Evolutionary processes have created organisms and communities that are stunningly beautiful and complex, yet unexpected by and novel to biological scientists. Major examples are found in the cold Southern Ocean (–1.8 to +1°C), among which the cold-loving notothenioid fishes of the Antarctic are the subject of my research. One central strategy of my work is the comparative approach to adaptational evolutionary biology – my laboratory uses phylogenetically controlled contrasts to evaluate molecular causation in natural experiments, such as the evolution of proteins to function efficiently at cold temperature. Once we establish potential explanations for such phenomena, we exploit genetically tractable systems, such as the zebrafish, to test our hypotheses under controlled laboratory conditions. Such “model hopping” is a powerful approach to solving problems that are cannot be answered using a single system.
My laboratory is currently investigating three important problems:
- The Cold-Adapted Microtubule Cytoskeleton: Evolution of Tubulins and the Protein-Folding Complex CCT. We are testing the hypothesis that the tubulins and the protein-folding chaperonin CCT of Antarctic fishes have coevolved to interact and to function efficiently at cold temperature.
- The Evolution of the Erythrocyte-Null Condition of Antarctic Icefishes: Application of Comparative Genomics to Erythropoietic Gene Discovery. The 16 “white-blooded” species of the Antarctic icefish family are unique among vertebrates because they do not make hemoglobin or red blood cells. We are investigating at the molecular level how the processes of hemoglobin synthesis and red blood cell formation were lost. We are also using the icefishes to discover novel genes involved in red cell formation, which may lead to new treatments for anemia.
- Comparative Genomics of Osteopenia and Osteoporosis. The evolutionary transition of notothenioid fishes from a bottom-dwelling stock to fill pelagic niches in the Southern Ocean was mediated in part by decreased mineralization of the skeleton. Thus, some notothenioids have evolved a beneficial osteopenia (low bone density) that mimics harmful human bone diseases, such as osteoporosis. My laboratory is identifying genetic factors that control bone ossification in notothenioid fishes, which may lead to the discovery of unknown genes that are important in human bone density diseases.
Throughout my 25-year academic career, I have emphasized innovative and effective teaching of undergraduate and graduate students as a major objective and responsibility. My modus operandi in teaching involves stimulating students to acquire both conceptual and practical knowledge in the biological sciences through experiential, lecture- and laboratory-based coursework.
Through my NSF-funded Antarctic research program, I have been in the fortunate position to train my graduate students in biochemical, molecular, cellular, and genomic research at a remote field location, Palmer Station, Antarctica, and on ocean-going research vessels. I have found that the opportunity to conduct successful research “on the ice” provides my students with a tremendous professional and personal growth experience that boosts both their self-confidence and their maturity. I hope that they will build on these experiences to develop successful professional careers in the biological sciences.
I have also been at the forefront of developing graduate-level degree programs that incorporate experiential learning. I secured grant funding from The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to create the Professional Science Masters Program in Bioinformatics (established 2001) and was part of the team that obtained a second Sloan grant to develop the PSM Program in Biotechnology (established 2003).