25th June 2018 – Lewis Bartlett, University of Exeter & University of California Berkeley

Lewis BartlettI’m Lewis – a PhD researcher at University of Exeter, and a visiting researcher at University of California Berkeley. I’m also in collaboration with the University of Georgia (USA), Emory University (USA), and Heriot-Watt University (UK).

My work is currently focussed on better understanding the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, current declines of both domestic and wild bees, and the relationships between the two. I’m a huge bee enthusiast – and teach / certify beekeepers as part of my work. Speaking with beekeepers is a big part of what I do – and necessitates a different understanding of science communication compared to public outreach. Prior to bees and diseases, I worked on ice-age extinctions, habitat fragmentation, and arguably the world’s most ambitious ecological simulation. My research dips into a massive variety of techniques – from the field to the lab to statistics to differential equation modelling.

Doing research and holding positions in two different continents has given me a two-point perspective on the lives of PhD researchers, and the differences are pretty profound. There’s things to be learnt from all systems.

As far as non-research academic activities go, I count teaching and learning as a big part of my interests – both at the school and University levels. Comparing approaches to university teaching between Britain and the US has been an eye-opening experience. In particular, teaching quantitative skills & programming is a devotion of mine (for better or for worse!).

Understanding access, diversity, and inclusion in ecology is also a topic close to my heart (as both a first-generation, working class university graduate and a ragingly flamboyant gay man). Seeing again how these issues differ between the UK and the US is remarkable in approaches and nuance.

Expect hot-takes on bees, on diseases, on outreach, teaching, and moving around as part of academic ecology in this week’s Biotweeps coverage – probably punctuated with makeup, nail polish, and countless examples of how bees and other insects influence art & fashion.


28th May 2018 – Sabah Ul-Hasan, UC Merced

Sabah Ul-HasanSabah Ul-Hasan is a Quantitative & Systems Biology PhD Candidate at the University of California, Merced advised under Dr. Tanja Woyke at the Joint Genome Institute. Sabah‘s educational background stems from three B.S. degrees in Biologevy, Chemistry, and Sustainability & Environmental Studies from the University of Utah and an M.S. in Biochemistry from the University of New Hampshire. Sabah‘s thesis work focuses on venomous host-microbe interactions with the California cone snail serving as a model system. In addition to Sabah‘s interests in coevolution, venomics, and marine ecosystems, Sabah holds a passion for science communication and spearheads an array of organizations from The Biota Project (@thebiotaproject), an after-school STEM workshop high school students, and a data science graduate student group. Sabah intends to pursue a data scientist position post PhD, with special attention to intersectionality and open access.

This week we’ll be discussing venomous animals. What constitutes a venomous animal? Is there a difference between venomous and poisonous animals? What is the scientific history of venoms and who are the main groups studying venoms today? We’ll then bring up some big topics in the current field of microbiology and draw connections between these two realms.

Are you working on venomous animals with an interest to pursue their associated microbiomes, and/or know someone who is doing that kind of work? If so, send a personal message to Sabah to partake in the venomous host-microbe consortium. The aim of the consortium is to build a collaborative network of scientists for establishing a strong foundation in big data and associated resources. For example, why throw the rest of that snake tissue away when someone else on the other side of the world can use a section of it and perhaps find out something interesting and new too?!

Let’s use communication, collaboration, and citizen science make science great again together!

22nd January 2018 – Stephen Heard, University of New Brunswick

Stephen Heard2

Hello everyone!  My name is Steve Heard, and I’m an evolutionary ecologist at the University of New Brunswick, in Fredericton, NB, Canada.

As a researcher, I’m mostly interested in the evolution of insect diet.  Among herbivorous insects, why do some species feed on just a single host plant and reject everything else, while others eat (nearly) everything they encounter?  When an insect adopts a new host plant, how often is the result the evolution of a new specialist species, and how often, instead, just a generalist species with one more host?  And when we answer questions like these, can it help us with economically important issues like the vulnerability of crops to insect pests or the spread and impact of invasive species?  I address questions like these in a model system (insects attacking goldenrods) and also in an applied context (insect pests of coniferous trees, a major issue in forestry).

I’ve been around a while and have done a few different things.  For my PhD, completed way back in 1993, I studied interactions among the insect inhabitants of pitcher-plant leaves.  As a postdoc I worked on coexistence in mushroom-breeding flies – but with a sideline in the shapes of evolutionary trees and what those shapes can tell us about the evolution of new biodiversity.  I began my first faculty job, at the University of Iowa, as a stream ecologist, but by the time I moved to New Brunswick in 2002, I’d moved on to my insect-diet work.  I guess you could say I have broad interests, or if you prefer, a short attention span!

Like every scientist, I’m about more than my own research. Among other things: I’ve written a book on scientific writing (The Scientist’s Guide to Writing); I teach courses in ecology, entomology, and writing; I do my best to mentor my grad students; I’m an editor for a couple of journals; and this year, I’m Chair of my academic department.  I’ll tweet about all of these roles, how I balance them, and how I see them fitting together.  Of course, I also have a life outside of science, in which I’m a husband and father, a (bad) curler, a (somewhat better) cook, and a voracious reader.

When I’m not on @Biotweeps, you can find me on Twitter as @StephenBHeard, and I also blog at ScientistSeesSquirrel.wordpress.com.

23rd October 2017 – Alyson Brokaw, Texas A&M University

Alyson BrokawI am a third year PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Doctoral Degree Program at Texas A&M University. Broadly, I am interested in sensory ecology and animal communication, with a focus on bats. As a diverse group with over 1300 species, bats are a great system to investigate a range of ecological and evolutionary questions. It doesn’t hurt that they are also cute (#TeamBat)!

 I work in the Smotherman lab, where we study the ecology and neurobiology of bats (www.smothermanbatlab.com). Recent work in the lab has focused on singing and communication signals in Mexican free-tailed bats, networking strategies in groups of bats, neurological and muscular control of bat ecology, and territoriality and singing behavior in African bats. For my dissertation I am exploring how bats use olfaction for foraging, communication and navigation. I plan to address these topics using a combination of neurophysiology, histology, lab and field based behavioral experiments.

 I got my start in field ecology research as an undergraduate student at Cornell University, working with tree swallows in the Winkler lab. I also have a Master’s degree from Humboldt State University, where I studied the communication signals in Yuma myotis (a common small brown bat found in the western United States). I have been involved in field work on swallows in Argentina, cuckoos in Arizona, coyote and kit fox in Utah, migratory tree bats in California and leaf-nosed bats in Mexico.

 As a bonus, I am hosting Biotweeps at the same time as Bat Week (batweek.org), so expect lots of discussions about bat ecology, evolution and conservation, with as well as a mix of personal experience, outreach, #scicomm and #phdlife.

16th October 2017 – Liz Martin-Silverstone, University of Southampton and University of Bristol

Liz Martin-Silverstone.pngHi all! I’m Liz Martin-Silverstone, and I recently completed my PhD in palaeontology at the University of Southampton (but also associated with the University of Bristol) in the UK. My research is based on biomechanics and mass estimation in pterosaurs, the extinct flying reptiles that lived alongside dinosaurs (but are not actually dinosaurs!). I’m currently looking for post-doc positions, and working as a research assistant on a project involving zebrafish for a few months in the meantime.

I completed my BSc in palaeontology at home at the University of Alberta in Canada, where I became fascinated with pterosaurs, and got my first bit of research experience. I then decided to move to the UK and pursue grad school, doing my MSc in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol, where I began working on pterosaur bone mass. Fortunately, my MSc project led into a PhD project, and I moved to Southampton to continue this work. I’m currently more interested in the evolution of the air sac system in birds and pterosaurs, and would like to work on this in the future. I’m a big scicomm fan (otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this!), and currently help produce a podcast called Palaeocast, and also volunteer with a Canadian science blogging community called Science Borealis.

My week at Biotweeps is going to focus a bit on my own research, palaeontology in general (I’ll try to dispel some of those common palaeo myths), and a bit about what I’m doing now both in terms of research and scicomm. I’d also like to talk a bit about some of the issues I had to overcome as a PhD student, such as funding and university-related issues, and how these things can affect students.

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!

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.