Research Advisor: Tom Miller
Alumna Emily Schultz ’18 recently graduated with a Ph.D. in the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology program within the Department of BioSciences. As a graduate student in Dr. Tom Miller's lab, Emily conducted research on lifeforms she found most fascinating: species that can survive in extreme climates (high-elevation pine) and weeds (invasive thistle).
"Although this might be odd for someone who has done research on invasive species, I have a particular admiration for weeds. They so often manage to persist, despite our best efforts to get rid of them."
Using weeds and pines, Emily investigated why we find biological species where we do. Breaking down this fundamental question, Emily asks 3 specific questions: 1) Can native insects limit the population of an invasive thistle? 2) How might the range of whitebark pines shift in the face of climate change? 3) Does variation in environmental conditions predict regional dynamics of whitebark pines?
To address these questions, Emily uses a combination of field studies and mathematical modeling. "In the field, I collected data on the survival, growth, and reproductive rates of the species. I then used these data to parameterize models, incorporating environmental data, to estimate how we expect the population sizes to change over time."
The type of work that field study and modeling involve matches Emily's love for the outdoors and puzzle-solving. Through developing her own research, Emily got to combine these elements. "For my dissertation, I spent my summers backpacking in the mountains, collecting data on whitebark pine. Then I got to bring in the math and puzzle-solving when I built the models and the computer programs to run them."
In addition to alpine backpacking, Emily's ecology research has brought her to Yellow Stone National Park, Costa Rica, South Africa, and the Mariana Islands. Now, building demographic models to help understand the distribution of pinyon pine, Emily works as a postdoctoral researcher for Dr. Margaret Evans at the Laboratory for Tree Ring Research at the University of Arizona.
Listen to a 5-minute talk to learn more about Emily's Ph.D. research here: https://youtu.be/07wt7ipr-Ks
Adam wants to understand the fundamental biology behind vagal NCCs: how do the cells behave and how do they know which tissue type to become? Currently, Adam is studying the genes that potentially influence the migration of vagal NCCs.
Hox genes, first discovered in fruit flies, are responsible for global body patterning. Hox genes are not only found in flies, but they are conserved in zebrafish and humans. In fact, zebrafish and humans share over three-quarters of their genes, so genetic studies on zebrafish can easily translate to humans. Unlike the embryos of other commonly studied organisms —like humans and mice — zebrafish embryos are optically transparent. This allows observations of individual cells while the fish is growing, which is a significant advantage for developmental cell biologists like Adam.
One gene, in particular, hoxb5, may be implicated in the formation of heart muscle, pigment cells, and neurons in the gut. Because gene expression requires the transcription of DNA into RNA, manipulations of RNA can directly affect gene expression. Using this knowledge, Adam injects mRNA directly into the cell to test the effect of hoxb5 on the migratory behavior of vagal NCCs. This approach is common in zebrafish developmental cell biology, where scientists see what happens when there is more of something, whether it is RNA or proteins.
Earlier this month, Adam presented part of his doctoral research at the Texas Zebrafish Conference at the University of Houston. There, he interacted with a portion of the scientific community who have worked with zebrafish, whom Adam found to be some of the “brightest and most collegial scientists” he had met. Adam hopes that some of the conversations he had there will spark collaborations. Exchanging protocols and certain lineages of zebrafish were already part of the conversation. The conference also exposed Adam to cutting edge research techniques, such as optogenetic tools that use light to control cells in living tissue.
Prior to his doctoral work, Adam explored clinical research and worked in the industry. Going into college, Adam thought he wanted to pursue medicine. However, upon acing his general biology exam, he looked into working at the lab of the professor who taught the general biology course. There, Adam fell in love with the pursuit of asking questions no one has asked before and finding the answers before anyone else. While doing research at the Texas Medical Center, Adam says he was bitten by the research bug, and couldn’t stop chasing after what life was about. Here at Rice, Adam appreciates the academic freedom to ask his own questions and the mentorship from his adviser, Rosa Uribe.