July Grad Spotlight: 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.



December: Lily Twining

I study how the nutritional content of food resources can create the potential for mismatches between what’s available and what animals require based on their physiological needs. In my thesis, I’ve studied insectivorous riparian bird requirements for highly unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids and how freshwater insect subsidies can provide them with these ecologically essential resources. In the future I plan to continue studying how local resource composition, trophic ecology, phylogeny, and life history influence animal nutritional requirements, including their susceptibility to phenological nutritional mismatch.

I’m also passionate about educational outreach and teaching, mentoring undergraduates and early grad students, and making academia more inclusive for all.

My husband, Ryan Shipley, is also a 6th year PhD candidate in EEB.  It was a match made in the 2012 EEB core course!

November: Collin Edwards

I’m a sixth year PhD candidate in the Ellner lab, studying plant-insect interactions and phenology. My approach to research is to develop theoretical models that are closely tied to empirical systems to answer questions that both fascinate me and are important to furthering our understanding of ecology and evolutionary biology. Where it’s most efficient to work with existing data, I do so; otherwise I carry out targeted experiments to inform, parameterize, or test my models.

My dissertation focuses on answering two questions:

(1) Why do plants invest in multiple defense traits, and why are the combinations of traits non-random? Unlike most animals, plants are unable to escape from predators by moving – instead they have a number of defense traits, from thorns and hairs to deadly toxins. Most plant species have several defense traits at once, and previous work has shown that plants tend to fall into several separate combinations of defense traits called “Defense Syndromes”. For example, most milkweed species have high levels of toxins or high levels of latex and defensive hairs, but not both. I’ve been carrying out experiments with monarch butterflies and swamp milkweed beetles to understand why milkweed plants invest in multiple defense traits, and why different species fall into specific defense syndromes. I’m also constructing a mechanistic mathematical model to generalize my understanding to other plant taxa.

(2) How can strategies for using environmental cues evolve in different climates, and how does that evolution influence how species respond to climate change? This work focuses on phenology – specifically, on how plants and animals use environmental cues like temperature, moisture, and photoperiod to decide when to germinate or hatch in the spring. Come out too early, and they might freeze from a late frost. Come out too late, and they’ve missed the peak growing season. In collaboration with Louie Yang at UC Davis, I’ve developed a simulation model that uses real climate data to understand how strategies of cue use might vary across North America.

When I’m not working on my research projects, I teach middle school students about plants, insects, soils, and ecology (last year students constructed their own flowering plants to match specific herbivores and pollinators – the results were awesome!). I’m also dedicated to helping graduate and undergraduate students develop their quantitative skills, and have helped teach classes and workshops on various math and programming tools. I tweet about science (mostly) at @edwards_evoeco, and write about science, math, and and science tools on my website, evo-eco.org.

In my spare time, I’m an avid martial artist and an unabashed nerd (books, board games, video games, random programming projects). In a past life (before grad school) I taught classes in traditional blacksmithing, and I’m hoping to find time for that again soon.


October: Jacob Berv

Broadly, I am interested in the interface between micro and macroevolution, and how microevolutionary processes generate macroevolutionary patterns. I don’t believe micro and macroevolution are different phenomena. Rather, I believe that they are different manifestations of the same underlying process. As such, I am interested in whether or not there are ‘universal laws’ that govern connect and govern evolutionary processes at multiple scales, through time and space. Some of the questions that guide my research include: How do the actions of individual organisms and/or the characters of species propagate through evolutionary scales to generate phylogenetic patterns? Likewise, how might phylogeny constrain evolutionary potential? What are the roles of evolutionary contingency and convergence in generating patterns of biodiversity?

One of the manifestations of this set of questions is a pronounced heterogeneity in the rate of evolution across the tree of life. Rather than proceeding in a clock-like manner, the dominating signal of evolution at deep phylogenetic scales seems to be one of spurts of change interspersed with periods of (relative) stasis. Such patterns are captured both in phenotypes (in the fossil record), and in the genomes of living taxa. In birds, I recently documented  that heterogeneity in rate of molecular evolution across birds may be particularly extreme; the fastest evolving bird lineages (at least in terms of DNA sequences) seem to be evolving almost twenty times faster than lineages evolving at the slowest rates. It turns out that the rate of molecular evolution in birds is highly correlated to life history evolution.

In addition to my research, I’m very interested in how best to teach macroevolutionary thinking. While at Cornell, I’ve designed and taught my own curriculum in three macroevolution-focused ‘writing in the majors’ seminars. Over the last few years, I’ve also given a number of public outreach lectures to try to directly connect with non-academics and to explain where some of their tax dollars are going. Working with the Laboratory of Ornithology also empowers me to communicate the results of my work to the public through various media outlets. I recently had an opportunity to consult on the reboot of ’The Magic School Bus,’ which is now on Netflix. Going forward I am excited about the possibility of contributing to other educational programs as well.

In the time I’m not thinking about evolution, I can often be find on various social media platforms (@jakeberv), or consuming all kinds of movies, TV, art and music. I also used to be pretty into photography and am now rediscovering it as a creative outlet—hopefully will get back into sharing stuff on the web soon.