Breaking down barriers with bilingual science outreach
by PAC blogger Sara Zlotnik
While many scientists engage in outreach beyond their labs and universities, few are as intentional, creative, and dedicated in their outreach as Dr. Alejandra Yep, an associate professor of Biological Sciences at the California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly). Dr. Yep founded an innovative bilingual education program where college students teach elementary school kids about microbiology in Spanish. She is now incorporating this outreach work into her research and mentoring roles by collaborating with science education expert Dr. Jasmine Nation and supervising undergraduate researchers majoring in psychology, education, and biology. Together, they are not only designing their own activities and lesson plans, but also evaluating the positive impacts that these experiences provide for young kids and for the college students who teach them.
Dr. Yep’s outreach program initially got started with what was supposed to be a one-time visit to a first-grade classroom. After realizing that many kids held biased perceptions about science and scientists alike, she was determined to do more. In particular, as an Argentinian scientist, Dr. Yep was initially shocked to realize that many Latinx kids growing up in the US have internalized the message that people who look like them or who speak Spanish could never become scientists. At the same time, she became increasingly aware of common misconceptions about core concepts in microbiology. Through her program, she hopes to break down both scientific and social misconceptions in students of all ages as well as in the larger community.
“I am very passionate about just doing what I can do within my sphere of influence,”Dr. Alejandra Yep
This focus on attaining multiple educational and empowerment goals simultaneously was a major theme of the symposium presentation that Dr. Yep and Dr. Nation gave at the 2021 meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. In particular, they explained the value of connecting Spanish-speaking kids with college students from similar backgrounds. The college students serve as role models and help break down stereotypes about what scientists look and sound like. “I am not the best qualified to be that mentor,” Dr. Yep noted, “I don’t know what it’s like…to grow up in the US in a Spanish-speaking household, but many of my students do, which is why I want to put them in contact with the kids, because they are the relatable ones, not me.”
When asked what advice she would give to scientists who are interested in designing a similar program of their own, Dr. Yep’s immediate suggestion was to begin by listening to students, especially those from the communities that the program is trying to reach. While planning her own program, Dr. Yep sat down to brainstorm ideas with Latinx students at Cal Poly as well as Latinx kids from her son’s elementary school. She listened to their experiences and suggestions and tailored her program based on their priorities, not her own assumptions. “The most important thing is to talk to the elementary school kids and to talk to the college students,” she stated, adding that after having these conversations, the program “started to come together in my mind.”
Importantly, Dr. Yep wants fellow academics to take away from her work the broader view of how positive social impacts are achievable by scientists from all fields of study. This aspect can be more valuable than the specifics of one particular system or program. When describing her program design, she even remarked: “We could be doing any activity that involves critical thinking and it would be the same. The other goals would remain the same.” Scientists from all backgrounds can join Dr. Yep in her efforts to break down misconceptions and empower aspiring researchers and educators from marginalized communities.
To learn more about Dr. Alejandra Yep’s work, please watch her symposium talk, presented at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology 2021 Annual Meeting.
About the author:
Sara Zlotnik is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida whose research focuses on behavioral ecology and development in insects and amphibians. You can find more of Sara’s writing at sarazlotnik.weebly.com and follow her on Twitter at @Sara_Zlotnik.
Can Goliath become David?: Could the Goliath Beetle Defeat the Harpy Eagle in Round 1 of March Mammal Madness 2021?
by Mangum participant Laura Romanovich
The 2021 March Mammal Madness bracket from Arizona State University’s March Mammal Madness page.
My favorite month of the year is March; here in the Northeastern United States, the snow starts melting (and stays melted), the days get longer, the grass grows back, and most importantly, my lab mates and friends get into heated debates about our picks to win the annual March Mammal Madness tournament.
This tournament is not a series of one-on-one basketball games between wolves and tigers, but a event full of simulated interactions between two organisms that might otherwise never encounter each other; each match up continues until a winner is determined. In the early rounds, I always find myself rooting for the underdog or undercat, on the edge of my seat, refreshing the Twitter feeds, waiting for an unbelievable upset. When filling out my bracket for this year’s tournament, one of the first match-ups got me wondering: can a measly goliath beetle (seeded at #16) take out the majestic harpy eagle (seed #1) in the Of Myths and Monsters division?
“Daniele da Volterra (1509-1566) – David and Goliath” by bongo vongo is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
Picture this: a mighty giant challenges a small, underequipped fighter to a one-on-one battle. All odds favor the big guy to win – yet awareness of his opponent’s weaknesses and a little luck, the little guy comes out victorious! At least that’s how it plays out in the Biblical account of the battle between David and Goliath, often cited as the pinnacle example of the underdog defeating his much stronger competitor. This is outcome I’m personally pulling for in the Harpy Eagle vs. Goliath Beetle match.
In this pairing, the goliath beetle has all odds stacked against it. It is only a small fraction of the size of the large apex predatory bird its pitted against. It’s a small snack for the eagle that is known to feast on sloths and monkeys, and I don’t imagine the insect’s exoskeleton holding up against a beak that can crush through mammal bones. In essence, the Goliath has been demoted to the role of David.
Goliath beetles” by quinet is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
“Harpy Eagle” by mulf is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/
But what if the beetle could outsmart the eagle?
This match up is not the first time a beetle has found itself pitted against a large eagle. One of Aesop’s fables features a beetle successfully exacting revenge against an eagle by destroying it’s eggs in its nest. The bug is too small to be detected by the bird, and in the context of this story, is the victor.
Inspired by the Biblical tale and fable, I wondered if the beetle might be able to avoid predation until the predator lost interest, and thus, outsmart the eagle and come out on top. To explore if this was possible or if my choice in winner was completely off base, I turned to a symposium article published in the Journal of Integrative and Comparative Biology in the November 2020 issue: “What Does and Insect Hear? Reassessing the Role of Hearing in Predator Avoidance with Insights from Vertebrate Prey” by Jayne Yack et al.. If the beetle could sense it’s predator and remain hidden, it’s possible that the bird will start searching for larger, easier prey, and retreat from its encounter with the beetle (and maybe the beetle can destroy some eggs along the way).
“aesops fables Milo winter 1919 ill the eagle and the beetle” by janwillemsen is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
According to Yack et al., many insects have auditory organs that may have a variety of functions, including mate location, host location, socialization, and predator detection. They say that it’s reasonable to think that insects can use their sense of hearing to “eavesdrop on calls and songs of predators … and respond to incidental sound cues generated by predator movements”, as vertebrate prey have been shown to do. Some insects use hearing to pick up on the echolocation of bats, but some scientists believe that their eats may have function in nonbat predator avoidance, based on the frequencies of sounds these ears can detect. Most large birds produce calls or songs, and Harpy eagles in particular produce a hunting call when going after monkeys. The birds may also make incidental sounds when in flight, that may have significant ultrasonic components, that beetle ears may be more tuned to hear.
The harpy eagle will be making lots of noises during it’s encounter with the beetle, across a wide range of sound frequencies. But will the goliath beetle hear them? Yack et al. describe the two types of hearing organs insects have: near-field, which detect low frequency sounds produced in close proximity to the bug and far-field, which can detect sounds from longer distances and may be able to pick up on a wide range of frequencies and amplitudes. There are many open questions regarding whether or not insects use bird sounds to avoid predation, but there is evidence that commonly predated insects have hearing capabilities that overlap with the frequencies of sound produced during foraging or calls made by the birds, so it doesn’t seem to be a big leap to assume that insects, such as the goliath beetle, should be able to detect an approaching eagle.
How exactly the insect responds to the sound cue varies; some insects may try to fly away while others may choose to remain still. Yack et al. reference a study that showed that a different species of scarab beetle than the goliath beetle opted for the evasive flight defense in response to bat predator cues.
It seems likely that the goliath beetle may try to fly away from the eagle, which may result in forfeiture of the March Mammal Madness match up. But if it opts for the freezing in place strategy, it might be able to avoid detection by the harpy eagle long enough that it can sneak away and maybe take a play from Aesop’s story and go after the eagle’s nested eggs, knocking out the #1 seed.
Regardless of the outcome, it will be interesting to see how this match-up plays out on Wednesday March 17th, 2021! Though it may seem extremely unlikely, I’m still pulling for the goliath beetle to at least put up an exciting fight- and maybe in a twist of faith channel David from it’s namesake tale, and come out as a victorious underdog!
March Mammal Madness is an annual tournament of animals in simulated battles in which scientists present information about each combatant and give a play-by-play of the interaction between the two contestants in each round, until a final winner remains out of the 65 original animals. March Mammal Madness was first organized in 2013 by Dr. Katie Hinde of Arizona State University as a SciComm initiative. Since then it has engaged many members of academia, the public, and elementary students.
You can find out more about March Mammal Madness 2021 at ASU’s page: https://libguides.asu.edu/MarchMammalMadness
Follow live play-by-play matches on Twitter this month with the hashtag:
The winner of the featured matchup between the harpy eagle and goliath beetle will be determined on Wednesday March 17th after 8PM EST, which may be before this blog post is published.
Or you can watch recaps by Rodent Roundtable on Youtube of each division as they come out:
Follow Dr. Katie Hinde on Twitter at:
Read about Yack et al.’s work with insect hearing and predator avoidance at:
Yack J, Raven BH, Leveillee MB, Naranjo M. What Does an Insect Hear? Reassessing the Role of Hearing in Predator Avoidance with Insights from Vertebrate Prey. Integr Comp Biol. 2020; 60: 1036-1057. doi:10.1093/icb/icaa097
Birds of a Feather Flock Together: Advice on Collaboration from Researchers of the Manakin RCN
By Mangum participant, Sierra Williams, PhD Candidate, Department of Integrative Biology
Oklahoma State University
flycatcher- by Dr. Lainy Day
As anyone in academia will tell you, one of the most daunting aspects of research is building collaborations.
“Whether you are seeking to broaden the scope of your own research through new perspectives or feel inspired to cooperate on a new project; collaborations are a scientific inevitability. “Sierra Williams
These partnerships are becoming more expected of young researchers, despite no clear guidelines on how to go about starting one or how to ensure its success.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to ask researchers from the Manakin Research Coordination Network (RCN) about their experiences working with a huge expanse of researchers from multiple countries. Dr. Ignacio Moore from Virginia Tech, Dr. Matthew Fuxjager from Brown University, and Dr. Lainy Day from the University of Mississippi took some time out of their busy schedules to help young researchers understand how to form (and maintain) a successful collaboration.
Dr. Lainy Day
The Manakin RCN is composed of a diverse group of individuals from all over the world. What are the steps to organizing such a large collaborative? How were you involved?
Lainy: “To understand broad concepts in avian evolution, researchers had contacted Barney Schlinger to obtain fresh manakin tissue to sequence the genome of the golden-collared manakin when I was a post-doc with him. We supplied tissue and with this being sequenced, several manakin researchers in different areas of biology thought it would be good to call together others interested in manakins to see how we could take advantage of the advances in genomics and transcriptomics in such a fascinating group of birds. About 7 individuals were involved in writing a NESCENT grant, which provides funds for groups to meet and brainstorm about future grants and science. As I had a current NSF grant to study 13 species of manakins, I was invited to attend. With the excitement generated from this meeting, Bette Loiselle spearheaded the writing of an RCN grant with a core group of about seven of us contributing to the bulk of the writing and project ideas and leading aspects of the whole and another 6 contributing more on the backend once the grant was obtained.”
Dr. Matthew Fuxjager
Matthew: “My involvement in the RCN showed me that starting such a large collaboration requires the combined energy of a few folks, who share a grand vision and are willing to continually work toward that vision in the face of major setbacks and obstacles… I was always impressed by the openness of the leadership to include people no matter where they came from, or what their research interests were. The leadership was also very effective at supporting scientists at all levels, often asking them to share the responsibility of leading different arms of the collaborative. I think that these actions collectively cultivated an exciting dynamic that had a bit of something for everyone, so to speak, whether you were a geneticist or conservationist. I got involved when I was just starting as an Assistant Professor; my previous postdoc mentor invited me. I’m glad I did!”
Do you have any words of wisdom for students or young researchers who would like to collaborate with others? Put another way, what would you tell your “pre-Manakin RCN self” that you think would be useful?
Dr. Ignacio Moore
“Figure out what you want to study and do it. If you need to learn a technique, find a collaborator. If you need help with an analysis, find someone to help you. Do limit yourself. Most of us love biology and are innately curious, so take advantage of those traits.”Ignacio Moore
Matthew: “I have two. My first bit of advice comes from something my postdoc mentor used to espouse: always be open to new ways of thinking or approaching problems when you’re collaborating. You can learn from anyone, no matter who they are, but that learning stops if you fail to be open to it. My second bit of advice comes from one of my closest friends and collaborators: work with people you enjoy working with; the fun and positive energy of the collaboration will enrich the science!”
Lainy: “Talk to people outside you field, go to seminars in other departments than your own, and have long intellectual conversations whenever possible. If a practical project begins to come into focus, write clear and simple agreements about who will do what and by when so everyone is on the same page. I did completely independent work for my undergraduate thesis, masters, dissertation, and my first postdoc. since then I have been collaborating a lot more alongside my independent work. In your early academic career, at least in the US, there is greater weight given to individual work than to more collaborative efforts, so it might be better for tenure and promotion to collaborate early and late and push aside all but the most productive collaborations during you first several years as a professor.”
Connect with Dr. Day https://biology.olemiss.edu/people/faculty/lainy-day/
Dr. Fuxjager (@fuxjagerlab),
& Dr. Moore (@manakin_man)
even download a free coloring book
And be on the lookout for s12 papers in ICB this year
BioJam: A biomaking playground for Corinne Takara and her students
Blog by PAC writer – Andrew Saintsing
There’s a giant novelty pencil hanging from the wall in the Nest Makerspace, Corinne Takara’s garage-based biomaking lab. Although it can’t actually fabricate anything, the oversized toy is as prominently displayed as the tools that surround it. The message is clear: curiosity and playfulness are just as central to the process here as shop vacs and 3D printers. When I comment on the pencil, she laughs and asks if it looks like she’s wearing one of those arrow-through-the-head headbands. “Hold on,” she says before sitting up and angling her head until the pencil’s behind her and the eraser and the tip are sticking out from either side.
Takara is an artist and educator based in San Jose, California. She works with low-resource youth, and before the pandemic necessitated physical distancing, she hosted workshops and other activities for them in her garage. “[I] create a space I wish I had when I was in school, a space I want to come to and the kids want to come to to tinker and be playful,” she says.
“The privilege to be playful, the privilege to be curious needs to be extended to everyone.”Corinne Takara
Takara’s most recent project, BioJam, packages this playful exploration in a bioengineering and biomaterial design summer camp for teens. Takara has been working with youth in San Jose for 15 years, but it’s only recently that she’s started to emphasize biology in her programs. “Right now, we have a technology access gap for low-resource youth. There’s going to be one with biology,” she explains. This realization led her to seek more access to biomaking resources for teens.
With her advocacy, Biodesign Challenge (BDC), an international competition that partners students with scientists, artists, and designers to explore and produce biotech, opened to high schoolers in 2019. The members of Nest Makerspace, now bigger than the garage it occupies, have enjoyed entering the BDC every year since.
BioJam Camp provides teens with the chance to bring their own cultural backgrounds into their creations. Trisha Sathish, a former camper and now a Teen Mentor, grew the mycelium quilt square pictured above. The patterns are designed to look like Indian snacks.
Her experiences with the BDC have helped to bring Takara into contact with scientists with similar educational goals. In the spring of 2019, both she and Stanford biologist Rolando Perez attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Learn.Design.Compute with Bio Symposium, where scientists, educators, and engineers shared novel activities to promote learning in the space of biological design. After discussing their mutual interests at the symposium, Takara and Perez created BioJam and launched a pilot version of the camp that summer. Now another Stanford biologist, Callie Chappell, is helping Takara build a sustainable program that will allow campers to interact with young scientists. Takara is thrilled to be working with academic scientists.
“My mind gets blown every time I talk to scientists about whatever their work is,” she says. She sees BioJam as a great way to start conversations between different groups. Not only does it create a space where “art can feed the creativity in different lenses for scientists and vice versa,” but also it has a requirement for participating teens to teach in their communities.Corinne Takara
“My goal with the programming I do is to try to expand who has access to the knowledge…to drive the questions of science,” Takara says. Great learning can happen in classrooms, but it’s not necessarily the type of learning that develops confident and creative scientists ready to tackle society’s most pressing problems. “There’s a lot of fear in science,” says Takara, who sees public school teachers worried about being the experts in their classrooms and students “scared to make a gesture of a thought” even outside the classroom.
Extracurricular programs provide educators with the space to break down these fears. Takara sees herself more as a co-learner than an instructor; she has the privilege to admit she doesn’t know something or to be silly if it helps get ideas flowing. More important than imparting any specific knowledge, BioJam provides the space it provides for all of its participants to have fun while they explore, create, and grow together.
To learn more about BioJam, please watch Corinne Taraka and Callie Chappell’s talk for the Biology Beyond The Classroom Symposium at the 2021 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology Annual Meeting.
Written by PAC blogger
University of California, Berkeley
connect with Andrew on Twitter: @AndrewSaintsing
In the spot-light: SICB’s Elizabeth Perkin on artificial light in the field and its challenges
Written by Ryan Koch (Mangum participant)
I had the chance to interview Dr. Elizabeth Perkin who presented her work at SICB 2021’s S1 symposium Blinded by the Light: Effects of Light Pollution Across Diverse Natural Systems. She currently works as the Northern Oregon Regional Coordinator at the Native Fish Society in Oregon City, Oregon.
“I work with volunteer River Stewards to identify threats to native fish in the watersheds the Stewards live in and help them develop strategies to combat those threats. I also work with other regional coordinators in larger Native Fish Society campaigns that extend beyond the northern Oregon region. I interact directly with policy makers, litigation teams, and other scientists to improve the management of wild, native fish and the habitats they need to survive.”
Your SICB symposium titled “How anthropogenic light alters river ecosystems” involved a substantial amount of field work. What were some problems you ran into while conducting your work in the field?
“It was an unusually hot summer when I sampled, so it’s possible that the increased temperatures may have changed the behavior of the insects I was studying. In addition, the invertebrate communities varied depending on the level of urbanization in the watershed. I did control for that in my analysis, but its effects can’t be completely eliminated.”
“Probably my biggest concern at the time was being a small woman doing fieldwork alone, often in the middle of the night, in rural and remote areas.Elizabeth Perkin
For instance, I changed one of my sampling locations in the August sampling period because there was a lone man lingering near where I had initially sampled in July. Another time, I was sampling a stream in a rural park that was closed at night (I had gotten special permission to sample), when a large pickup drove in near my sampling location. In that case, I waited in a darker area until the truck left. It’s unlikely I was really in any danger in either case, but you never know.”
Some of your future work mentioned using large flumes to test invertebrate drift, while controlling for various factors. This will hopefully limit the problems you mentioned earlier. Is this a feasible option for other studies involving field work?
“The goal of using the flumes is really to be able to tease apart how light, temperature, and flow may interact to influence invertebrate drift rates. They also provide an opportunity to test how other urban and agricultural alterations to streams may affect drift. But they do have their drawbacks. For instance, if the flumes aren’t large enough, the sides of the flume can exert an excessive influence on flow patterns, creating increased drag and turbulence, that could call into question the validity of the results from such a system. On the other hand, it can be difficult to get adequate replication from large flumes. In the end, a combination of controlled flume experiments and carefully designed field studies are the best way to help us understand stream ecosystems.”
A large portion of SICB attendees are graduate students, still considering their future career options. I see that you were a Visiting Assistant Professor for several years after your postdoc. What made you switch from academia to industry?
“To be completely candid, I did not have a good experience at my last academic position, and I was looking for any way I could find to get out. I had been working too many hours during the fall semester to put any energy into applying for tenure track positions, so when a friend of mine posted a position at the environmental consulting company he worked for, I decided to take a chance on it. Working as a consultant was a major change and I appreciate the perspective it gave me on endangered species protections (or lack thereof), how industry gets approval for major land use changes, and habitat reconstruction projects. Ultimately, consulting was not the best fit for me, and I recently started at a non-profit, the Native Fish Society. So far, I’ve been extremely happy with the shift. My coworkers are all positive and supportive, and everyone is dedicated to making our conservation work more equitable and inclusive. It feels good to be using my knowledge and experience to fight for wild, native fish, river ecosystems, and the communities that rely on them.”
See Elizabeth’s talk (sicb.or) at SICB’s first ever virtual conference
and connect with Perkin via
and on Twitter @riverperkin
Connect with Mangum participant, writer
Ryan Koch, M.S. , PhD student , Department of Integrative Biology
Oklahoma State University
via Twitter – @RyGuySciGuy
Turn the Lights Down Low
An Interview with Meredith Kernbach on the harmful effects of light pollution on wildlife and ecosystem health
At the end of the day when the sun dips below the horizon, the soft hues of twilight give way to darkness, and night takes over. Well, kind of. Light pollution illuminates the night sky, disrupting nocturnal wildlife, interrupting our body’s own natural internal clock that drives our sleep cycles. According to Meredith Kernbach, light pollution can potentially expedite the spread of diseases across species. Meredith is a Ph.D. candidate at University of South Florida where she is studying disease ecology and the effect of anthropogenic stressors like nighttime artificial lighting on the spread of West Nile Virus.
Meredith describes a perennial interest in nature as the reason why she gravitated towards science. “I wanted to be a vet until I went to college,” she says. An animal physiology class she took with Dr. Ignacio Moore at Virginia Tech changed her mind. “It was his charisma and the way he talked about fieldwork that really got me interested in research.” Other classes, such as neuroendocrinology and hands-on lab experience, were also influential. “I worked in an immunology lab where I was mentored by Caroline Leeth. She taught me a lot and it was really cool to see her be so flexible in the face of the many challenges associated with starting a lab.”
As a Ph.D. student in Lynn Martin’s lab, Meredith studies the effects of light pollution on house sparrows and their susceptibility to West Nile. When asked about her motivations for this work she responds in earnest, “There’s so much being discovered about how modern civilization is really hurting the environment–the combination of climate change, pollution and other anthropogenic stressors. It’s motivating that, at the end of the day, I know my work will help people and wildlife.” She found that extended exposure to artificial light not only renders house sparrows more susceptible to infection, but also delays recovery from the virus. The slow recovery then heightens the birds’ chances of spreading the disease.
The COVID-19 pandemic has catalyzed public interest in zoonotic diseases—illnesses that spread to multiple species. By addressing issues at their roots (e.g., biodiversity loss, habitat fragmentation), Meredith thinks that a better integration of ecology research into policy decisions will help curb the next spillover event.
“What about individuals?”, I ask. “People can do things at their homes to alleviate unnecessary light,” she says, “for instance, by installing an upper shield on porch lights at night or shutting them off entirely, and avoiding the temptation to install bright LEDs on their car headlights.”
Now that she approaches completing her Ph.D., Meredith looks towards the future. When asked where, if anywhere, she could continue her fieldwork, she lights up and says, “Alaska is amazing. The wildlife and views are incredible and getting to work in places where there is no light for months…it would be really interesting to see how animals cope with that.” I ask what advice she’d give to undergraduates who are considering graduate school. She pauses and reflects for a moment before responding. “Make friends and stay in touch with people,” she says, “because those people will help propel you in many ways. Overall, the key to success is collaboration.”
To hear more about Meredith’s work, you can check out her research talk “Light Pollution and West Nile Virus: Ecological Manifestation and Potential Mitigation”[SZ1] [JC2] [CM3] [CM4] for the Blinded by Light Symposia, held at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology 2021 Annual Meeting.
About the Author (PAC writer)
Jackie Childers is a PhD Candidate at the University of California-Berkeley where she works in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. She received a MS in Biology at Villanova University and completed her BS in Conservation and Resource Studies at UCB. Her research interests range from lizard behavior, phylogenetics and taxonomy, to broad scale evolutionary patterns of diversification. In addition to research, she enjoys communicating science through the mediums of writing and photography.
Edited by Martha Muñoz, assistant professor of Ecology and Evolution at Yale University
Black is the New Orange: 5 things you didn’t know about melanin
by Laura A. Romanovich
Most of us recognize melanins as the pigments responsible for black and brown coloration in everything from butterflies to humans and the roles they play in UV protection. Some of us might know that melanins are synthesized in specific organelles and derived from tyrosine. But, there is still much about this common pigment that is poorly understood. Many of the speakers during SICB 2021’s The Integrative Biology of Pigment Organelles symposium gave some new light to our understanding of this dark pigment.
Here my top 5 most interesting things I learned about the biology of melanin during the conference:
1: Butterflies have a regulator gene that switches between ommochrome pigments and melanin and other genes that can “fine-tune” the hue of the melanins
Dr. Robert Reed from Cornell University shared work on the genetics and evolution of coloration in butterflies. The optix gene regulates the expression of red and orange pigments, called ommochromes. When this gene is knocked out using CRISPR technology, the bright colored butterfly scales are replaced with black or dark brown.His group also reports a novel gene, yellow-d, that appears to affect the hue of the melanin pigments. When this gene is knocked-out, tan melanins take on a warmer appearance. Since this gene was just discovered, its exact function remains unknown, but it seems like it can help “fine-tune” the coloration of the butterfly.
2: The structural organization of melanosomes leads to diverse coloration and iridescence in bird feathers
Dr. Liliana D’Alba from the University of Ghent described how the physical arrangement of feathers contributes to the bright iridescence of hummingbirds. Melanosomes, cellular organelles containing melanin pigments, adopt a hollow conformation in the birds’ feathers. These hollow melanosomes arrange into a layered array that produce vivid colors. Different ranges of colors are produced by round than by flattened pigments and by hollow than by solid pigments. Animal coloration is not just about what pigments are present in the cells or tissues – the physical shapes and arrangement of the pigments is also very important!
3: Melanin plays a role in the immune response of insects
As part of her talk about similarities of melanin in yeast and mosquitos, Dr. Emma Camacho from Johns Hopkins University described some of melanin’s functions in insects, notably, in protection from potential pathogens. As melanin is being produced, intermediate compounds help defend against bacteria that might try to enter through the cuticle. Further, when pathogens such as fungi or parasites (e.g. Plasmodium – the cause of malaria) enter the insect, melanin can coat the pathogen and essentially suffocate the invader. In the case of Plasmodium, melanin can coat the invaders’ zygotes and creates dark clumpy granules. (Bonus fun fact: I didn’t know that melanin was found in fungi!)
4: Albinism in mammals could be the result of pH imbalance inside of developing melanosomes, caused by the loss of one or more ion transporters
Taking a clinical perspective, Dr. Michael Marks from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explained how oculocutaneous albinism (OA) – which only effects pigmentation – results from mutations in genes responsible for the proper activity of the enzymes required in melanin synthesis. The production of melanin requires a near neutral pH – but vATPase keeps pumping in protons! In order to maintain the neutrality, there are ion transporters in the melanosomes’ membrane. Different forms of OA result from mutations that cause losses of these transporters, leading to the accumulation of protons and preventing the maintenance of the melanosome pH necessary for production of melanin from tyrosine.
5: Sometimes albinism can be syndromic and present other symptoms along with hypopigmentation – and these forms are associated with dysfunction of membrane trafficking pathways
Dr. Cedric Delevoye from the Curie Institute followed Dr. Marks’s talk by explaining a potential cause of syndromic albinism (Hermansky-Pudlak Syndromes (HPS) specifically)– forms of albinism that also occurs with visual impairment, blood platelet dysfunction, and other disorders throughout the body. Unlike OA, syndromic albinism is thought to result from changes in the pathways the move products between melanosomes. Patients with HPS have mutated BLOC-1 genes, which can lead to the misdirection of melanization enzymes in the cell.
Melanin is such a ubiquitous pigment family in the animal (and other) kingdom! Even though parts of its biology have been well documented and described, there is still much to be discovered. From the regulation of expression, to the structural components, to the role in immune function, to the cellular biology of clinical disorders, this symposium shows how far our understanding of melanin has advanced in the recent years. But! There are still so many questions left to ask, and I look forward to learning the answers at future SICB meetings!
Check out s7 during SICB 2021 virtual (sicb.org)
and connect with Mangum blogger Laura A. Romanovich, BS Biology, MS Marine Sciences Student, University of New England
via Twitter @LA_Romanovich
You can’t sea me: Developing innovative materials bioinspired by cephalopod camouflage
with s7’s Leila Deravi
Dr. Leila Deravi, Assistant Professor at Northeastern University
Like magical cloaks of invisibility, many animals have skin that can quickly change colors and patterns to blend into the environment. This process, called adaptive camouflage, occurs in cephalopods such as the charismatic octopus, cuttlefish, and squid. Specialized organs in their skin, called chromatophores, lie on top of a layer of reflective cells, called iridophores. Assistant professor Dr. Leila Deravi leads the Biomaterials Design Group at Northeastern University, which explores the molecular mechanisms that underlie adaptive camouflage in cephalopods and applies this knowledge to develop bioinspired materials and consumer items, such as color changing cosmetics and textiles. Deravi developed this research program by weaving her graduate work in biomaterials and her interdisciplinary postdoctoral research.
Former grad student, Camille martin working with Northeastern chemistry & chemical biology professor, Leila Deravi, has synthesized a chemical found in the skin of longfin squid.
Deravi’s research uses chemistry as a platform to investigate fundamental biological questions and translates this information to develop biotechnologies. The Biomaterials Design Group’s work requires a mosaic of diverse fields such as chemistry, biology, physics, and bioengineering. Deravi’s interdisciplinary research program stemmed from her undergraduate research experiences in electrical engineering and physical chemistry. These interests blossomed during her graduate career at Vanderbilt University, where she worked with David Wright to develop biomaterials.
Kevin Kit Parker
Deravi’s diverse research experiences expanded during her postdoctoral work at Harvard University, where she worked with Kevin Kit Parker to develop biophotonics systems bioinspired from cephalopods. At this stage of her academic journey, she integrated her chemistry background with physics, marine biology, and engineering. Deravi embraced the challenge of integrating fundamental and applied research avenues, which demand two different ways of thinking. For example, fundamental research explores questions on the nature of a molecule and its chemical properties within the system, but applied research aims to functionally harness the properties of these molecules, which requires translating information from fundamental science to develop applications. During her postdoc, Deravi mastered switching between thinking like an applied and fundamental science researcher by forming lasting collaborations with marine biologists, physicists, and engineers.
At this time, Deravi knew that she wanted to form and lead a research group to continue pursuing this work. Deravi’s research program branched off her postdoctoral research and the Biomaterials Design Group is currently working on identifying and characterizing the molecules found in cephalopod chromatophores. Interestingly, they discovered that the pigments found in chromatophores are not the common pigment melanin, as people previously hypothesized, but instead are other small molecules. These molecules (xanthommatin and decarboxylated xanthommatin) can reversibly change color, depending on their chemical environment. These pigments have promising applications introducing biotechnology into cosmetics.
Entrepreneurship is the latest branch of Deravi’s work, as she and Dr. Camille Martin, a former PhD student, recently co-founded Seaspire Skincare. This start-up company is developing cosmetic products that are bioinspired by marine organisms. For early career researchers interested in interdisciplinary research programs like Deravi’s, she suggests to “take pressure off yourself and lean into the PhD experience and learn, grow, read, and submerge and saturate yourself into your field as much as possible.”
To learn more about Dr. Leila Deravi’s work, please watch her Symposium talk, “Protein-pigment interactions facilitate dynamic color change in cephalopod chromatophores”, given at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology 2021 Annual Meeting.
Edited by Ryan Hulett of the SICB Public Affairs Committee.
About the Author
PAC blogger Emily Lau, PhD student at the University of California Santa Barbara
Emily Lau is a third year PhD student working with Todd Oakley in the department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California Santa Barbara. In the Oakley lab, she is investigating the diverse genetic bases of bioluminescence, a widespread convergent trait. She is broadly interested in understanding how evolutionary tinkering repeatedly produces complex traits, and aims to apply this information to develop new biotechnologies.
A Penchant for Puncturing: a love of spines
The love for science runs deep for Dr. Stephanie Crofts. With both parents in academia, Dr. Crofts was smitten with dinosaurs at an early age, and she grew up wanting to be a paleontologist. In college, a lab partner recommended a biomechanics class to her, and Dr. Crofts has found her professional calling ever since.
Now as an assistant professor at the College of the Holy Cross, Dr. Crofts is interested in applying physics and engineering principles to distill fundamental insights on organismal structure and function.
courtesy of Pixabay.com
Dr. Crofts has recently focused on the diversity of spines in nature, from the quills of porcupines to the tail spikes of Stegosaurus. At the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology 2021 Annual Meeting, Dr. Crofts discussed the variance in spine morphology–what makes some defensive spines effective puncturing tools, and how spines accommodate other functions across the animal and plant kingdoms.
Dr. Crofts showed that shape matters for puncturing: sharper tools need less force to fracture a target. For instance, it is easier to pop a balloon with a sharp needle than a blunt pencil. Moreover, some shape variables, such as the tip included angle (angle between two sides of the tip), predict puncturing performance better than others.
Morphology, however, is not the full story. Puncturing performance also depends on energy input. If you were to pop a balloon with a blunt pencil, you would need to stab really hard. This tool-target interaction determines the amount of puncturing energy an organism has to invest.
“The function of that tool is going to vary both with its morphology and with its context. ” Dr. Crofts noted. “Thinking about the context is the next big step you take after just looking at the shape.”
So, what happens in the inverse balloon-popping scenario? What would your needle look like if you had to stay still and the balloon bumped into you?
Dr. Crofts found a curious puncturing energy conundrum in cactus: almost all energy comes directly from herbivores. How do cacti achieve effective puncturing with little energy input from themselves?
“Our hypothesis was that they have to be really good at puncturing under very low forces because they cannot add additional force into the system,” Dr. Crofts said.
courtesy of dreamstime.com
Enter porcupine quills. North American porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum) have quills with microscopic barbs, which reduce penetration force compared to smooth quills in African porcupines (Hystrix cristata). A barbed surface morphology is also known in the spines of opuntioid cacti, a group of cacti that includes prickly pears and chollas. Dr. Crofts found that, like barbed porcupine quills, opuntioid spines require less work to penetrate skins and muscles compared to smooth cactus spines.
“The morphological convergence between the plant and the animal was amazing. That really got me thinking about all the different ways organisms can use defensive spines both for defense and modifying them for other uses.”Stephanie Crofts
Besides puncturing, barbed spines are known to anchor opuntioids to hosts during vegetative propagation. Spines can also serve non-defensive purposes in animals. For example, hedgehog spines absorb shock during hard landing; spiny tenrec spines make noise. By observing spine functions in different organisms, Dr. Crofts endeavors to uncover how evolution shapes spine morphology.
James Alan Murray, (SICB member) scientist & underwater photographer
Dr. Crofts plans to look at sea urchins next. With a wide variety of spine shapes, urchins use spines for puncturing, toxin delivery, or even burrowing and locomotion. Through sea urchins, Dr. Crofts hopes to better understand how new functions influence spine morphology.
“I am a big fan of functional trade-offs. I like to figure out what they are and how they might affect the evolution of a structure.”
To learn more about Dr. Stephanie Crofts’ work, please watch her Symposium talk, (part of s3 Physical mechanisms of behavior) given at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology 2021 Annual Meeting.
Connect with Dr. Crofts via :
twitter handle: @S_B_Crofts
Sea Urchin photography products, like this phone case, available at
all proceeds go to SICB Student scholarships
Blogger Peishu Li ( @PeishuL )
Author description: Peishu is a second-year PhD student at the University of Chicago. He is broadly interested in the evolution and functional morphology of the mammalian feeding complex.
Subtle changes beneath the terrain: an interview with Dr. Morgan Kelly
by Jacey Van Wert (https://www.eemb.ucsb.edu/people/students/van-wert)
The apple tree goes through a secret, poetic journey to produce an apple. Its roots, though the anchors, are always spreading. Its flowers, though brief, shape into fruits. The trunk, though growing, always remains. Each year, new bushels of apples are produced from the same, but subtly ever-changing tree. This underlying growth is made obvious by the work of Dr. Morgan Kelly, a speaker in the Symposia “Genomic Perspectives in Comparative Physiology of Mollusks: Integration across Disciplines” at the 2021 Virtual Annual meeting for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB). Kelly’s colorful career uniquely merges each step of her path, from the anchoring experimental biology work in her graduate career to sharing integrative sciences with students and mentees in her current position. Like the flowers of an apple tree, Kelly’s research repeatedly blossoms.
From catching frogs from local ponds as a child, to collecting copepods throughout her PhD and now harvesting oysters with her children and students, Kelly has always been drawn to nature. Dr. Kelly is an Associate Professor at Louisiana State University (LSU), a mother of two, a wife, and a mentor. In a recent interview, Kelly reminisced on her scientific journey, from sitting in on high school biology courses taught by her mom as a young girl to her current role at LSU.
Kelly is an experimental evolutionary biologist by training, using an integrative approach in genomics, physiology, and conservation biology across her study systems. Since earning her Ph.D. at University of California Davis, Kelly has always had a place in her heart for a complex species, the Pacific copepod (Tigriopus californicus). Kelly describes the tiny marine animal as the fruit fly of the sea because of its short generation time and broad environmental range. Her research interests first addressed the evolution of heat tolerance in copepods – how they cope with high temperatures – and have since continued and expanded. Kelly’s fascination for critters had always been rooted, but with changing seasons came fresh flowers, and her new position in 2014 at LSU unfolded.
Kelly continued her work with copepods, but recently began to focus on another more local species with ecological importance, economic value, and an interesting environmental gradient: the oyster .
Juvenile oysters, Crassostrea virginica.
Oyster conservation is directly impacted by the tolerance of low salinity–or amount of saltiness of their water. Oysters are threatened by stressors that are being intensified by climate change, such as increasing water temperatures, decreasing salinity, and low-oxygen conditions. The Kelly Lab studies the genetic and physiological basis of this tolerance and found that warm, low salinity waters are collectively worse than either condition alone. These unfavorable conditions become more common for oysters in a changing climate, with big, annual rains decreasing salinity during the warmest time of the year.
However, this information is valuable for freshwater management: the timing of freshwater diversion – moving water from one place to another – might matter. Timing freshwater release during the coldest part of the year can improve the chance of survival for oysters. Conservation of important species such as oysters can be backed by science. Despite the large scale changes happening to our planet, scientists can work towards minimizing the substantial impacts by work such as Kelly’s. Still, the apple tree stands, as the roots extend beneath the heavy terrain in search of nourishment; flourishing amongst the darkness. Kelly’s research has indeed blossomed, from her anchoring experimental work, to her expansive genetic and physiology work informing conservation, to her sustained role as a mentor. Her optimism and passion radiates, particularly in her role as a graduate student advisor. “I really enjoy talking over research plans and watching their research ideas come to fruition,” .
The Kelly Lab students also share their knowledge. Dr. Kevin Johnson working with undergraduate researcher Megan Guidry in their wet lab facility.
Despite her busy schedule as a professor, mother, wife, and mentor, work-life balance, she described, is facilitated by [flexibility] of the demanding jobs that both her and her wife have. Much like in her childhood, Kelly’s children come to her lectures or hang out in her office. For the Kelly family, the apple does not fall far from the tree, as her family’s biology apple orchard continues to grow.
To learn more about Morgan Kelly’s research, please watch her Symposia talk “Genomic Perspectives in Comparative Physiology of Mollusks: Integration across Disciplines”, given at the 2021 Virtual Annual meeting for the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB).
Connect with Kelly
blogger Jacey Van Wert is a third year PhD student in the Eliason Lab at University of California, Santa Barbara. She studies the physiology of fish, including their tolerance to current environmental conditions as well as projected environmental change. She works in both marine and freshwater systems and is interested in applying techniques from the molecular level to the ecosystem level. Symposium link” https://sicbannualmeeting.pathable.co/meetings/virtual/YJZnbCTNvSBEZKLh
Mangum Students Video project for 2021’s symposia speakers
This year, with not being able to meet in person, SICB’s Mangum program had to adapt & did they ever do a fantastic job!
We’ll be featuring blogs about the symposia from our wonderful Mangum/PAC -public affairs committee -volunteers here throughout the year starting in Feb. but do follow us on Twitter for great videos like these from our Mangum videographers about scientists from our symposia in the meantime.
5 struggles of making a virtual talk
Travis Hagey s8 by Daniel Ko
Patrice Connors s4 by Lauren Johnson
Lisa Whitenack s4 by Lauren Johnson
Michele Johnson s3 by Taylor Heuerman
s9’s Stephanie Campos by Phoenix Quinlan
s7’s Cedric Delevoye by Ana Breit
s8’s Dakota Piorkowski by Daniel Ko, Mangum participant