Newsletter 2014-2 December 11, 2014

Robert Thacker
Robert Thacker, Ecology and Evolution Incoming Chair

Bob Thacker to be Chair of Ecology and Evolution Department

For the first time since the Department's founding, our Ecology and Evolution group will be led by a Chair recruited from outside. We are happy to announce that Robert Thacker, renowned sponge taxonomist and researcher on sponge-microbial symbioses will be joining us this coming July. 

Bob is a North Carolina native and got his bachelors degree at Duke University. He completed his M.S. and Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, going on to postdocs at the University of Guam and the University of Hawaii. He then went on to the University of Alabama at Birmingham where he rose to the rank of Full Professor and served as Chair of the Biology Department.

Thacker uses sponges as a model system to study symbiotic relationships with microbes, the evolution of community structure, and the evolution of mutualistic interactions. Microbial autotrophs can constitute over half of the biomass of a sponge and the symbionts can provide over 80 percent of a sponge's energetic needs. Thacker has also served as Principal Investigator of the Porifera Tree of Life Project, funded by the National Science Foundation. His group is also developing bioinformatic tools widely applicable to data access for organisms in general. He is also an active researcher in studying the natural products of sponges, many of which are actively being investigated for their anti-cancer properties. 

We are delighted to get such a talented scientist with the administrative and people skills to lead our department's continued growth. 

E&E and Stony Brook University Continue Expansion in Genomics, with Hiring of Jesse Hollister 

Stony Brook University announced last Spring a second round of cluster hires, decided through a campus-wide competition. We embarked on a search to hire a plant genomicist, who will complement a fast-forming group at Stony Brook working in areas from Yeast genomics to
Jesse Hollister
Jesse Hollister
human and primate evolution. Our search has yielded fruit and
Jesse Hollister will be joining the Department of Ecology and Evolution this coming January. Jesse got his Bachelors degree from Sonoma State University and his Ph.D. at U.C. Irvine in 2009. From 2009-2011 he was a postdoc at Harvard University working in Kirsten Bomblies' laboratory and is about to leave his last postdoc at the University of Toronto, working with Mark Johnson and Stephen Wright.

Jesse chose to work with plants on the genomic causes of evolutionary transitions because of their rich diversity of evolutionary and genetic mechanisms. Much of his recent work has been devoted to the impact of transposable elements, especially the epigenetic silencing of TE insertions in Arabidopsis species. TEs increase over time but the host evolves defense mechanisms that silence many of these effects. His recent work addresses the spectacular genus Oenothera, or evening primroses, which have long been well known for their species diversity and flower variation. Jesse is exploring both phylogenomic and population genomic patterns in this genus in order to understand genomic mechanisms behind such well known phenomena as Permanent Translocation Heterozygosity, producing the famous ring chromosomes of Oenothera .

Jesse Hollister's arrival builds on some exciting recent faculty additions to the Department and the University. Recently, Dr. Sasha Levy joined the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology. Sasha develops technologies using random DNA barcodes and next-generation sequencing to quantitatively study the behavior of millions of small lineages in large cell populations. He is now a member of the Graduate Program in Ecology and Evolution. Dr. Krishna Veeramah recently joined the Department of Ecology and Evolution and is using genomic-scale data to understand the evolutionary genetics of human and non-human primates and conducting geographically fine-scale studies of human genetic variation in sub-Saharan Africa. He is also involved in projects examining ancient DNA from Migration Period Europe and the genetic basis of epilepsy. Dr. Brenna Henn has also joined the E&E Department and she uses genomic approaches to study genetic variation and ancient migration routes of human populations. 
     Himba Women of Namibia
Brenna Henn's Lab Investigates Genetic Diversity of Far-Flung Indigenous Human Populations

The Henn Lab has recently initiated two new field projects as part of their efforts to assay genetic diversity in indigenous populations around the world. In December, Dr. Elizabeth Atkinson (NIH IRACDA postdoctoral fellow) is traveling to Kaokoland, Namibia to sample DNA from the Himba (see photo), who live a semi-nomadic lifestyle herding cattle and goats. Isolated in northern Namibia, the Himba practice a polygynous marriage system and non-marital unions are also common. In collaboration with Prof. Brooke Scleza, an anthropologist at UCLA, she will ask how marriage systems influence the distribution genetic diversity and resource allocation among the Himba children. This project is part of a larger effort to sequence genomes from over twenty different African populations as part of the African Genome Variation Project funded by the Wellcome Trust / Sanger. A summer in northern Japan was spent surveying the Ainu people of the island of Hokkaido. The Ainu were part of an indigenous hunter-gatherer population who lived in the Japanese islands before the introduction of rice agriculture. They visited several Ainu villages and asked community leaders about beginning a project to understand the genetic prehistory of this population, who remained largely isolated from Japanese agriculturalists until a few hundred years ago. Henn's group aims to establish an Ainu genome project so that individuals can learn their personal genetic history and how they relate to the larger historical Asian migrations over the past 10,000 years.

Heather Lynch
Heather Lynch Peers into the Problem of Climate Change and Penguin Population Size
The Lynch Lab is studying penguin biogeography at spatial scales that
range from the individual nest site to the entire continent. At the smallest spatial scales, Lynch and her students are using three-dimensional mapping of terrain to study the geomorphometrics and hydrology of penguin colonies and its importance to nest site selection relative to the aggregative dynamics associated with coloniality. These models allow the lab to understand the process of colony formation, and whether coloniality itself is a major constraint to range shifting with climate change. Combined with a new effort to use passive-integrated transponders ('PIT tags') to track individual penguins and their nest site selections over time, these data will provide new insight into the mechanisms underlying penguin occupancy, dispersal, and persistence.

Heather was recently awarded a new NSF grant "Phytoplankton Phenology in the Antarctic: Drivers, Patterns, and Implications for the Adélie Penguin" in collaboration with researchers from the University of Colorado, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Lynch and Ph.D. student Casey Youngflesh will complete the most extensive study-to-date on the breeding phenology of the Adélie penguin and its responses to transient seasonal factors such as polynya formation and long-term changes in sea ice concentration and snow melt. This study will provide Lynch and colleagues a better understanding of the constraints faced by Adélie penguins trying to breed in Antarctica's short summers, and will permit better predictions regarding their future under climate change. This project follows on the heels of Lynch's recent report with colleagues on the first global census of Adélie penguins. A 10-month study involving a complete pixel-by-pixel search of sub-meter commercial satellite imagery of penguins along the entire Antarctic coastline (a distance 40% longer than that from New York to Los Angeles) found penguin populations not previously known to exist and a global population 53% larger than expected based on previous estimates. This paper received widespread media coverage including print and video interviews with the Wall Street Journal. 

Alumni and friends we hope you remember how important an early financial boost was in your graduate research. 
Please give to the Lawrence Slobodkin Fund for Ecological Research.
Give to the George Williams Fund for Student Research. Donate Now
Give to Ecology and Evolution Award for Student Excellence. Donate Now

How much? Suggested donations. Full professors: >= $200, Associate Professors: >= $100, Assistant Professors and Postdocs: >= $50 Please get used to giving annually. We need your help. Thanks so much!!
Our New "Green Wall"

Thanks to the efforts of E&E graduate students, our Department entrance area has a new look!

E&E Events, Awards and Passages

Daniel Dykhuizen retired last June from the Department. We are still lucky to have him around, still doing research and advising graduate students. Lilliana Davalos is a co-investigator in a newly funded Dimensions of Biodiversity grant from the National Science Foundation to study how bats sense their environment. Marianne Moore, a postdoc in the Davalos lab, was awarded US Fish and Wildlife grant for research on bat immune response to White Nose Syndrome. Melissa J. Cohen joined us last spring as the Coordinator for Ecology and Evolution Graduate Program. Heather Lynch was awarded a three-year collaborative grant from NSF Office of Polar Programs with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, entitled: "Phytoplankton Phenology in the Antarctic: Drivers, Patterns, and Implications for the Adélie Penguin"; Heather was also designated as a 2014 Ecological Society of America Early Career Fellow. Jessica Gurevitch received a National Parks Service award with Steven Handel of Rutgers University to study Restoration of Jamaica Bay Fringing Habitats: post-Sandy status and new approaches for a resilient future. 

Josh Rest was awarded as sole PI an NIH grant entitled "Fitness and modularity of stochastic variation in protein expression levels." The goal of the research is to determine the physiological basis and evolutionary consequences of cell-to-cell variation in the expression levels of noisy genes. Doug Futuyma continues as lead Editor of Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. Rodrigo Cogni (Ph.D. 2010 with Futuyma) just started a job as Assistant Professor of Biology at the Universidade de Sao Paulo in Brazil. Abby Cahill (Ph.D. 2014 with Levinton) started a postdoc at the Station Marine D'Endoume, in Marseilles, working on genetic and biogeographic studies of Mediterranean marine species. Caitlin Fisher-Reid, started a job as Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University, Massachusetts (student of John Wiens). Brendan Kelaher, former postdoc in Levinton's lab has been promoted to senior lecturer at Southern Cross University, Australia. Tom Bianchi, former masters student of Jeff Levinton has just been appointed as the Jon and Beverly Thompson Endowed Chair of Geological Sciences at the University of Florida, Gainesville.  

Two new postdocs have joined Brenna Henn's lab. Dr. Misha Lipatov is a mathematical population geneticist working on estimating human and primate mutation rates from next-generation sequence data.Dr. Elizabeth Atkinson (PhD, Washington University in St. Louis, School of Medicine), joins the lab, focused on the evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language development] and the demographic history of African populations.

Here is a question about E&E history from the last Newsletter. Who was the first winner of a speaker award at the very first E&E Retreat? Why it was George C. Williams! 

Now another tickler.
Which university has had the most E&E Ph.D.s join their faculty?

Contacts: Chair Walt Eanes, Graduate Program Director Resit Akçakaya or
the Newsletter Editor, Jeff Levinton


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