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.


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.