Spotlight On...


Benjamin Parker

Postdoctoral Research Associate, The Brisson Lab

UR photo

You work in a laboratory.  What are you currently researching?

Organisms change phenotypic traits in response to variable environments. This plasticity is universal among living things, and there has been a great deal of research on topics like the costs of plasticity, when environmental change induces plastic vs. genetic adaptation, the mechanisms of how plastic traits are produced, etc. We know comparatively little about variation in plasticity itself and how natural selection shapes plasticity. Why are individuals different in terms of how sensitive they are to environmental cues, and what kind of mechanisms are the targets of selection on plasticity? We’re studying this question using pea aphids, which produce genetically-identical winged or unwinged offspring based on how crowded they are on a host plant. We’re looking at variation in how different aphid genotypes respond to crowding both within a population (using a genome-wide association panel) and among reproductively-isolated populations that are in the process of adapting to different host plants. This work will teach us about the genomic architecture and mechanisms of plasticity in a model system, and potentially, how plasticity plays a role in the process of adaptation.

What was it that originally sparked your interest in biology?

I didn’t like biology when I was in school, probably because biology class in the Chicago public school system mostly involved dissecting various types of fruit and memorizing phases of the cell cycle. But during a period of adolescent existential angst about what the point of life was, etc., I started reading about the evolution of human behavior and evolutionary psychology. I outgrew the psychology, but my interest in evolution stuck. I got hired for an REU position in college studying the evolution of host-pathogen interactions in caterpillars, and that was 10 years ago all of a sudden.

What do you enjoy most about working here at the U of R?

I’ve only worked here for a few months, but I’ve been really impressed with the undergrads we have working in the lab this summer.

How do you unwind when you’re not in the lab?

I try to have hobbies that involve a bit of suffering to keep things in perspective, so mostly I bike, hike, or run long distances.

What is one thing about yourself that you’d like more people to know?

I’m a vegetarian, but quite frequently I have really vivid, realistic dreams about bacon.