Introduction

Probably the easiest (laziest) way to introduce myself and get this blog started is to give you my personal and previous research statement from my NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.  Here you go:

My mother tells the story that I left a note saying, “I couldn’t resist the adventure” when I ran away from my Georgia home, a 17-year-old high school drop out. I no longer remember and I don’t think I believe her–it just seems too romantic. She was right, however; my life since has certainly been an adventure. I rented my first apartment 1,000 miles away near Tulsa, traveled the Southern, Western, and Midwestern backroads in my 77 VW bus, and spent two years living in a tipi in a remote corner of Michigan. I milked goats and tended an apple orchard in the mountains of California far off of the electric grid and lived in a small coastal Mexican village without road access. I got my high school diploma at an adult school alongside an 86-year-old woman, her pregnant 22-year-old granddaughter and a handful of prisoners. I later sat on the Chamber of Commerce for a small California town where I was awarded a $15,000 state grant to create a non-profit. My adventure was and continues to be fueled by insatiable curiosity and a deep desire to improve options for those who believe they have none.

After leaving high school, I began a series of agricultural jobs, working my way from general labor and internships to managing a local farmers market. There I started a non-profit, which is still running, that brought produce from local farmers to low-income families, to the benefit of both. I enjoyed working outside and learning about low environmental impact food production, with dirt in my fingernails and excitement in my brain. I was interested in crop-insect relationships and collected books about pollinators, herbivores, and natural predators of plant pests. Each new insight, however, led to more questions and eventually drove me to return to school for a Sustainable Agriculture Certificate at California’s Santa Rosa Junior College.

During my first semester, a professor recommended me for a position at the University of California Cooperative Extension Office. For the next two years I helped study plant-environment interactions as a senior agriculture research assistant, focusing on pathology in the viticulture department and entomology in the integrated pest management department. We worked closely with local farmers and set up field trials examining plant growth, pest control, and damage thresholds for herbivores and plant pathogens. The overarching goals of Extension Offices are to keep local farmers apprised of best practices resulting from our research and to present findings to the general public. In this vein, I reached out to the local Nursery Growers Association when an exotic pest transported through horticultural nurseries threatened California agricultural and horticultural exports. I prepared a talk on the invasive light brown apple moth that covered current research and policy and presented it at the quarterly regional meeting. The research into agroecology and the manipulation of plant-insect interactions lit a fire in me. I spent my days studying the ecological interactions that had always fascinated me, and found that what I discovered was of immediate use in the real world. I was electrified!

A soil and plant nutrition class followed by a plant science course confirmed that I had fallen in love with science. I couldn’t get enough and changed my goal from a two-year community college certificate to a bachelor’s degree. To catch up on the years I had missed, I had to take entry-level courses, many of which did not qualify for college credit. In these classes, I met people like me: older nontraditional students who had decided to make their day-to-day lives harder in order to reach a goal that was still many years away. I was inspired by my classmates and have used every opportunity since to encourage and remind others that any door can be opened no matter how distant or out of reach it seems. I volunteered for two years at a youth homeless shelter in Berkeley and helped teach chemistry and biology at a high school for students who would be the first generation of their families to attend college. I have been fortunate to be blessed with many dedicated and passionate mentors, and I want to pass on what they have given me: excitement, confidence, and a sense of ownership towards this world and our knowledge about its processes. On top of that I can add what my personal experience has taught me–the knowledge that it is never too late and that no mistake is crippling.

While still at junior college, I became involved with MESA (Math, Engineering, and Science Achievement), a program for educationally disadvantaged students. Outside of my regular class work, I presented a poster at the yearly MESA conference detailing experiments into bioremediation of wastewater contaminants. Realizing that the background research that I had done could be of practical use, I wrote a popular science article for HobbyFarms Magazine, “Soil Contaminants: A Farm Buyer’s Primer.” Again, life had reinforced that public knowledge about ecological interactions can be useful in tangible real world ways.

Upon transfer to UC Berkeley, I immediately began seeking research opportunities. My interests in sustainable agriculture and entomology found a perfect fit in the Altieri lab, where I investigated floral resource provisioning by natural parasitoids of grape herbivores. My work specifically asked which flower nectar sources increase the fecundity and longevity of Anagrus parasitoids. I directed this parasitoid longevity experiment for one year and trained and supervised three female undergraduates in insect colony maintenance and diet preparation. Watching these tiny wasps, I couldn’t help but wonder what underlying cellular processes allow them to find food and prey in the microscopic world they inhabit.

During my second semester, I sought an additional research position that would allow me to ask these kinds of questions. This exceeded the independent study and research units that UC Berkeley normally allows and so I petitioned for an exemption. I joined the plant evolutionary biology lab of Dr. Chelsea Specht and started by assisting PhD candidate Tanya Renner in order to acquire the skills necessary to create and carry out my own research topic in molecular mechanisms of plant-insect interactions. Alongside Tanya, I learned how to perform RNA extractions, synthesize cDNA, PCR, and Sanger sequence, all while exploring expression profiles of chitinase genes used in plant carnivory by the Venus flytrap Dionaea. This experience opened my eyes to the power of gene expression. Molecular mechanisms underlie all of the interactions that had intrigued my lifelong curiosity and gene expression seemed to be the key to identifying the how and the why.

My senior year revolved around working on my independent senior honors research thesis in the Specht lab. Pursuing my interests in the molecular mechanisms that underlie plant-insect interactions, I characterized the gene expression profile of alternative oxidase during pollination-dependent thermogenesis in the Australian cycad Macrozamia lucida. During this time, I was also responsible for training another undergraduate in molecular lab work. In choosing the undergraduate, I sought out an alternative path student who was returning to college five years after flunking out, and whom I am pleased to say was recently accepted to medical school. I presented my results in a talk at the UC Berkeley Honors Symposium and later to a group of cycad biologists. My findings of a unique expression profile as compared to other thermogenic plants and an exciting amino acid sequence indicative of a distinctive protein structure led to independent funding for Illumina sequencing of thermogenic transcriptomes. Using the assembled transcriptomes, I was able to identify multiple endogenous controls and to further assess thermogenic gene expression. My work also inspired cycad pollination biologist Dr. Irene Terry from the University of Utah to travel to Australia and collect samples from multiple individuals at closer time points across the thermogenic cycle. Even though I had moved away from Berkeley at the time these new samples were received in the Specht lab, I returned in August to complete the research and am currently preparing the results for submission to Evolution.

Upon graduation, Dr. Specht hired me as a staff research associate and lab manager, and in this position I worked to resolve the previously recalcitrant Costus (Costaceae) phylogeny. My results provided the first evidence of an evolutionary toggle between pollination syndromes in this group. I presented the results in a poster at the International Monocots meeting this summer and have prepared a manuscript for submission to Plant Systematics. While pursuing this research, I continued to mentor the alternative path student that I had recruited as well as a female freshman. I also worked closely with a visiting Brazilian scholar, Thiago André, to characterize life history traits and compare diversification rates between neotropical Costaceae genera. These works comprise a large component of his PhD thesis and are in preparation for submission to the Journal of Biogeography and Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

In February, my continuing adventure led me to Naomi Pierce’s lab at Harvard University. As a research technician and lab manager I continued phylogenetics research, initiating a targeted enrichment capture technique that will use lab generated PCR baits to capture molecular markers from genomic DNA for high throughput sequencing; a faster, cheaper means of generating large amounts of phylogenetic data. I also mentored a female high school student over the summer in lab work and phylogenetic methods and am tutoring at Boston’s Juvenile Justice Department of Youth Services. In September, I started my PhD studies in the Pierce lab. Dr. Pierce specializes in species interactions and is a world authority on Lycaenidae butterflies, which contains the Eumaeus herbivore that I will study. This setting, combined with my prior research experience, allows me to pursue my graduate research on the evolution and molecular mechanisms of plant-insect relationships. My lifelong dedication to this topic, and my history of finding and disseminating unique research results place me in an excellent position to produce work of strong intellectual merit in the fields of evolution and species interactions.

From high school dropout to Harvard University PhD student, I am in a unique position to inspire others to break through educational barriers and my dedication to mentoring, volunteering, and teaching shows my commitment to broader impacts of this kind. Similarly, my dedication to expanding the impact of research into the public sphere has and will continue to be an integral part of my approach to science. My graduate work is part of this exciting adventure and will lead me to my goal of a university professorship. Throughout my career, I will continue to incorporate public outreach about real world applications of scientific research and encourage and promote alternative path and underprivileged students because beyond my scientific interests, that is my past and my passion.

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