Award from the American Genetic Association

I am delighted to be among 8 students and postdocs awarded the 2019 Evolutionary, Ecological, and Conservation Genomics (EECG) Research Award from the American Genetic Association!

This award will allow me to do some genetic analyses on threespine stickleback eggs to determine the outcome of artificial sperm competition experiments. You can read more about all of this year’s winning projects here.

Soon to leave to Iceland to collect the fish necessary for these experiments, stay tuned for more updates!

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Undergrad Marty Schmidt presents his work on stickleback body shape

Our undergraduate student Martin (Marty) Schmidt was selected as one of 3 undergraduate students giving a talk at the 26th Annual Animal Behavior Conference in Bloomington, Indiana University. #ABC2019

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I had the pleasure to attend the conference with Marty on March 29th-30th , 2019, where he presented his work on geometric morphometrics of stickleback body shape from different ecotypes, a dataset produced by placing 22 landmarks on over 300 fish pictures.

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We are still at early stages of analyses but Marty talked about some of the cool patterns emerging in his dataset, and did a fantastic job at presenting and answering questions, for his very first talk at a conference!

Shortly after this Marty presented his work at the 2019 Undergraduate Research And Art Forum at Michigan State University and received 1st place Award for his oral presentation in the Integrative Biology and Organismal Biology section. Congratulations!

My first 6 (!) sessions with Skype a Scientist

For my very first sessions of Skype a Scientist, I got to chat, not with 1 , but 6 classes of middleschoolers! What a #SkypeAScientistMarathon !

The morning started well with 2 different sessions with 2 classes of 7th graders from North Carolina @chowan_middle . I got really cool questions about how it is to be a scientist , why I chose to do what I do and how much I get to decide what I study.

Here are some of my favourite questions:

– What animal would you absolutely want to study & are males and females different in that animal? (I introduced them to sexual selection)

-Were you nervous before learning to handle animals for the 1st time?

-Do you get to pick your study animals?

Other pertinent questions about being a scientist abroad:

-Why come to Michigan?
-How much do you travel?
-How often do you see your family?
-How much free time do you have? 
-How much do you make? 
-What are the differences between Europe & the US? 

Next up, my first class of 6th graders were on fire! 

We talked about bird longevity, menopause, how different taxa actually mate, why females are often the choosy sex & if males chose as well, and how birds recognize an individual mate or that they are from the same species

Favourite question from a 6th grader:

“Did ancestors of birds have different mating rituals?”

This got us talking about paleontology, difficulties in inferring behaviour from fossils & ended with us imagining T-Rex performing elaborate dances & singing for their ladies

The award for best question overall goes to the 2nd class of 8th graders, during my 6th session of that day:

“If a bird of paradize and a parrot were to mate successfully, would their sons dance like a bird of paradize to attract females?”

This is such a good question!!! I might actually keep it for an exam some day, this basically summarizes all of my favourite study topics: speciation, sexual selection and evolution of innate vs learned behaviour!

Overall, I had a blast for my very first experience skyping with multiple classes from North Carolina and would absolutely recommend @SkypeScientist to any scientist out there who wants an easy platform to communicate their passion with kids all over the globe! 

Geckos at the Science Fair

Today I visited the Murphy Elementary School in Haslett for my very first Science Fair! Together with Louise Mead and Matthew Moreno from the BEACON center at MSU, we talked about evolution and morphological adaptation to different environments, using crested and leopard geckos and their amazing feet as an example! Can you guess which one of them leaves in the desert, and which one can climb up trees?

Matthew also led a game about beak shapes and seed sizes, simulating the famous example of the Darwin finches, that all the kids absolutely loved!

New Year in Michigan, New Start and New Project

As of today, I am officially starting on my own fellowship, with support from the Swiss National Science Foundation for the next 18 months.

Continuing to study Icelandic sticklebacks in collaboration with Janette Boughman at Michigan State University, I will come back to questions closer to my PhD interests, studying gamete interactions between sexes and populations, with a special focus on cryptic female choice and how environmental conditions affect reproduction in this externally fertilizing species.

Looking forward to going to Iceland again in a few months to sample new fish, and to starting behavioural experiments this summer, as well as some new collaborations down the line.

Entering the microscopic world of a fish brain

I am just coming back from a 3 weeks stay at University of Texas at Austin in the Hofmann Lab at the department of Integrative Biology.

It looks like I chose the best timing to avoid the mid-west capricious winter weather and this year’s polar vortex, and had a lot of fun meeting collaborators I only communicated with over email before, and enjoying Austin’s exceptional climate, food and music!

I did not quite travel alone, but instead brought with me a cooler full of dry ice and stickleback brains, carefully dissected either in Iceland last summer after behavioral trials or at MSU during 4 months of processing of sensory organs.

The purpose of the trip was to get trained on performing micro-dissections and extract RNA from different regions of the brains. We are interested in studying potential differences in sensory organs in response to adaptation to different marine and freshwater environments in Iceland, and the corresponding regions in the brains of these fish that control these senses.

PhD candidate Mariana Rodriguez was an amazing teacher, taking me through the different steps that involved learning to recognize different brain regions, sectioning the brains using a cryostat – the cold version of a microtome, or microscopic version of a meat slicer, that keeps your samples frozen at -20˚C to not degrade genetic material- and finally learning to perform micropunches, each 300 µm in diameter, using a tool that looks like a pen with a big needle at the tip. Because all of this has to be done on still-frozen samples on a cold block, the micro-punches were done using my bare-eyes, and I would only later assess the precision of the punches under the microscope.

To be honest I did not think that I would manage to trust myself doing this accurately enough within the short time-frame I had while in Austin, the stickleback brains are sooo tiny! But over 60 brains later, I think that I got the hang of it! It was really fun to learn a new technique and I am looking forward to my next visit and the gene expression analyses on these samples!

I am going to Austin to learn new techniques

I was just awarded an NSF RCN travel grant from the Genetics and Genomics of Social Behavior network to visit Hans Hofmann´s lab at UT Austin next Spring!

I am looking forward to visiting collaborators there and learning brain micro-dissections, RNA extractions and transcriptomic analyses!

More on that at the start of next week, as well as some other good news on their way! 2019 already promises to be full of new adventures!

Merry Fishmas to you all!

My thoughts on the Travel Dilemma

I was contacted a few weeks ago by Together Science Can , a campaign aiming at supporting international collaborations in Science, to share my views on academic travel with kids. 

In the article, “The Travel Dilemma: Stories From Parents and Carers in Research”, I share my personal experience about traveling with kids during my PhD for international conferences and collaborations, and mention the page on my website, #academicmum , where I list conferences and funding agencies supporting child care. Two other mums also share their stories about the difficulties of traveling with children, for conferences as well as for longer appointments. 

This article followed a recent survey on mobility in science, showing that international movement positively and importantly impacts researchers’ careers, but that costs of relocation and short-term travels and family obligations are major obstacles to academic mobility, disproportionately so for younger researchers, and with varying levels of supports in different regions of the world. 

What I like about this project is that it not only identifies current needs and obstacles to academic mobility, it also focuses on potential solutions for all scientists. The recent blog post describing recent reports on caregivers in academia is a great example of this, with the following very strong conclusion:

” A range of initiatives which are run by organisations and individuals to facilitate the mobility of carers, from offering ‘care bursaries’ to circulating information in advance and running events during standard working hours. While carers may sometimes benefit from policies which address their ‘specific’ needs, tackling the issues they face will not happen unless we revisit policies which assume that academics are care-free and organise more care-friendly events and mobility schemes.”

I had a blast at Biology on Tap

It was my first ever experience giving a purely outreach talk, aimed at a public of “slightly inebriated adults” , as the organizers put it.

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Preparing for it was more challenging than I anticipated: the general theme of the evening was “Birds” , but as I wanted to talk at least a little bit about my research, I realized there were quite a few concepts I had to try to introduce to people with potentially no prior knowledge of biology. And while I really like presenting my research and have been trained to give conference-format talks for years, I felt totally unprepared to explain some of those concepts in more accessible terms.

Coming up with a title that might sound funny and would somewhat inform on what I was going to talk about was very hard. I noticed after moving to Michigan and working almost exclusively with native speakers that I am far behind in being comfortable coming up with jokes and playing with words, something that somehow wasn’t that obvious during my PhD in Sweden, where most of our department had English as their second language.

With assistance from my friends, I settled on talking about “the birds and the bees” and found a perfect picture of a “bird-bee” (thanks to the wonderful local tradition of Halloween pet costumes of all kinds) to illustrate speciation and different kinds of reproductive barriers, or why there is no bird-bee flying around.

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The Loft was really packed that evening, but my whole lab came to support me and seeing some familiar faces in the audience definitely helped. What helped most is the amazing talk of the first speaker that evening, Olivia Utley, telling us about all the ways in which birds are jerks, and preparing the audience for more”non-politically correct” bird stories.

Once on stage I had a lot of fun and felt much more comfortable than I anticipated talking about sex, cheating, crazy duck penises (credits to Patricia Brennan for that part, that most in the public that night probably won’t ever forget), sperm competition and cryptic female choice.

I don’t know if it is the never ending questions of my 5yo about everything and anything that really got me used to explaining these things or if we are generally more prepared than we think to share our passion with a larger public, but I definitely recommend trying something like that at some point, I had a blast and hope to get to do more if it!

The processing of the 2018 Icelandic fish is over!

Victory!

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After 15 consecutive weeks of processing fish, counting neuromasts on their lateral lines and dissecting sensory and reproductive organs, we have sampled all 15 populations that we brought back from Iceland this year!

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Thanks to Greg Byford for his amazing help on this, organizing and executing all this work, and to all the students that helped making it possible!

Looking forward to analyzing some of the results within the next few weeks!