October Grad Spotlight: Jenn Houtz


I am a first-year PhD student in the Vitousek Lab. My research interests include neuroendocrinology, behavioral ecology, and microbial ecology. During my doctoral research, I intend to characterize the impacts of gut microbiome composition on host phenotypic traits vital to stress responsiveness and their fitness consequences. More specifically, I’m interested in the mechanistic links between the gut microbiome and stress-related changes in physiology, behavior, and brain development in tree swallows.


Outside research, I am passionate about public outreach and citizen science efforts. I love to encourage younger generations to confidently pursue a career in STEM by sharing my own experiences with them. I also love hiking, kayaking, and dancing (ballet, jazz, and tap) in my spare time!


September: Colleen Miller


I am a first-year graduate student interested in studying anthropogenic stressors on Tree Swallow populations in the Vitousek Lab. With a background in population level ecology, I have become increasingly interested in understanding underlying factors to large scale patterns. By studying across organizational levels, I intend to develop a deeper understanding of how stressors such as light or noise pollution vary within and across populations. I hope to better describe how urbanized landscapes may impact natural communities in a rapidly developing world.

Alongside my research, I work to create a supportive atmosphere for others enduring stress, work-life balance or mental wellness issues. Supportive scientific communities are the strongest. Outside of my work, you can find me pursuing one of one hundred hobbies! I enjoy cooking, reading, playing music and hiking to name a few—focusing on one hobby was never my path.


August: Lizzie Lombardi

I am a fourth-year graduate student studying plant-virus interactions in the Power lab. My work considers the impact of environmental change on plant response to viral associations. In order to integrate host adaptation to both variable abiotic conditions and heterogeneous biotic pressures (i.e. the real world), I study a single plant across its’ full known range in the mountains of western North America. I am currently assaying plant populations for viruses in order to build a viral diversity baseline across alpine and montane ecosystems, which may inform predictions regarding future viral range shifts into naïve host populations. In addition, I am also conducting common garden experiments to assess the roles that host genotype and environment play in facilitating the spread of viruses to new plants and environments.

I study alpine ecology because I care about mountains, and you’ll often find me in them even when I’m not working. I am also a fan of science fiction and evolutionary agriculture, and the combination thereof.


July: Keeley MacNeil

I’m a finishing PhD Candidate in Alex Flecker’s lab. I am interested in drivers of elemental movement through streams, how their cycles interact and how elements are taken up and used by aquatic organisms. I study streams in Ecuador that are contaminated with arsenic as a result of geothermal activity and how nutrient availability in those streams affects how much arsenic is retained in the food web or transported further downstream.  Understanding how arsenic interacts with more common elements (carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus) is important given the prevalence of arsenic (more than 10% of US streams are above the drinking water limit!), and the influence of humans on stream nutrient chemistry from agricultural runoff.

In addition to biogeochemical cycling, I am also passionate about sustainability and co-chair the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future Fellows groups, which promotes various events surrounding sustainability. When not in the field, lab, or office, you might find me on the rock wall or hiking with my wild jungle dog, who adopted me at a field station in Trinidad.


June: Emily Funk

I am a fifth year student in Amy McCune’s lab. I study the evolution of novel phenotypes using comparative developmental genetics. More specifically, I am investigating the evolution of the gas bladder in ray-finned fishes from the lungs of the bony-vertebrate common ancestor. The key morphological difference between these homologous organs is the site of budding from the foregut; the gas bladder buds dorsally and the lungs bud ventrally. Using immunohistochemistry and tissue-specific transcriptomics, I am comparing the gene expression patterns during gas bladder development in bowfin and lung development in bichirs looking for dorsoventral patterning similarities and differences.

When I’m not hanging out with the fishes, I enjoy trail running, biking, and hiking/backpacking through the mountains.

May: Katie Rondem

I’m a second-year grad student in the Reed Lab and am broadly interested in Evo-Devo–more specifically, how gene regulation contributes to the evolution of animal diversity.

Genomic comparisons between diverse animals reveal remarkable conservation between gene coding sequences, suggesting very different body forms are built using very similar sets of genes. How, then, has animal diversity evolved? One answer may lie in the genomic regions that regulate these genes, or regulatory regions. Regulatory regions tell genes when, where and how long they should be expressed, and they may hold the key to how all of this amazing animal diversity has developed and evolved. To give proof to this theory, I’m currently trying to show that the regulatory regions of a known butterfly color patterning gene are responsible for variation in wing color pattern in Heliconius butterflies using CRISPR gene editing techniques.

When I’m not doing research, I’m probably either playing Catan, binge-reading a fantasy series, or planning my next trip out west to go camping, hiking or skiing.


April: Jonathan Hughes

I’m a 2nd year PhD Student in Jeremy Searle’s lab. My research interests lie primarily in the realms of population genetics, speciation, and phylogenetics, especially as they apply to mammals. I’ve previously worked with cows, mammoths, and giant sloths, and I’m currently using house mice to answer questions of chromosome evolution and hybridisation. House mice of the subspecies Mus musculus domesticus occasionally experience chromosome fusions, and mice with different chromosomal rearrangements are able to interbreed with seemingly no detriment, which is unusual. I’m interested in exploring the mechanisms that generate and govern these rearrangements, what they mean for the genetic diversity of house mice, and the degree to which chromosomal variation is driving speciation in these mice.

When not basking in the warm glow of a computer monitor, I can usually be found on a hiking trail, in a mosh pit, or down the pub. I’m always searching for more people to play board games and be opinionated about movies with.

March: Young Ha Suh

I am interested in why behavioral variation exists among individuals and how environmental change plays a role in its maintenance. My current research focuses on the variation of dispersal behavior in the Florida Scrub-Jay, a species that inhabits a dynamic habitat altered by frequent fires. Using field observations and modeling approaches, I am looking at the causes and consequences of different dispersal decisions in relation to the surrounding social and physical environment.

Outside my research, I am passionate about public outreach and education that promotes inclusion, and I have been involved through writing popular science articles and creating art. When I’m not running around in the field or staring at my computer, I enjoy drawing, hiking, knitting, and playing video games.

February: Erin Larson

I’m a 5th year PhD candidate in Alex Flecker’s lab. I combine observational and experimental approaches to study how communities respond to disturbance. My dissertation work has taken me to Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the Ecuadorian Andes, where I work with collaborators to understand how the functional and taxonomic composition of stream insect communities changes following extreme flooding and landslides. In some respects, my research is the ecological equivalent of being an ambulance-chaser, as I take advantage of natural disturbance events as opportunities to understand mechanisms driving community responses. In addition to my research, I am passionate about teaching and outreach and co-host a podcast called “Making Waves” for the Society for Freshwater Science.

When I’m not in the field, lab, classroom or office, you can most often find me out on the trails running, mountain biking, or cross-country skiing. I tweet at @ernlarson

January 2018: Natalie Hofmeister


I’m a third-year PhD candidate in Irby Lovette’s lab, and I use comparative and population genomic approaches to study bird evolution. Currently, I’m focusing on local adaptation across the global range of the European starling. I compare whole genomes of starling populations in their native range (Europe) with two concurrent introductions in North America and Australia. In North America alone, starlings spread from New York City to southern Alaska within only ten or so generations of starling evolution. Ultimately, I’m interested in how demographic and selective processes interact to shape evolutionary patterns.

When I’m not thinking about bird evolution, you can find me talking about community, practicing yoga, trying out a new craft and binging podcasts. I tweet at @nathofme.