Ph.D. in biology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, IL

Courses Taught – Genetics and Society (BIO 127), Evolutionary Foundations of Biodiversity (BIO 150), Intermediate Genetics (BIO 233), Biology of Reproduction (BIO 275), Island Biology (BIO 287), Evolutionary Medicine (BIO 292), Evolutionary Biology (BIO 383), Evolutionary Genetics (BIO 324), First-Year Writing – On Being Human (WRI 111), Writing and Rhetoric - Human Migrations (WRI 120), McNair Research Writing (WRI 237)

PortLabResearch – My work in general focuses on using molecular genetic tools to answer ecological and evolutionary questions. Right now I am working on a couple of research questions as described below (the fat storage project described in #1 is currently the most active).

  1. Genetics and evolution of fat storage proteins in a model organism - Fat (or lipid) storage and metabolism are important to the energy needs of multi-celled organisms like animals, but the genetic basis of such functions is often best studied in single-celled organisms such as the freshwater ciliate Tetrahymena. Several other labs at St. Olaf (Cole, Kandl, Listenberger, Walter) study aspects of lipids in Tetrahymena, and my lab benefits from collaborative connections with these colleagues. In my lab, we: 1) create DNA molecules to test effects of changing expression levels of genes of interest on fat storage and regulation in Tetrahymena cells; 2) analyze DNA sequences of these genes of interest to determine their evolutionary roots. For the former, students learn and practice a range of molecular genetics techniques in the laboratory, cutting and pasting DNA sequences together into new DNA molecules that Tetrahymena cells can incorporate into their own genomes, where we can study their expression. For the latter, students gain proficiency in using bioinformatic tools and databases to compare Tetrahymena’s DNA sequences with those from other species and from related proteins so we can hypothesize the evolutionary histories of these genes. 
  2. Diversity and significance of soil microbes in various habitats -  Molecular genetic methods make it possible to study the presence and function of microbes without having to culture them. I have used such methods to work with students studying the microbial communities (mostly bacteria) in several habitats, including prairie soils, stream substrates, and lake sediments. We usually collect the soil or sediment samples ourselves, which adds a fun outdoor element to complement the lab bench work of nucleic acid extractions, polymerase chain reactions (PCRs), and DNA sequence analysis. For example, one project has focused on collecting restored and remnant prairie soil samples, and detecting and measuring soil microbial genes that code for proteins involved in the nitrogen cycle, a cycle that is often out of balance (e.g., yielding too much nitrous oxide greenhouse gas, or yielding too much nitrate runoff and leaching).  

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