Newsletter 2015-2 December 17, 2015

Robert Thacker
Bob Thacker, Chair

Letter from the Chair, Bob Thacker

In August of this year, I was pleased to join the Department as the new Chair. In addition to my administrative role, I look forward to continuing my research on the ecology and evolution of sponges and their microbiomes, especially by using locally occurring species as model systems. 

In this issue of our newsletter, we profile doctoral student Laurel Yohe, who is advised by Dr. Liliana Dávalos. In addition, Dr. Dávalos was recently interviewed by the New Scientist for her research on deforestation linked to large-scale agriculture in Colombia.

In October, Professor Yossi Loya of Tel Aviv University, who earned his Ph.D. from our program, mentored by Dr. Larry Slobodkin, won a major national prize, the Emet Award, in Israel. This honor recognizes Professor Loya for a lifetime of outstanding research in the field of marine ecology, focused on the ecology, management, and conservation of coral reefs. Congratulations also go to Dr. Dianna Padilla, who mentored three high school students who are Semifinalists in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.  

In December, Stony Brook launched the public phase of The Campaign for Stony Brook, an ambitious, campus-wide campaign to raise $600 million by July 2018. The Department of Ecology and Evolution is fortunate to have several endowed funds that directly support research by our own graduate students. Please consider making a donation to these funds using the links below. This year, these funds provided a total of $9,200 to 13 graduate students. Your donations are vital to support our students, especially in providing research supplies and travel to scientific conferences. 

Finally, the E&E graduate students have led efforts to create a public Facebook page for the Department, which you can find here: Please check this page for updates on various events in the Department,  including posts about our weekly colloquium speakers, student projects, and faculty 

Best wishes for the New Year,


Jennifer Verdolin Brings Animal Behavior to Life 

Jennifer Verdolin
Jennifer Verdolin (Ph.D., 2008, student of Charles Janson) is an animal behavior researcher specializing in social and mating behavior. Her first popular science book, Wild Connection: What animal courtship and mating tell us about human relationships, was released in 2014. She is the featured guest of the segment  " Think Like a Human, Act Lik e an Animal" on the nationally syndicated D.L. Hughley Radio Show and has a popular blog called " Wild Connections " at Psychology Today . Verdolin and her work have been featured in documentaries, on radio programs, and in print, including Animals in Love (BBC), NPR's " The State of Things" , NPRs " All Things Considered ", National Geographic, The Smithsonian, The Art of Charm, Coast to Coast with George Noory, The Upgraded Ape, The Advice Goddess with Amy Alkon, and others. She has written for Scientific American, Slate, BBC Focus, and other well known magazines. A vibrant and engaging speaker, Verdolin enjoys connecting with audiences from all backgrounds about animal behavior and what we can learn from other species to improve our own lives. She regularly consults for television and film productions in the United States and abroad.

A behavioral ecologist by training, Verdolin's early research focused on exploring the evolution of sociality and mating systems, and she has published extensively in that area. More recently, her research interests have expanded to included personality, social networks, and disease dynamics in social species. After graduating from Stony Brook University she began her career there as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow studying population genetics and behavior of mouse lemurs (2008-2010). She then went on to be a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center at Duke University (2010-2013). After taking a year off to complete her first book, Wild Connection, she was a Visiting Lecturer at Duke University (2015), where she is presently a Scholar in Residence in the Biology Department. Verdolin got her start at the Center for Great Apes where she volunteered for 6 years. It was there that she was inspired by the lives of individual chimpanzees and orangutans to pursue her career in animal behavior. She is an advocate for animal conservation and protection and her mission has always been, and remains, to bridge the gap of understanding between ourselves and other species.
Focus on Olfaction Leads E&E Graduate Student Laurel Yohe to the company of Nobels

When Laurel Yohe first arrived at E&E her focus was on birds. Fresh off a year capturing babblers in Vietnam supported by a Fulbright fellowship, she joined the Dávalos lab to study the evolution of this colorful Old World radiation. 

A year later, and still in the process of defining her dissertation topic, Laurel found her focus. "As an undergraduate, I studied neural signaling and was fascinated with G-coupled receptors. Discussing a paper that used phylogenies to analyze their evolution in mice immediately inspired me." This stroke of inspiration led Yohe to define her dissertation and focus on the evolution of chemosensation -olfaction and pheromone sensing or vomerolfaction- in bats. 

Mammals rely on chemosensation a lot more than birds, and this is reflected in their very diverse chemosensory receptors. Olfactory receptors make up a whopping 5% of the protein-coding genome of mammals, including ourselves. Her research now focuses on the sense of smell in bats relates to their diet. Smell, she said, is one of the more mysterious aspects of sensory biology. "It was only in the late 1990s that we even knew how what we smelled signaled to our brain, how it was perceived. Now, with the onset of genomics and more interdisciplinary research we're starting to get a better picture of how it works." 

To complete her research, Yohe has received a number grants and fellowships, including a National Science Foundation pre-doctoral research fellowship, in support of her research. Now her work on olfactory evolution is garnering international attention: Yohe was one of the 54 top graduate student researchers in the United States selected to attend the 65th Annual Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, held June 28-July 3 in Lindau, Germany. This is a first for E&E. One highlight of the week for Yohe was meeting Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, the French virologist who received the Nobel Prize with her mentor, Luc Montagnier, for discovering HIV. "To think that something like that was discovered at some point and how far we've come from it is just amazing," Yohe said. The Lindau Meetings were "a very special place," Yohe said. "I know I'll never be able to experience something like that again, and I know that it will probably take several months to process and let [everything] sink in and actually see the effects of the whole meeting. I am very grateful to my adviser Liliana Dávalos for my nomination and recognizing my potential to participate in such an honorable meeting."

Laurel Yohe and Nobel laureate Françoise Barré-Sinoussi.

Foresters Convene at the Ashley Schiff Preserve

Forty-five years ago, The  Ashley Schiff Park Preserve was created to honor a popular Stony Brook professor who died suddenly at the age of 37. The sign at the entrance to this 26-acre forest, located between South Campus and Life Sciences says, "Forever Wild," so many people assume that the preserve has protected status. This is most definitely not the case; no permanent protection from development exists.

The  Friends of Ashley Schiff Park Preserve (FASPP) is an organization that was created for the benefit of the preserve.  Its mission is to manage the Ashley Schiff Park Preserve as a "living laboratory" and an academic research site, and further ensure that it remains as a "forever wild" woodland, and to promote its educational and research value with students, faculty, staff, and the greater community.

The Department of Ecology and Evolution supports these efforts by managing FASPP's Stony Brook Foundation accounts, sponsoring weekly interpretive walks in the forest, and encouraging the involvement of faculty, staff and students in the work of the preserve. MORE HERE

Brentwood Students Honored
Researchers Start Young at Stony Brook University

Three Brentwood High School students worked with the Padilla Lab this past summer, sent to Stony Brook by their high school mentor, E&E alumnus Dr. Rebecca Grella who has had great success in inspiring students in her research classes.  
Oindrila Naja, Lisbette Hernandes and Shadé Hightower worked on a project examining ribbed mussels, Geukensia demissa, in salt marshes ( Spartina alterniflora) on Long Island.  They were interested in examining whether the mussels can increase marsh stability by affecting marsh grass density and allocation of above and below ground biomass.  It turns out that when marsh grass is faced with nitrogen pollution, the grasses put much more energy into above ground biomass, and less into their root systems (exciting findings in recent PhD Mary Alldred's dissertation work).  Mussels bury in the sediment and may be increasing denitrification rates, reducing available nitrogen in the sediment and possibly stimulating Spartina to put more energy into below ground biomass.  Their successful research efforts were rewarded by being selected as Semifinalists in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology.  Last Thursday they (and Dianna Padilla) received special service awards from the Brentwood Free Union School District.  Hopefully, this is just the beginning of long careers in sciences for these three young talents!
Alumni and friends we hope you remember how important an early financial boost was in your graduate research. 
Please  donatedonate to the Lawrence Slobodkin Fund for Ecological Research.
Give to the George Williams Fund for Student Research. Donate Now
Give to Ecology and Evolution Award for Student Excellence. Donate Now

How much? Suggested donations. Full professors: >= $200, Associate Professors: >= $100, Assistant Professors and Postdocs: >= $50 Please get used to giving annually. We need your help. Thanks so much!!
Lacey Knowles Honored with University Chair at Michigan

Lacey Knowles, who received her Ph.D. in E&E in 1999, and a student of Douglas Futuyma was honored  this year when she was appointed a lacey Collegiate Professor in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts of the University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), where she began in 2003 as an Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and a Curator of Insects in the university's Museum of Zoology.  Lacey is now an acknowledged leader in the field of phylogeography, as well as the reconstruction of species phylogenies from often conflicting gene trees. She was the elected president of the Society of Systematic Biologists in 2013.  Much of her current research is funded by a collaborative grant from the Ciencias sem Fronteras (Science without Borders) program of the Brazilian CNPq, for phylogeographic studies of Amazonian lizards.  Last month, Doug Futuyma visited Lacey and her Department, and found her very busy and very happy with a large group of graduate students and postdocs, and with her wife Rebecca, their four adopted children, and two dogs.

Lacey Knowles lab (with Phd advisor Doug Futuyma, center and Lacey to his right) celebrates her appointment as Collegiate Professor at the University of Michigan

E&E Events, Awards and Passages

Phil McDowall, graduate student in the Lynch Lab, has been awarded a Junior Researcher Fellowship from Stony Brook's Institute for Advanced Computational Sciences. This award provides a stipend bonus and travel support for up to three years, and is awarded to outstanding junior researchers involved in computationallyintensive thesis research. 

Michael Bell has been designated a Fellow of the AAAS. Mike has been recognized for his many contributions to our understanding of microevolution and his role in the development of our understanding of rapid morphological evolution of sticklebacks as they entered multiple freshwater bodies.

Professor Yossi Loya of Tel Aviv University, who earned his Ph.D. in our program mentored by Larry Slobodkin, just won a major national prize, the Emet Award, in Israel. He has been recognized for his pioneering contributions to our understanding of coral reef ecology. 

Lacey Knowles, former student of Doug Futuyma, was named Collegiate Professor at the University of Michigan. See story above.

Janet Morrison, Ph.D. 1994, Department of Ecology and Evolution at Stony Brook, former student of Jessica Gurevitch, and currently Professor of Biology at the College of New Jersey, has been named the first recipient of an Endowed Chair at TCNJ. Janet is the Barbara Meyers Pelson '59 Chair in Faculty-Student Engagement and is a nationally recognized authority on mentored original undergraduate research.

Peter Petraitis, former student of Jeff Levinton, has retired from his position at the University of Pennsylvania but continues with active research on community ecology and theoretical ecology. He recently published a book on Multiple Stable States, published by Oxford University Press.

Joshua Rest is a CoPI, along with PI Jackie Collier, on a new grant to develop molecular genetic tools for the marine protist group labyrinthulomycetes. This is a group of marine heterokont protists involved in the carbon cycle as decomposers of organic material and in marine food webs as producers of metabolites such as carotenoids and essential longchain polyunsaturated omega 3 fatty acids. Their goal is to develop methods for the genetic manipulation of a broad diversity of labyrinthulomycetes as tools to elucidate their ecological role(s) and interactions with other marine organisms. They will develop tools for heterologous expression and gene deletion that can be utilized across the four distinct types of labyrinthulomycetes: thraustochytrids, oblongichytrids, labyrinthulids, and aplanochytrids. This grant is part of a larger effort by the Moore Foundation to accelerate development of experimental model systems in marine microbial ecology

David Wong, former postdoc in the Levinton lab, is the senior author of a major new volume on management of quagga and zebra mussels in the western United States. These invasive species have caused major reorganizations of aquatic ecosystems in North America and management and even elimination has been a major problem. 

Here is a question about E&E history
How many Stony Brook faculty members have left Stony Brook, only to return again?

Contacts: Chair Bob Thacker, Graduate Program Director Stephen Baines, or
the Newsletter Editor, Jeff Levinton