Research Statement

Resolving the Evolutionary and Ecological Patterns and Processes that Underlie Speciation, Diversification, and Trait Evolution

Introduction

Our planet abounds with biodiversity; plants, animals, and countless microorganisms have evolved over billions of years and continue to interact during our daily lives. My overarching research goal is to increase our understanding of the biological patterns and processes that have shaped our planet’s biodiversity. Although I have broad interests in different taxa, I primarily study birds to understand how speciation and the generation of phenotypic diversity have transpired over different evolutionary time scales. Within ornithology, my research focuses on resolving the evolutionary history of songbirds within a phylogenetic and systematic framework. Through phylogenetic reconstructions, comparative analyses, population genetics, and functional genomics, my research strives to determine the evolutionary origins and adaptive significance of phenotypic diversity, both within and among species. Here, I describe my previous, current, and future avenues of research. I highlight the significance of my work and the roles that I envision undergraduates, graduate students, collaborators, and the general public will play in my mission to further our understanding of the ecology and evolutionary biology of birds.

Previous research

As part of my master's degree, I found that song and plumage elaboration evolve independently in tanagers.

As part of my master’s degree, I found that song and plumage elaboration evolve independently in tanagers. I published my findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, which received attention from popular press sources, such as Audubon Magazine and Scientific American.

During my master’s, I honed my broader interests in ecology and evolutionary biology that I gained as an undergraduate to focus on avian systematics and evolution. I joined Dr. Kevin Burns’s lab at San Diego State University, where my research sought to resolve phylogenetic relationships and patterns of vocal and plumage evolution in tanagers, the largest family of songbirds. In addition to gaining vital research skills and experience, my time as a master’s student allowed me to publish four first-author manuscripts and co-author a fifth. These manuscripts reflect my interest in various topics within evolutionary biology, including species-level phylogenetics, phylogeography within a species, and trait evolution among species.

Ongoing research

In fall 2012, I joined Dr. Irby Lovette’s lab in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the Lab of Ornithology at Cornell University as a PhD student. Since starting at Cornell, I have embarked on various research projects with multiple groups of collaborators. My current projects span a gamut of research topics, including inferring evolutionary history and species limits in a Holarctic songbird using high-throughput sequencing data, studying an instance of rapid adaptation in response to anthropogenic change, understanding the comparative biology of life history evolution in a family of songbirds, and updating the taxonomy of tanagers to reflect evolutionary history. In order to study these topics, my research synergizes traditionally disparate data sources, such as genomics, natural history collections, remote sensing, and spatial and spectral analyses of coloration, to acquire insight into the ecology and evolution of our natural world.

IMG_0107

The evolution and ecology of songbirds, such as this juvenile Horned Lark (Eremophila alpestris) from Oaxaca, Mexico, are central components of my research.

Future research

It is an exciting time to begin a career in the life sciences. Looking ahead, I aim to continue my multidimensional research on the evolutionary biology and ecology of birds (and other taxa). The life sciences are experiencing a paradigm shift enabled by recent advances in high-throughput sequencing technology, which exponentially increases the amount of genetic data available for study. I aim to harness these new technologies to deepen our understanding of avian biology, by integrate data from traditionally disparate sources, such as remote sensing data, spatial analyses of animal coloration and patterning, functional genomics, and museum specimens to answer standing questions in ecology and evolutionary biology.

Research, Collaboration, Mentorship, and Outreach

I believe that research is most rewarding when it involves some level of collaboration and cooperation between multiple parties. I have been fortunate to collaborate with over a dozen co-authors to date and have ongoing projects with additional collaborators at institutions in the United States and abroad. Exchanging ideas across institutional and cultural boundaries strengthens our scientific community, while research offers a powerful learning opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students alike. As a master’s student, I trained and mentored five undergraduate researchers, including four women and three members of underrepresented ethnicities in STEM fields. I am currently mentoring multiple undergraduate research projects, which reflects my dedication to training the next generation of biologists. I also believe that scientists need to engage the public regarding the importance and value of basic and applied scientific research. One of my master’s chapters on the relationship between song and plumage elaboration in tanagers incited public interest and was covered by over thirty popular science news outlets; this example highlights my commitment to the dissemination of scientific advancements through media outlets and the powerful hook that birds offer to engage the public.

Funding potential

I have been successful at accumulating funding from both internal and external funding sources to carry out my research. To date, I have gathered over $40,000 from over twenty different funding sources, and grants from National Geographic, the Garden Club of America, the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Ornithologists’ Union, and the American Museum of Natural History, among others. I was also awarded a fellowship from the Environmental Protection Agency to support two years of my PhD stipend. These successful applications highlight my capability to identify funding sources and secure the necessary resources to carry out research. Looking ahead, my research has strong funding potential because of the integrative nature of my research, which combines data from traditionally disparate sources and disciplines. I plan to apply for financial support from prominent basic and applied funding sources, such as NSF Division of Environmental Biology, NASA Dimensions of Biodiversity, and the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.

Conclusion

As demonstrated by my previous and ongoing research experience, I am committed to expanding the boundaries of our knowledge by pursuing integrative research interests, multi-institutional and international collaborations, and training and mentoring undergraduate and graduate students in ecology and evolutionary biology. My research on the evolution of songbirds has proven successful in attracting interest and support from funding sources and the general public. I aim to continue my synergistic research within ornithology and evolutionary biology throughout my career.

Advertisements