Year of Graduation: 2007
Current Occupation: Post-doctoral researcher; The Australian National University
Other notable jobs since graduation: Researcher at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid, Spain.
Awards or additional achievements: Harold C. Case Award – Boston University, Fulbright Fellowship, National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship, Herchel Smith Fellowship (Harvard), Chapman Fellowship (Harvard), John Parker Merit Fellowship (Harvard), NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant, NSF Post-doctoral Research Fellowship (declined in order to accept position in Australia), Raymond B. Huey Best Student Presentation Award – Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology
Positions held while living in the House: Clerk, Steward, Professional Cook’s Assistant
Who are you? (Not your job or education, but who are you?):
I am up in the clouds and down in the dirt. I am a dreamer and an empiricist. I am natural and a naturalist.
What was your first impression of the HER House?
I first visited the HER House on a snowy day in early winter. The first thought when I entered the house was that it was warm. It wasn’t just warm against the cold outside – there was warmth from within that drew me in. I felt peace, affection, comfort, and love.
For those of us who do not know anything about Organismic & Evolutionary Biology, why are lizards cool?
Oh my goodness, where to even start? Are you sure you want to ask this? Evolution bestowed lizards with an extra dollop of awesome. Did you know that some lizards can flatten and expand their ribs to create ‘wings’? Seriously, check out Draco volans. Chameleons can not only change their color, they can move their eyes independently and shoot their tong tongues at speeds greater than 20 body lengths per second. Plus they’ve got those weird zygodactylus toes. Then there’s the basilisk – those guys walk on water, which is a really neat parlor trick. That’s nothing compared to the horned lizard, which can shoot blood out its eyes to deter predators. Have you seen a frill-necked lizard? Google it now. They’re bizarre beyond explanation. Look at a Lyriocephalus scutatus and ask yourself how the heck that happened. And look at the schnoz on the Pinocchio lizard – how and why did that evolve? And look at geckos and anoles – they have tiny microscopic hairs, termed setae, on their toes that stick to surfaces through van der Waals forces. Watch a Sitana display. It’ll blow your mind. And did you know that snakes are limbless lizards? Let’s not even get started on snakes! Many species can disarticulate their jaws so as to fit humongous prey into their mouths. And as long as we’re talking about limbless lizards, check out Bipes biporus. I mean, I could spend the rest of my life studying lizards and still have more questions than answers. Everything about lizards fascinates me, excites me, and perplexes me. They’re so weird, so beautiful, and so enigmatic.
Have I gone on too much of a tangent? OK, here the main thrust: Lizards exhibit an staggering array of shapes, sizes, and forms. They’re adapted to nearly every type of habitat on earth, and they’re incredibly diverse. How did they become so diverse? Why do they exhibit such a impressive array of adaptations? And they’re ectotherms, so their physiology is very tightly linked to the thermal environment. They are excellent ‘canaries in the coal mine’ for understanding how climate change is going to impact biodiversity.
Biologists peel back nature’s layers to reveal its beating heart and see how it works. We seek to quench our wonderment with nature by unraveling all of its mysteries. There is no deeper mystery to me than lizards.
What opportunities does a Ph.D. in the sciences provide?
People with PhD in sciences do all sorts of things. Some people go into industry, many go into teaching, and a small percentage stay in academia and work at higher ed institutions. To me a PhD in the sciences provides a critical way of thinking. All things are scrutinized, nothing is known for certain, and claims without sufficient evidence should not be considered. A PhD in the sciences is a commitment to logic, reason, rigor, and empiricism. And because we’re obsessed with nature, which exceeds all art and poetry, in my opinion, we also have a heightened appreciation for beauty, elegance, and complexity.
Why did you decide to do research in Australia?
Lizards. Next question.
Just kidding! I chose Australia because I was ripe for an adventure. All my life I wanted to be a professional scientist traveling the world to do research to better understand nature. This job in Australia is that dream realized.
How did you become involved in mentoring high school and undergraduate students who are not traditionally represented in the sciences?
I became involved because once upon a time I was a high school student and an undergraduate from an underrepresented group. I know firsthand the difficulties associated with gaining equal access to opportunity and equal respect. I also know how crucial it is to have positive, relatable models and how educators have the power to broaden students’ horizons. My mentorship reflects recognition and appreciation for the privileges I have been afforded, and a commitment to making some small impact in the scientific community.
What advice would you give to others looking to mentor students?
Don’t teach your students facts. Teach them to figure things out on their own. Encourage them to set high goals, conquer challenges, and build self-confidence. Teach them to set high standards and then exceed them. Encourage them to dream big. Help them find what fills them with joy and to follow that path confidently.