The interconnectivity of genetics first piqued my curiosity in a mostunusual college course: Marine Vertebrate Zoology. Taught by Dr. TobyDaly-Engel, an evolutionary biologist that utilizes genetic techniques to studyshark ecology, she emphasized the phylogenetic relationships found inichthyology.
A handout, the “Tree of Extant Fishes,” was to be memorized. Whileit may still haunt my test-taking nightmares, I have found it be an invaluableresource that sits pinned to my wall. There may be numerous branches, but theyall unite by the common ancestor. The handout helped me understand how the manygenera present today related to one another genetically and divergencephysically from the common ancestor based on habitat. I’ve been exposed tophylogenetic relationships of fish, but I want to delve deeper, learning therelationships of other taxa by means of population genetics, phylogeography,and genome sequencing.
My goal is to combine these specializations to study theeffects of fragmentation on genetic diversity. Particularly, I am attracted tothe phylogeny of echinoderms, cephalopods, and elasmobranchs, but I’m open toother taxa.Despite myinterest, I have limited experience in the world of molecular phylogenetics. Ibriefly worked in Dr. Daly-Engel’s laboratory. We analyzed Gulf hagfish(Myxinidae) DNA by methods of DNA extraction and polymerase chain reactions.
Ihad previously performed similar analyses in my Genetics course, but with Dr.Daly-Engel, it focused on marine life rather than biomedical practices. Thedata was processed with the intention of investigating the phylogeography andsystematics of the hagfishes. Other research I’ve been involved with reachesback to the summer of 2008 when, as an intern at the University of WestFlorida, I enrolled in a non-degree seeking course called Molecular Analysis.Essentially, I was a research technician in that I made agarose gels andperformed both DNA extractions and polymerase chain reactions.
I even was ableto participate in a four-day expedition aboard the Research Vessel Weatherbirdwhere we collected water column and sediment samples. I later used aspectrometer for analysis of chlorophylls a and b. The following summer, I met Dr.Jane M. Caffrey, an estuarine and coastal ecologist. In collaboration with theNorthwest District Department of Environmental Protection, we collectedseagrass samples from both natural and restored beds in the Pensacola, FL area,then returned to the laboratory to isolate the epiphytes from the surface ofthe blades, scraping them off with a razor blade. In subsequent years, Icontinued to volunteer to collect these samples.
In 2013, I conducted anindependent study using this data, examining seasonal patterns in overlyingwater nutrients and chlorophyll a extracted from the epiphytes. I presentedthese findings at the 22nd Biennial Conference of the Coastal and EstuarineResearch Federation (CERF) Poster Session in San Diego.While my chosenfield is marine biology, exposure to my preferred subfields of genetics and evolutionarybiology is insufficient for my career goals. I hope this program will providethe opportunity to hone my abilities as a scientist and delve into researchthat more aligns with my interests.
I know the mentorship will offer asubstantial advantage in my future endeavors when I pursue further education,as Harvard is such a prestigious institution with some of the best minds intheir respective fields.I want to continuemy education by first entering a Master’s program in Genetics, then pursuing aPh.D. in Evolutionary Biology with a specialization in phylogeny. The degreeswould enable me to establish a career in research, integrating phylogenetics,phylogeography, and population genetics by investigating the potentialrelationships or dissociation between marine species. Receiving a Ph.D.
in thisfield is crucial for my goal of teaching marine biology in an institution ofhigher education. I understand that there is potential to teach with aMaster’s, I would like to be part of the research team at a top-tieruniversity.