28th August 2017- Julie Blommaert, University of Innsbruck

Julie BlommaertHi Biotweeps!

I’m Julie (@Julie_B92) and I’m really looking forward to hosting biotweeps and chatting to all of you this week about my interests and research!

My research interests all focus around evolution and genetics. I guess I should start with a little background about how I got to be interested in these topics. Growing up, I wanted to be a vet, but then a few life things pushed me away from vet school, and for a while I didn’t know which direction I’d like to go in, other than not-vet. I considered being a pilot, and was even lucky enough to be gifted a test flight for my 16th birthday, but decided that, even though flying is fun, I didn’t think I’d like it as a job. I still hope to get my private pilot’s licence though! A few months later, we started to focus on genetics in my biology classes, and I was hooked!

Fast-forward a few years, and I found myself at the University of Otago, doing my BSc majoring in Genetics. We had so many chances to do different lab projects and experiments, and I found my interests in EvoDevo (Evolutionary developmental biology- the field that compares how different species develop to get a deeper understanding of how different forms evolved). So that’s what I did my honours project in, looking at some genes that control early development in a weird animal called a rotifer (a tiny, cute zooplankton). I had some further adventures in EvoDevo, but I’m now doing my PhD in evolutionary genomics.

My PhD project focuses on the evolution of genome size in, coincidentally, the same species of rotifer that I worked with for my honours project! So, what is genome size and why do we care? Genome size refers to the amount of DNA per cell of any species. Usually, different individuals of the same species have the same amount of DNA per cell as each other, but not my rotifers! Within the same species, their genome size can vary by up to 30%, which is really weird. But again, why do we care? Genome size varies a lot across the whole tree of life, and there are lots of debates about why this might be. Lots of people have tried to make comparisons to figure out why this might be, but often, there have been other things that get in the way of comparing genome sizes because the species being compared were so different. So, hopefully, we can study genome size change in a single species and learn a bit more about why genome size changes, and why some genomes (including our own), seem to be mostly “junk”.

Other than my PhD work, I really like spending time outdoors; climbing, hiking, relaxing in the sun, and I also play for my local canoe polo team.

I’ll talk more about my work and hobbies through the week, I hope you’re as excited about this week as I am!


21st August – Rachael Bonoan, Tufts University

Rachel BonoanHi! My name is Rachael and I am a Ph.D. candidate in the Starks Lab at Tufts University in Medford, MA. As a lab, we study behavioral ecology to understand how animals deal with environmental pressures. My research focuses on how seasonal changes in honey bee diet (i.e. flowers!) affects honey bee health and behavior.

When we go to the grocery store, we have a lot of choices. While our choices do change with season (try to find pumpkins in the summer, or berries in the winter), those choices tend to remain diverse. The “grocery store” for honey bees is our lawns, our gardens, etc., and the choices aren’t always diverse. In the early New England spring, honey bees only have dandelions or clovers to choose from. The summer brings a more diverse choice of flower foods and in the fall, the main choices are goldenrod and aster. How might honey bees change their foraging habitats to cope with the lack of choices? How could the lack of choices alter the honey bee gut microbiome? How does a lack of diet diversity affect the honey bee’s immune system?

These are just the broad questions I am interested in answering during my Ph.D. One of the first studies I did as a Ph.D. student was on honey bees drinking dirty water—you can read about what I found here. Also, check out my personal website to follow my adventures in field biology and beekeeping!

Outside of my research, I enjoy communicating science to the public and am the President of the Boston Area Beekeepers Association. I can also be found playing middle infield for the Tufts Biology Department softball team (Base Pairs), kickboxing at a nearby gym, baking (especially brownies and cookies), crawling on the ground photographing insects, or visiting my waterside hometown in Rhode Island.

14th August 2017 – Inés Dawson, University of Oxford

Ines DawsonInés is a final year interdisciplinary DPhil student at the University of Oxford. Her research, with a strong background in biological sciences, involves studying the biomechanics of insect flight, specifically how an insect’s flapping wing and body kinematics translate into the complex aerial manoeuvres performed during free flight. This combination of biology and engineering is aimed at inspiring the next generation of bio-inspired MAVs.

Apart from her research, Inés is also an award-winning science communicator in English and Spanish and runs two YouTube channels, Draw Curiosity and Inés-table, in order to make science stories interesting and internationally accessible. She is an enthusiastic and engaging educational speaker who enjoys informing and entertaining audiences of all ages and nationalities about different aspects of science.

In addition to her personal science communication work, she has also collaborated with BBC World Service, Discovery, Merck and Naukas to help put a human face on scientific research.

http://youtube.com/DrawCuriosity and http://youtube.com/Inestable and http://drawcuriosity.com


7th August 2017 – Shandiya Balasubramaniam, Museums Victoria

Shandiya BalasubramaniamHi Biotweeps!

I’m an evolutionary ecologist working on avian systems. In a nutshell, I like to know what birds do, and why, where, and how they do it.

I completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne on the evolution and ecology of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes in south-eastern Australian passerines (songbirds). MHC genes are a vital component of the vertebrate immune system, and I wanted to know more about the evolutionary processes underpinning variation in these genes. I was also interested in how MHC variation was influenced by ecological variables, such as dispersal behaviour and habitat configuration. To answer these questions, I mist-netted over a thousand birds across two years, resulting in a love/hate relationship with early mornings. Somewhere along the winding PhD journey I developed an interest in wildlife disease, and ended up doing a survey of avian malaria in woodland birds as well.

I’m currently a research fellow at Museums Victoria in Australia, where I’m working on a few different projects. My main focus at the moment is on the ecological ramifications of beak and feather disease virus (BFDV) on threatened parrots. BFDV is thought to be infectious to all parrots, but can it also infect other birds? And if so, what does that mean for the transmission of BFDV across species? If you’re interested in knowing more about any of my research, get in contact!

When I’m not science-ing, I’m either baking bread or accumulating cats. I can be found on Twitter @ShandiyaB.

31st July 2017 – Katrin Lohrengel, Sea Watch Foundation

Katrin LohrengelHi Biotweeps,

I’m the Monitoring Officer for the cetacean research charity, Sea Watch, based in New Quay, Wales. I run the Cardigan Bay Monitoring project which focusses on the local semi-resident bottlenose dolphin population that inhabits the two Special Areas of Conservation in Cardigan Bay. In practice this means that I spend less time than I’d like balanced on the bow of a boat with expensive camera equipment laughing – and cursing profusely- while trying to photograph dolphins and a lot of time in my office shouting at my computer. Despite the occasional frustrations of field work and the everyday computer niggles, I consider myself extremely lucky to be working in this position and am very proud to be part of a charity that has achieved so much on such a comparatively diminutive budget. Sea Watch has been monitoring cetaceans for over 20 years and was instrumental in the designation of Special Areas of Conservation in Cardigan Bay. Currently the Cardigan Bay Monitoring Projects provides annual reports and recommendations to Natural Resources Wales to report on abundance trends, habitat use, population structure and anthropogenic impact using a combination of vessel and land based surveys.

I have been working with Sea Watch for six years in various capacities, starting as a voluntary Research Assistant in 2011. I knew I wanted to return to Wales eventually but spent some time in my adopted home on the Wirral as Regional Coordinator where I set up a local network of volunteers to carry out land based cetacean observations as well as acquiring funding to run our first photo-identification survey of Liverpool Bay which confirmed the presence of Cardigan Bay bottlenose dolphins in the North West! Citizen science is a very important aspect of Sea Watch’s work, our sightings network relies on local volunteers to set up watches and report sightings and I was delighted when I had the opportunity to return to Wales as Wales Development Officer in 2013 with the aim to further and grow our local groups, liaise with boat operators and raise awareness of the fantastic marine wildlife that can be seen in Welsh seas.

I’m also a full time fantasy nerd (there’s been a distinct trend in dolphin names in the last few years…), devoted cat lady, travel enthusiast, least flexible yoga student in existence, one of those annoying, unembarrassed feminists and finally back in the saddle (in the literal sense) after a 15 year break!

My week at Biotweeps coincides with Sea Watch’s annual National Whale and Dolphin Watch so as well as telling you about the bottlenose dolphins of Cardigan Bay I will be encouraging you to go out there and get involved in some citizen science!

24th July 2017 – Cat Hobaiter, University of St Andrews & Kirsty Graham, University of York

Hi Biotweeps!

Catherine Hobatier.pngCat (@nakedprimate)

I’ve been a field primatologist with the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews for the past 12-years. Much of that time has been spent living and working with the chimpanzees at the Budongo Conservation Field Station in Uganda, but I’ve also worked with baboons and gorillas, and at other sites across Africa.

These days I’m a full time lecturer, but I still get to spend around 5-months a year in the field. My main area of research is ape communication – in particular gestures; but I moonlight on other topics including social learning, tool use, and life history. Much of my work takes a comparative perspective on cognition – looking at the behaviour of modern species of apes (including us) for areas of similarity and distinction that might give us clues about its evolutionary origins.

Around 6-years ago I started the habituation of a new chimpanzee community in Budongo – the Waibira group – with over 30 independent males (10-15 being typical) it’s a whole new world of fun/data collection chaos! This summer I’m piloting a gesture project with the mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, which is where I’ll be tweeting from during our Biotweeps week (apologies in advance for some *very* excited tweets/unnecessarily frequent pictures of infant gorilla floof).

Outside of my day job I’m the VP for Communications for the International Primatological Society and if I’m really not working you can usually find me trying to climb up something (mountains, rocks, trees), or with a nice cup of tea and the world service on the radio.

Kirsty Graham.jpgKirsty (@kirstyegraham)

I’m basically a younger, taller version of Cat (we both have bizarre multinational accents and love rock climbing) who does the same research but with bonobos, the chimpanzee’s sexy cousin. I just finished my PhD at the University of St Andrews looking at how bonobos use gestures, what the gestures mean, and how their gestures compare to those used by chimpanzees.

At the beginning of this month, I started a postdoc at the University of York, UK. So while Cat will be tweeting from the field (note to Cat: NEVER apologise about pictures of infant gorilla floof), I will be tweeting from my office plotting my next fieldwork at Tangkoko, Indonesia, in January. From bonobos to Sulawesi crested macaques!

Last week, we launched an online experiment testing human understanding of great ape gestures. Cat and I found that bonobos and chimpanzees share most of their gestures and gesture meanings, and we want to know whether untrained humans give the same responses to the gestures as a bonobo or chimpanzee would.

So that’s us! We’re really looking forward to a Biotweeps week full of primate facts, fieldwork stories, online experiments, and gorilla floof!

17th July 2017 – Egle Marija Ramanauskaite, Technarium hackerspace & Human Computation Institute

Egle Marija RamanauskaiteEgle Marija Ramanauskaite (@seplute) received her Master’s in Molecular & Cellular Biology in 2011 and carried out professional research focusing on microbial evolution and antibiotic resistance of nosocomial bacterial. However, she soon left traditional academia to pursue more open modes of science. She has become involved with citizen science & DIY science in 2014, and has pursued the movements as a researcher and a participant ever since. In 2016 Egle defended a second Master’s degree in Education Science based on informal science & technology learning in hackerspaces. Egle currently runs a biohacking lab at Technarium hackerspace, Lithuania, where anyone can engage in molecular biology with DIY tools & equipment. One of the main projects in the lab is “Lichen Biohacking” looking for new natural products in the vast biodiversity of lichens in Lithuania.

Egle is also the Citizen Science Coordinator for the EyesOnALZ project at the Human Computation Institute (US), which is the first citizen science endeavor to accelerate Alzheimer’s disease treatment research. Stall Catchers – an online game developed as part of the EyesOnALZ project, allows anyone to analyze real Alzheimer’s research data, speeding up the process by orders of magnitude and enabling researchers at Cornell University to answer key questions about the role of reduced blood flow in the brain in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

On top of these roles, Egle is an eager science communicator and has written extensively on the topics of molecular biology, biomedical science, citizen science and the maker/hacker culture in English and Lithuanian, and is creating her own citizen science rubric for a grassroots Lithuanian science popularization show – “Mokslo sriuba” (“Science Soup”).