3rd April 2017 – Caroline Bettridge, Manchester Metropolitan University

Caroline BettridgeI’m a senior lecturer in Behavioural Ecology at Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK.  My main research interests are in the social behaviours of mammals, including how flexible behaviour is, how animals respond to the environment they are living in and how an animal’s behaviour increases its survival or reproductive success.  My current research focuses on a species of African nocturnal primate – the northern lesser bushbaby, and white rhinoceros. In the past I’ve also used modelling approaches to investigate elements of primate behaviour and human evolution.  I do a lot of fieldwork, mostly in East Africa, and also take project students out to the field each year.  I also teach on a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses related to behavioural biology, and I currently supervise two PhD students.

I’ve always had a passion for wildlife and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to pursue a career in this field.  It hasn’t always been a direct route, and I took a few years after my undergraduate degree in Zoology, to earn some money and gain some field experience before returning to studying.  I completed my DPhil at Oxford University, UK in the Institute for Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology, and then did a short teaching fellowship at Lancaster University before starting at my current department.

During my week on biotweeps I’ll probably chat about my behavioural ecology research, as well as some of the work my students are involved in; fieldwork; and my experience of being in academia – including some of the other elements of my job outside of research and teaching.

Outside of work a lot of my time revolves around my high maintenance dog, Huxley a French bulldog cross, and I generally enjoy exploring the outdoors and new places.  I’m on Twitter @CMBettridge.

27th March 2017 – Alicia McConnell, Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School

Alicia McConnellHi Biotweeps! I am originally from North Carolina and was an Animal Science major as an undergraduate at North Carolina State University. For graduate school, I stayed in NC and received my Ph.D. in cell biology from Duke University. I then moved with my lab across the US to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles during my second year to complete my graduate research on lung stem cell biology. My work was funded by NASA, who wanted to know the risk of cancer in astronauts exposed to cosmic radiation (harmful radiation found in space). To test this, we studied the behavior of lung stem cells in mice after exposure to simulated cosmic radiation and saw how that correlated to cancer development. This really interesting project led to the discovery that an important tumor suppressor gene, Trp53, is not only required for radiation response, but also controls normal lung stem cell division and differentiation, or the process of creating a more specialized cell. Seeing how changes in stem cell behavior directly affects cancer development made me want to better understand the process of tumor initiation and progression.

I am currently a postdoctoral fellow studying cancer biology in the Zon lab at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School. My research involves investigating the signaling pathways that cause normal pigmented cells, or melanocytes, to become cancerous. I use a unique zebrafish model to visualize the earliest stages of skin cancer formation. I love imaging, so be prepared for lots of microscopy and adorable fish pictures during my Biotweeps take over!

When I’m not in the lab, I am spending time outdoors hiking with my husband and two dogs, Roxie (a one-eyed pit mix) and Charlie (a Border Collie). I am also an avid aerialist and dancer; I love being upside down! Follow me on twitter @DrAMcConnell.

13th March 2017 – Darwin Fu, Vanderbilt University

Darwin FuHello Biotweeps! I’m Darwin, a Chemistry PhD student in my final year (*knocks on wood* *prays to the ancient gods*) at Vanderbilt University. I spend my day writing programs for modelling how drug molecules interact with their targets. The goal is to improve our ability to use computers to predict which compounds will bind to a given disease target and the way they will bind. Better computational, or “dry lab”, experiments complement traditional “wet-lab” experiments, which can often be very time consuming.

I work in the lab of Dr. Jens Meiler (http://meilerlab.org) coding mostly for Rosetta (http://rosettacommons.org/), a software package for structural biology modeling. Rosetta is a collaborative project with 40+ research labs around the world actively developing methods for everything from designing catalytic sites of enzymes to predicting binding of HIV antibodies. You may have come across Rosetta in the form of Rosetta@Home, a citizen science distributed computing project, or through FoldIt, a computer game that converts unsolved protein structures into puzzles for players (see https://boinc.bakerlab.org/ and https://fold.it/portal/). You may have also heard about our recent exploration of comet 67P (just kidding, that is completely unrelated).

My research is focused on protein-small molecule docking and virtual screening for Computer-Aided Drug Design applications.  Depending on available collaborations, we work on systems ranging from G-Protein Coupled Receptors to Signal Transducer and Activator of Transcription proteins. Part of the job involves making computational tools more accessible to researchers who may be less well-versed in modelling. This usually means making tutorials, web servers, and graphical interfaces. I would love to continue along these lines after graduation and work in scientific software development. I am also interested in researching rare diseases and using modeling to repurpose “failed” compounds to structurally similar targets.

My undergraduate degree is in Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry from the University of California, San Diego. I had a choice between working on hands-on biomaterials research and molecular dynamics modeling of influenza infections. I chose the latter and went down a computational research path. I planned to do more biochemistry in grad school but a few weeks in the cold room and my terrible gel loading skills quickly changed that.

Besides research, I’m interested in science communication and citizen science, particularly for adult education. I also moonlight as a pub quizmaster and connoisseur of “weird” foods. My non-science dream job would be working in sports analytics. Feel free to talk sports, trivia, or odd eats with me (also scotch…yum).

Sadly, there won’t be as many relevant cute animal GIFs over the course of this week, but I promise there will be dancing protein animations instead. I hope to share my love of computer modelling and to learn more about computing applications in your fields. I am also in the process of starting a new outreach effort and would love some input. There may also be a little structure based contest with a nerdy prize. Stay tuned!

Reach me via Twitter (@EquationForLife) or check out the blog I’m restarting (https://equationforlife.wordpress.com/)

20th February 2017 – Shelby Bohn, University of Regina

shelby-bohnI’m a MSc. student at the University of Regina, in Saskatchewan, Canada. The research I’m doing for my thesis explores habitat selection priorities of female silver-haired bats during the breeding season. These bats have a huge energy investment (raising pups) over a relatively short period of time, so the habitat they choose not only reflects a decision made on an energetic budget, but also gives us a hint at the type of habitat we might conserve for this species. During my fieldwork, I mist netted, radio tracked, and recorded characteristics of roost trees where bats chose to spend their days. I’m writing my thesis right now, and planning to start a PhD in 2018!

Before U of R, I did my undergraduate degree and honours thesis at the University of Winnipeg, in Manitoba, Canada. I studied how little brown bats with White Nose Syndrome differ in their behaviour from healthy little brown bats. I analyzed video from bat hibernation in captivity and noticed that infected individuals were less likely to groom or drink water, which is characteristic of a “sickness behaviour” response to illness.

Since starting research, I’ve gotten really excited about science communication (#SciComm). I love giving talks to public groups about my research, and bats in general. When I’m not writing or talking to strangers about bats (often) I’m making art while listening to feminist pop culture podcasts or dreaming about petting dogs. This week, I’m looking forward to talking about small mammal behaviour and physiology, my fieldwork, and my life as a human and scientist so far. For more info, you can check out my website www.shelbybohn.com, or my personal twitter @shelbybohn.

16th January 2017 – Patrick Hennessey, Queen Mary University

patrick-hennesseyMy name is Patrick Hennessey; I am a young zoologist from Essex, England. For as long as I can remember I have been interested in animals, but my real passion for animals began when I was ten, when I was first introduced to snakes. Since then all I have wanted to do is be a herpetologist.

My summer of 2016 consisted of both science and travel – two things that go very well together. I spent time in three different countries over the space of two months. Two of the trips were for university modules, and the third was to undertake research for my university dissertation project. For my project I had the privilege of travelling to Cusuco National Park, Honduras. The cloud forests of Cusuco are home to many amazing animals such as endemic amphibians, amazing birds, and most importantly some incredible snakes. During my six weeks I was collecting data on the thermal niche characteristics of two species of pit viper. This is incredibly important because cloud forests are one of the habitats globally that are at risk of being lost due to climate change. Therefore, it is important that environments like this continue to be monitored to show any changes that may occur.

The two snakes that I looked at specifically were the Honduran palm pit viper (Bothriechis marchi) and the Honduran montane pit viper (Cerrophidion wilsoni). Both are pit vipers and both live at higher elevations than most other snakes, meaning their thermal requirements are unique. I am currently in the process of analysing my data and writing up my dissertation, although it isn’t as fun as the field work!

I am currently studying Zoology at Queen Marys University London, where I am halfway through my final year. During my degree I have been privileged to gain knowledge from people whom are experts of many different fields, opening my eyes to different areas of science. One thing that has been made very clear to me is the importance of genetics in conservation, and this has led me to want to integrate this into my future career.

My other interests apart from science are collecting skulls (I don’t have many…yet), reading, and running.

I look forward to talking to everyone over the next week!

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!

5th December 2016 – Ashley Otter, Royal Veterinary College, University of London

ashley-otterHi everyone! I’m Ash and I’m a 2nd year PhD student based at the Centre for Emerging, Endemic and Exotic Diseases (CEEED) at Royal Veterinary College (RVC), part of the University of London. At the moment, I’m currently trying to get as much data for my PhD that is based on studying transcriptional regulators in Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the biggest killer worldwide by infectious disease.

You could say I started my career in microbiology when I was studying my A-levels (just before university), where I had two amazing biology teachers that inspired me to go on to pursue microbiology at a university. I eventually decided to start a Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology at Cardiff University School of Biosciences in 2011. Here, I was lucky enough to undertake a professional training year (PTY) as part of my degree, where I could take a year out of my undergraduate studies to experience a research laboratory.

I secured a place in the laboratory of Prof. Les Baillie, researching anthrax specific bacteriophages (more of which I will talk about if people are interested!). This year of working in a research lab and gaining lots of experience made me want to continue a career in microbiology research.

After finishing my PTY, I then went back and finished my undergraduate degree and graduated in July 2015. During my final year of study/university, I applied for a PhD project with research focused on transcriptional regulators in the Mycobacterium genus, a highly diverse group of bacteria including the pathogens Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the major cause of the human disease: Tuberculosis), Mycobacterium bovis (predominant causative bacterium of Tuberculosis in cattle) and Mycobacterium leprae (the cause of leprosy).

More specifically, my work is focussed around the elusive TetR family of transcriptional regulators (TFTRs). In M. tuberculosis and M. bovis, TFTRs are a group of regulators previously identified as being involved in regulating various genes involved in things such as antibiotic resistance, cholesterol metabolism and branched chain amino acid metabolism. My work consists of some bioinformatics and then applying this bioinformatic knowledge to a range of molecular biology tools to determine the functions of these TFTRs and what genes they are involved in regulating.

I look forward to hearing from everyone and hope to answer some questions!