Postdoctoral Research Associate, The Chen Lab
You work in a laboratory. What are you currently researching?
I research sex: I address century-old questions about mating system evolution using modern genetic tools. I have spent a lot of time considering why some organisms have sex chromosomes. I ask this question in a variety of ways. Why can we reliably identify the specific chromosome-pair associated with sex under the microscope? Why is a distinct chromosome-pair correlated with each sex, while this is not the case for any other physical aspects of the body? Is there a benefit that can explain why evolution keeps around chromosomes associated with sex? My work tests the prevailing theory that sex all relates to getting rid of bad mutations and helping good mutations spread.
What was it that originally sparked your interest in biology?
I originally started my undergraduate studies wanting to be a science teacher and found myself consistently gravitating towards my biology classes. I was particularly interested in understanding how “Life” started and took a lot of paleontology classes – I learned a lot about how much the meaning of life has changed over geological time. Then a particularly influential teacher asked me if I’d ever thought instead about how life was maintained. Instead of trying to explain a chance event some 2 billion years in the past, I could instead wonder why it still hasn’t gone extinct in all that time. She showed me that contemporary approaches in genomics could answer this sort of question…and I was hooked.
What advice would you give to prospective students looking to study in our department?
Start thinking about multi-disciplinary collaborations early. Working with folks with completely different points of view is very enriching. This can mean learning programming and statistics to answer challenging biological questions, keeping open conversations with folks that study teaching and writing, or attending classes that think through the ways the science we do every day impacts our society and the people in it. Many lecturers at the University of Rochester are open to new conversations, sometimes all it takes is an email.
How do you think our biology department stands out in comparison to other universities?
The assemblage of faculty in the biology department at the University of Rochester is world-class. I’m consistently astounded by the conversations I have with other fabulous scientists outside of my lab, to say nothing of the incredible scientist I work (virtually) side-by-side with every day. There is a strong focus on understanding evolution and adaptation using a wide variety of approaches and that makes every single weekly seminar memorable to me.
How do you unwind when you’re not in the lab?
When I’m not in the lab, I spend a lot of time thinking about improving diversity, equity and inclusion in my communities. I work with terrific folks in our departmental community to think about Diversity and Inclusion in the Biological Sciences (DIBS) to create and maintain inviting work environments for as many folks as possible. I also try to promote an inclusive view of the biology of sex in my research and in the classroom. Sex chromosomes are not a good proxy for a person’s sex nor for their gender. There are all kinds of sexual systems present in nature, and this natural diversity motivates my research: in none of the organisms I study are males only XY and females only XX. Despite the evidence, the ‘male/XY & female/XX’ misconception persists. In my time outside the lab, I consider why this misconception is so common and I study how we can challenge it.