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I fell in love with the natural world at the edge of a pond. Born and raised in Iowa, I spent as much of my childhood as I could get away with bothering the various frogs, fish, and reptiles that lived just outside my back door.
Just after my ninth birthday, my family moved to California; it wasn't long before I saw the ocean for the first time, and not long after that I'd decided to become a marine biologist. I've pretty much stuck with that plan ever since. As an undergraduate at Stanford, I spent as much time as I could get away with bothering the various limpets, crabs, and anemones at the Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey.
My interest in symbiosis and cooperation began as an undergraduate research project with Professor Stephen Palumbi on the phylogeography of symbiotic dinoflagellates in an intertidal anemone. Peering at this ubiquitous partnership (one which I'd been gleefully poking at since the fourth grade) through the lens of molecular ecology revealed mysteries I couldn't have imagined on my own, and which challenged my rudimentary understanding of evolution. Soon after, classes I took in anthropology and economics illustrated to me the importance that issues of cooperation have in human societies, as well.
In addition to research, I'm passionate about communicating science to others, and have worked and volunteered in science outreach and education since my first year of college. When I'm not engaged in either of the above activities, I enjoy adventures in the outdoors, photography, cooking, and music.
When organisms enter into cooperative partnerships with other species, it changes the adaptive landscape experienced by each partner: sulfur-oxidizing bacterial symbionts allow deep-sea Riftia tube worms to exploit a novel source of energy, while their hosts provide a stable and oxidant-rich habitat for the bacteria; rainforest Acacia trees grow specialized living chambers and food resources for their ant partners, which in turn defend the plant from herbivores. In these mutualistic symbioses, each partner's interaction with the environment is largely mediated through its relationship with another species.
I am interested in how these interspecific partnerships affect the course of evolution in their constituent organisms, especially with regards to diversification and speciation. Why do some corals host many different kinds of photosynthetic symbiont across their range, while others host only one? Which conditions favor the evolution of partner specificity, and which favor generalization? When does a symbiotic partnership 'flatten' an organism's evolutionary landscape, enabling it to adapt to a broader range of environments, and when does a partnership turn into an evolutionary liability?
My research takes an integrated approach to answering these questions, drawing hypotheses from current theoretical models, then testing them in natural systems. Because the interactions I study may be driven by factors that aren't immediately obvious to a human observer, I endeavor to understand them in a broader context, taking advantage of techniques in molecular phylogenetics, physiology, and ecology to quantify the various facets of the symbiosis.