciation with my PhD advisors H.D. “Toby” Bradshaw, Jr. and Jeff Riffell.

In my PhD I worked with flowers in the genus Mimulus (the monkeyflowers, family Phrymaceae) and their pollinators.  Two species of Mimulus, Mimulus lewisii and M. cardinalis, are in sympatry (grow together) in the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.  Where they grow together, the main factor keeping them from hybridizing (the main reproductive isolation barrier) is pollinator choice – M. lewisii is pollinated by bumblebees, M. cardinalis by hummingbirds.  I was able to show with some experiments with hawkmoths that Mimulus lewisii produces floral scent, even though we can’t smell it (humans have very poor noses, as it happens, despite our response to coffee!).  It turns out that bumblebees respond very strongly to these weak scent compounds both neurologically and behaviorally.  I was able to work out the genetic basis of the species’ differences in floral scent compounds, and using transgenic plants in the greenhouse, I demonstrated that if you remove the most critical compound from M. lewisii, its bumblebee pollinators are less likely to visit it.

In August of 2014 I moved to Switzerland to work with Florian Schiestl and Philipp Schlueter on two species of alpine orchids in the genus Gymnadenia that are native to the Alps.  The two species are pretty closely related but look – and smell – really different!  Here I’m working less with speciation and am looking more at adaptation, focusing on two main projects. First, I’m looking at species differences in selection (including pollinator-mediated selection) on a large variety of floral traits in the field.  Second, I’m looking at the patterns of floral trait inheritance in hybrids in Gymnadenia – are they inherited as discrete ‘blocks’ of traits, or do hybrids align more closely to one parent or the other?

In the next few months I’ll be moving to the University of Cambridge to work on a postdoc with Chris Jiggins on speciation and reproductive isolation in Heliconius butterflies in Panama.  Although it’s a bit of a departure from my previous focus on plant-pollinator interactions, the broader concepts of chemical ecology, speciation genetics, and insect olfaction are very much at the center of my research work, so I’m very excited!

Feel free to ask anything and everything!  I’m excited to be here with Biotweeps!

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