Research

How does thermosensation evolve? As animals adapt from one thermal environment to another, how do their sensory systems evolve? I study this question by investigating TRP channels, a family of ion channels than can function as molecular thermosensors by turning temperature signals into electrical signals. I am combining transcriptomics, bioinformatics, electrophysiology, and behavior studies to answer these questions across integrated levels of organization in both vertebrates and invertebrates.

Notothenioid fishes

Notothenioids are a suborder of fishes that make up the primary fish fauna of the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean surrounds Antarctica and generally stays between -1.9 and +1 degree Celsius all year, and has been this cold for several million years. Molecular thermosensors that function below ~8 degrees C have not been discovered. I am investigating how TRP channels have evolved to sense ecologically relevant temperatures for these fish.
(Left) Harpagifer antarcticus

Texas leaf-cutter ants

The Texas leaf-cutter ant (Atta texana) is the most northerly distributed leaf-cutter ant, but that distribution isn't limited by the ants' own temperature tolerance. Instead, it is limited by the cold sensitivity of the fungus the ants cultivate in gardens within their colonies. These ants have been shown to be behaviorally sensitive to the narrow range in temperatures at which the fungus grows optimally, but what is the molecular basis of this temperature sensitivity, and how has that changed as the Texas leaf-cutters have expanded northward?
(Left) An entrance to an Atta texana colony

Acetylcholine receptor evolution in poison frogs

Following up on Tarvin and colleagues, I am investigating the evolution of acetylcholine receptors within anurans. I am studying nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in basal frogs such as Xenopus tropicalis and Nanorana parkeri to better understand the evolutionary context for the evolution of toxin resistance in poison frogs.

(Left) Structure of the human nicotinic acetylcholine receptor from Tarvin et al. 2017.

Previous work

CV

See my google scholar or download a copy of my most recently uploaded CV.

Engagement

As a scientist, I sometimes feel conflicted about the role of researchers in publicizing their science and engaging with the public. Doing the science is a full time job, and the skills that make someone a good scientist do not entirely overlap with the skills involved in being a good communicator. I recognize, however, that with the current scientific system there is value for both the public and the scientist when communication between these groups increases. Below is a summary of some of my efforts to increase that communication.

Science Under the Stars

I help organize a series of monthly science talks called Science Under the Stars. Events are free, open to the public, and held outdoors at Brackenridge Field Laboratory. The speakers are biology graduate students who share work ranging from bat behavior to tropical tree evolution to flu epidemiology and sustainable gardening. Events also include kids activities, snacks, natural history displays, and tours of the field lab. We are sponsored by the Department of Integrative Biology and the Friends of Brackenridge.
To increase community access to our events, speakers have the chance to give their talks again at local libraries around Austin in a series called Neighborhood Science and also at Long-View Micro School.

Austin Science Advocates

Austin is a great place to get involved in science policy and policymaking, since the capitol is just a few blocks away! Austin Science Advocates is a group of graduate students in the College of Natural Sciences that conduct monthly meetings in which we discuss science policy news, conduct deep dives into particular issues, practice skills related to discussing and debating science policy issues, and host guest speakers. We also have monthly postcard writing sessions where we provide materials to scientists to write to their representatives.
In 2017, we testified for the state board of education while they debated streamlining of the K-12 science curriculum standards in Texas.

MassiveScience

I am a member of the scientific consortium of MassiveScience, a media company that publishes popular science articles written by scientists. Learn more about joining Massive’s science consortium here. I was selected to be trained as part of their Climate Cohort in 2017. As part of that training, I’ve written and published two articles with them:

Alaska’s oilfield has been subtly changing the state’s environment for decades. Will Congress notice?

Creationism helped push climate skepticism into classrooms

Science Communication Training

A summary of courses or programs in which I've participated to improve my communication skills:

Inclusion

If you are a scientist, you know academia is often touted as a meritocracy, but systemically prevents women and other marginalized people from participating due to inherent biases, a lack of representation, and fewer available resources. I am working to combat these inequities with the efforts below. Please contact me if you have questions or concerns about these projects.

Published work and press

  • Kelly Wallace and I published a paper proposing a systems change framework for evaluating academic equity efforts. The paper was published in the academic practice section of Ecology & Evolution
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article on some of the work discussed below in 2018

Climate survey

I put together a climate survey to empirically assess the experiences of the Integrative Biology Department community. We conducted the survey in spring 2018, then revised it with assistance from the UT Sociology Department and established it as an annual survey initially in fall 2020. Please feel free to download and use the survey in your own workplace.

Equity and Inclusion Discussion Group

I initiated the founding of an Equity and Inclusion Discussion Group within the Integrative Biology Department; it was modeled on a similar group in the Astronomy Department. We meet monthly to discuss articles and generate action items related to inclusion in science. It is led by a cross-hierarchical team. If you are associated with the IB Department, you can read the ground rules for the group here and sign up for the listserv here.

Other work

  • We have passed a Graduate Student Bill of Rights for students whose professors are associated with the IB Department
  • I organized a Bystander Intervention Training with Marian Trattner and BeVocal and Personnel Management training for members of the Integrative Biology Department
  • I established a Quiet/Lactation room in Patterson Labs (PAT 339)
  • We re-signed the single stall bathrooms in the department as gender neutral (1st floor PAT, 3rd floor BIO)

About

I am currently a PhD candidate in the Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior graduate program at the University of Texas at Austin. My lab is associated with the Department of Integrative Biology and the Department of Neuroscience. Previously, I received my Master’s of Science at the University of British Columbia, where I was co-supervised by Bill Milsom and Doug Altshuler. I was also an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia and worked in the Milsom lab. I grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, where I used to help my dad trap arctic ground squirrels and catch wood frogs. Now I live in Austin, Texas. I use she/her/hers pronouns.

Contact Me

Questions about any of this work? Can’t access the papers? Contact me!