Genetics, Aggie Style

Since my last post, I've not spent too much time in the field. Rather, I transitioned from the field into the lab as well as focused on my coursework. I took some pretty awesome classes this past semester: conservation biology and wildlife nutritional ecology. I definitely feel like I've got this grad student thing down, what with the sixteen page exams I've been writing. It's great! And, I'm pretty stoked at the 4.0 I've maintained the first year of grad school.

Whoa! I finished my first year of grad school! Awesomesauce!

I love school so much, I opted to spend my spring break doing even more work. Not that any grad student actually gets to take university breaks, but I was excited nonetheless. Last semester, I contacted Dr. Jan Janecka at Texas A&M University. Dr. Janecka is a research professor in the molecular cytogenetics and genomics laboratory within the veterinary research department. He's done a lot of work in population and conservation genetics, but has a particular interest in wild felids. Dr. Janecka was gracious enough to let me spend two weeks in his laboratory working on bobcat genetics in order to help me learn more about the techniques necessary for my thesis. It was a very rewarding experience. I spent most of my time with a visiting Mongolian PhD student, Narka, who is doing similar genetics research on Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in Mongolia. Together we prepared numerous samples for sequencing, attempted to teach language to one another (my Mongolian is really wretched, but his English so much better), and navigated the famous Aggieland. We also showed our field research photos to one another. Dr. Janecka has done extensive research on snow leopards (Panthera uncia) in Mongolia, and Narka has assisted radio-collaring snow leopards, Pallas cats (Otocolobus manul), and lynx. As a result, I am plotting on how I might end up in Mongolia.

I really enjoyed this externship because of the quick learning curve and high expectations. Dr. Janecka will also sit on my thesis committee to further advise me on the genetic component of my research, as he has an affinity for and a lot of experience with bobcat (Lynx rufus)  research. I was able to assist him on a current research effort as well as learn about tiger, snow leopard, and Mongolian horse genetics. I focused on techniques relevant to my research questions, using exceptional equipment and learning the what and why and how of microsatellite research. I am very fortunate to have been invited to learn in one of the best labs in the country.

Once I created the serum samples of several bobcats' DNA, I created working dilutions of those samples to be used in sequencing.

 Pipetting primers into each sample for the polymerase chain reaction.

Stand back! I'm about to try science!

I didn't catch a photo with my new friend Narka, whom is back in Mongolia and is by now beginning his field research. Like me, he was new to genetics and Dr. Janecka has been most helpful in getting us started. I knew I wanted to work in laboratory research after my internship with the Smithsonian, but I didn't realize I would think genetics equally cool to endocrinology. I gotta say, I'm pretty fascinated with what genetics can teach us. 

At the end of my visit, I attended the Ecological Integration Symposium, a conference focusing on the application of ecology in a changing world. Like any good conference, the beer social was hosted at a professor's home and students and professors alike mingled and discussed hobbies and research. I learned a lot about solifugids (camel spiders), other invertebrates, reptiles in South America, and more. A&M also has some very bright students working in marine biology. The plenary talks and session talks covered several taxa, ecoregions, and interesting questions. This was my third research conference, and I'm looking forward to many more. This time next year, I hope to be presenting!

After my two weeks in Aggieland I see what the hype is all about. Its a pretty cool little town. Great research, great people, and great beer (my advisor, Dr. Matlack, knows I like beer with conservation). 

This summer I will be working with one of my advisors, Dr. Rocky Ward, preparing my samples and testing my newly purchased primers. I will also be live-trapping for bobcats and gray foxes. I recently caught my first bobcat, so look out for that post!

Dr. Janecka contributed to a really beautiful book on snow leopard research called Snow Leopard: Stories from the Roof of the World.  Click the link to check it out!