29th May 2017 – Rutger Vos, Naturalis Biodiversity Center

Rutger VosMy name is Rutger Vos, and I am computational evolutionary biologist at the natural history museum of the Netherlands, Naturalis. My educational background is in evolutionary biology, most especially in phylogenetics, i.e. the field of biology that concerns itself with researching the Tree of Life. For my PhD research, it became clear that I needed to handle amounts of tree and alignment data that were unmanageable to do ‘by hand’ on a normal computer, so I taught myself programming and how to use high-performance computing systems.
One thing led to another and I ended up doing my postdocs as a contributor to various infrastructures having to do with phylogenetics, most notably the CIPRES (http://www.phylo.org) project and TreeBASE (http://www.treebase.org) – but also projects having to do with data standards and data sharing in biology. ‘Open Science’, basically.
Meanwhile, the high-throughput DNA sequencing (NGS) revolution was starting to spit out more and more genomes, with which I started to play around. So much so that by the time Naturalis started looking for a bioinformatician to contribute to the NGS projects that were going on over there I could plausibly apply for a position.
At Naturalis I’ve become involved in a lot of different projects, all of which have bioinformatics or computational biology in common but are otherwise very broad-ranging. I’ve had the good fortune to be able to work with many of the kinds of data, information and knowledge that circulate in a natural history museum. For example, apart from DNA I’m also analyzing image data from our specimen digitization efforts, scanned texts, and species traits and distributions.
On Twitter (@rvosa) I let out my interest in ‘unnatural history’. It’s a totally vague term that I’ve adopted to look at and talk about the cultural ways in which we interact with nature. I mean things like art about nature; the way we, biologists, do science about nature; how we as a species are colliding with biodiversity because of our actions. By the way, I later found out there’s also a book called ‘Unnatural History’. I haven’t read it but it looks neat and it looks like it’s partly about the same topic.

1st May 2017 – Teresa Mastracci, Indiana Biosciences Research Institute

Teresa MastracciHi, Biotweeps! I am a Senior Scientist at the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute. A molecular and developmental biologist by training, I have a mad fascination for the study of diabetes. Diabetes is a disease characterized by the progressive loss of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. Individuals with diabetes overcome this beta cell destruction or dysfunction by daily administration of exogenous insulin – a viable and long-standing therapy. However, the long-term complications associated with diabetes are never truly eliminated. So research efforts have recently moved to the generation of therapies that could fix, not just treat, the beta cell loss.

My lab uses the mouse and zebrafish model systems to study the signals that induce pancreatic progenitor cells to differentiate or insulin-producing beta cells to regenerate. Our work is motivated by the idea that once identified, we may be able to harness these growth, differentiation, or regeneration signals to create novel treatments for type 1 diabetes.

A Canadian by birth and at heart, I completed my BSc in Molecular Biology and Genetics at the University of Guelph and my PhD in Cancer Genetics at the University of Toronto. I then moved south of the border for postdoctoral studies at Columbia University and began merging my interests in developmental biology and human disease by studying cell fate determination in mutant mouse models with dramatic diabetes phenotypes. My research interests eventually brought me to Indianapolis where I was recruited to the Indiana Biosciences Research Institute (http://www.indianabiosciences.org ) — a non-profit research institute that brings together academic and industrial science. My lab has been going strong for a year and we’re excited about some pretty cool research that will be coming out soon!

When I’m not in the lab or writing, I absolutely love to travel. Seeing new places and meeting new people can open your mind to such extraordinarily unique perspectives. In fact, I’ve done some of my most creative scientific writing or experimental brainstorming on the plane rides home from somewhere. I’m excited to kick off May for the @biotweeps — I hope to share my love of developmental biology, diabetes research, and what’s new and exciting at IBRI!

Via Twitter you can reach me @tlmastracci or the Indiana Bioscience Research Institute @INBiosciences – keep up to date on exciting discoveries in general science, diabetes research, developmental biology as well as progress in biomedical research, technology and innovation in Indiana.

17th April 2017 – Reeteka Sud, National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India

Reeteka SudMy academic training has been in the field of Neuroscience. I have been in love with the brain since I was 13 I think. Watching a NatGeo documentary about the brain one Sunday afternoon proved really rather significant. This was long before I had any views about career for myself, let alone knowing the possibility of career in Neuroscience. It’s true what they say — for this day and age — “I watch, therefore I am”. So, that’s who I am — a neuroscientist.

Several beautiful chance encounters since watching the NatGeo documentary, I found myself doing PhD, in Neuroscience! Here, I studied the changes happening in brain during chronic pain; how drugs influence these changes when they do, and don’t, relieve pain. When I was a graduate student, the human genome was first mapped. I started thinking about what genes can, and cannot, do. My postdoc work then naturally was about targeting how genetic elements (not always functional genes, but DNA sequences within genome) are involved — in increasing chances of a disease, and how that aspect can be used to develop better treatments.

Along the way, I added ‘science communication’ and ‘integrating research and education’, as two other things I really care about (and therefore will tweet about during my time with Biotweeps 🙂

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.

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 of August 2016 – Claire Asher, Freelance science communicator / Innovation officer for the London NERC DTP

Claire AsherI am a science communicator with a background in biology, ecology and evolution. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Sussex, where I discovered a passion for evolutionary biology and animal behaviour. This led me to study for my masters in Evolutionary and Behavioural Ecology at the University of Exeter before beginning my PhD at the University of Leeds in 2009. There I spent a fascinating, exciting and testing four years studying the behaviour and genetics of the giant Brazillian ant, Dinoponera quadriceps, also known as dinosaur ants. This project took me out to remote field sites in Brazil, and also into the lab and the incredibly fast-paced world of gene expression and sequencing.

During my PhD I discovered another passion – for communicating science. By getting involved in public engagement events, writing my own science blog (Curious Meerkat), and working on the BBC4 documentary, ‘Planet Ant’, I realised my real vocation in life is sharing the scientific world with others. I think my interests are too broad to work as a professional scientist, which requires you to focus so intensely on one small area. After my thesis was finally printed and bound, with nearly 5 years of blogging and unpaid writing experience, I felt ready to dive into the world of freelance science communication.

Or, wade in as far as the waist, at least. Since completing my PhD I’ve been splitting my time between freelance science writing, and a part-time job at University College London – first as Knowledge Transfer Officer for the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research (CBER), and now as Innovation and Impact Officer for the London NERC DTP. These roles involve communicating science to a broad range of audiences, from the public to business, industry and policy-makers. Working closely with the PhD students of the DTP has been a particularly rewarding experience.

Although I spent years training to be a scientist, I’ve found that I’m much happier being ‘science adjacent’ – working as a science communicator allows me to learn about a huge variety of different topics, speak to lots of interesting people, and feed my insatiable curiosity about the natural world.

1st August 2016 – Martin Johnsson, Linköping University, Sweden

Martin JohnssonI am a postdoctoral researcher at Linköping University in Sweden. I am interested in the genetic basis of quantitative traits, in applying genomic tools to quantitative genetics, and in chicken domestication. That is, I use computers and pipettes to figure out what genes and genetic variants make domestic chickens different from wild chickens, and feral chickens different from both of them. I am also involved a bit with fruit fly and dog genetics.

Domestic animals have changed a lot from to their wild cousins. Just compare a domestic layer, broiler or fancy breed chicken to the Red Junglefowl, or a pug to a wolf. These evolutionary changes happened during the last 10 000 years — a few thousand less for the chicken, and a few more for the dog. Thus, domestic animals are great for studying genetic differences in traits. Populations and breeds are genetically different from each other, and from wild populations. Also, Red Junglefowl are still here, and can interbreed with domestic chickens, so that we can make crosses between them.

In our group, we work with a intercross of layer chickens and Red Junglefowl. Each individual carries a different mixture of domestic and Red Junglefowl variants. We then measure all kinds of traits that vary in the intercross population. For instance, we record body mass, reactions in different behavioural tests, gene expression in different tissues, and so on. Then we type them for a set of genetic markers, and find the markers that are associated with differences in traits. Thus, we build up a map of the genetic basis of chicken domestication.

During this week I will tweet about all of this. There will also be notes from the everyday business of research. At the time of writing this bio, I am not sure what I will be working on during the week, but laboratory selfies and an inordinate fondness for chicken combs is to be expected. See you on Twitter!