Sponsorship Highlights: SSE Sponsorship Highlight: GREG R.C. Lewontin Early Awards

Contributed by kjm34 on Mar 12, 2019 - 08:55 PM

The GREG R.C. Lewontin Early Awards assist students in the early stages of their Ph.D. programs by enabling them to collect preliminary data or to enhance the scope of their research beyond current funding limits. Last year, 21 students received this award. Continue reading to hear from eight recipients about the impact of receiving this award. 

“As humans populated the world, they encountered diverse and often inhospitable environments including high altitudes, dry deserts, and cold polar regions. Despite challenges, people survive and thrive in these environments. Both cultural innovations and adaption by natural selection allow humans to occupy these diverse habitats. As an anthropological geneticist, I study DNA from humans living today and thousands of years ago to investigate how humans survive and thrive in extreme environments. Specifically, I combine data from ancient and present-day human DNA with analyses of culture (through archaeological and ethnohistorical data) to investigate human adaptation to cold environments in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, Chile. I am very grateful to have received the R.C. Lewontin Early Award from the SSE in 2018. The funds from this award allowed me to prepare ancient DNA samples for sequencing so that I may start collecting preliminary data for my dissertation research.” - Christina Balentine

Leaf shape varies spectacularly across genera, species, and even varies among genetic lineages of the same species. But what maintains this morphological variation among plants in nature? Is genetic drift responsible for the diversity of leaf shape? Or does leaf shape provide an advantage, enabling plants to grow in varied conditions? Leaf shape influences vital physiological properties, such as thermoregulation, water relations, and defense against fungal enemies and herbivores; however, in most plant species, we do not know what selective forces might be acting in nature to maintain this variation. Additionally, the genetic basis of leaf shape remains elusive, especially for wild plants. My dissertation aims to bridge this gap in our understanding by performing multi-environment field experiments to assess patterns of selection and by identifying the underlying genetic basis of leaf shape in the morning glory Ipomoea trifida. Specifically, I am building a fine genetic map (using ddRADseq) to identify the genes controlling for leaf shape in I. trifida, which will be used to test for selective sweeps and other signs of selection. As an early career scientist, I cannot truly express my gratitude to Society for the Study of Evolution for awarding me the R.C. Lewontin Award, which along with my advisor’s support, is making both aspects of this project possible.” -  Sonal Gupta

“The R.C. Lewontin Award from the SSE has been immensely helpful in the early stages of my dissertation research. As the first grant proposal that I submitted independently, it helped me to organize my ideas and carefully consider my research approach, and receiving it gave me confidence during a crucial period in my degree. I am using the funds from the grant to investigate sex chromosome evolution and dosage compensation in snakes. This project, made possible from this award, has helped me to establish collaborations with other researchers and to progress in my career.” - Kerry Gendreau

"In 2018 I was awarded the R.C. Lewontin Early Career Award from SSE to support preliminary data collection for my dissertation on understanding the evolution of proteins via natural selection. The overarching project focuses on a broad question: does knowledge of the form of pleiotropy enable a degree of prediction of evolution? The expectation is antagonistic pleiotropy constrains evolution while synergistic pleiotropy facilitates adaptation. With support from SSE, I was able to start generating a comprehensive mutant library for a single protein in which every possible amino acid is created (~5,000 mutations). The library is transformed to produce a heterogeneous population which is thus screened in each environment of interest. Using deep sequencing to quantify allele frequencies before and after selection, we will construct the local fitness landscape across different environments. Thanks to SSE’s generous support, I was able to conduct the first steps of this work. In the next phase of this project, I will generate hypotheses based on the patterns of pleiotropy across environments and test using experimental evolution to determine the predictive power of the local landscape." - Olivia Kosterlitz

“How are complex structures built during embryonic development, and how do changes during development influence the evolution of vertebrate morphology? The R.C. Lewontin Award from the SSE has allowed me to pursue these questions in evolutionary developmental biology (evo-dev) by funding my studies in anole lizards. Anoles are well-known for their striking patterns of convergent evolution on different Caribbean islands. One of the most striking phenotypic differences among Anolis species is limb size, which is adapted for the particular microhabitat that each Anolis species resides within. Although the ecology and evolution of these lizards has been extensively studied, we know relatively little about the underlying mechanisms that have contributed to the evolution of different phenotypes within this genus. With support from the R.C. Lewontin Award, I was able to bring new specimens into the lab to better understand how changes in limb morphology of anole lizards arise during development.” - Aaron Alcala

“Funding through the Society for the Study of Evolution’s R. C. Lewontin Award facilitated a crucial step of my research by enabling me to have sufficient funds to develop and expand the molecular component of my research. My research examines a long standing theoretical prediction that in wind pollinated plants, the more pollen produced by a plant the more offspring it should sire. To investigate this prediction, I experimentally manipulated allocation to male function in the wind pollinated herb Ambrosia artemisiifloia and measured its effect on siring success, using microsatellite markers for paternity analyses on the progeny. The data generated through this award will help shape the future direction of my research. I am very grateful to the SSE for supporting graduate students and young scientists like me in their research careers. Applying to this research award early in my graduate career helped me think critically about the aims of my research, and receiving it boosted my confidence about my abilities.” - Abrar Aljiboury

“I am a second year graduate student at the University of Michigan studying how social group formation contributes to the evolution of cooperation. I use paper wasps to investigate how individuals select which social groups to join, and how the interacting phenotypes of group members impact cooperation. There are few research grants geared towards early career students, making it difficult to launch large projects in the first few years of your PhD. The R.C Lewontin Award has jump started my research through allowing me to start my own field site for wasp research – I can now observe interactions in a naturalistic environment that allows me to follow social groups and estimate their fitness across years. The generosity of the Society for the Study of Evolution has sponsored my dissertation research and has allowed me to expand the scope of my projects. Thank you, SSE!” - Emily Laub

“My research on the biomechanical basis of speciation is being helped greatly by a R.C. Lewontin Award that I received last year. My research investigates the following question: Can parallel phenotypic evolution lead to speciation via non-parallel genetic evolution? To investigate this question, I am using the threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus) species pairs, which have independently evolved from a marine ancestor in at least five different lakes along the Salish Sea. The Lewontin award funded the purchase of a high-speed camera, which I plan to use alongside an underwater force transducer to measure suction-feeding performance in ‘parallel’ ecotypes and their hybrids (i.e., benthic from lake 1 crossed with benthic from lake 2; ditto for limnetic). Phenotypes such as maximum suction force and suction force-field acceleration are impossible to accurately measure without such specialized equipment. I am tremendously grateful to the SSE for this award.” - Ken Thompson