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Four awarded pilot grants from Evolutionary Studies

Posted by on Tuesday, August 16, 2022 in featured.

By Andy Flick Evolutionary Studies scientific coordinator

Evolutionary Studies at Vanderbilt selected four exciting, new proposals for pilot grants. Graduate students Samantha Schaffner (BSCI, Patel Lab), Taiye Winful (ANTHRO, Benn Torres Lab), and Katie McCormack (ANTHRO, Benn Torres Lab) have all been awarded funding, along with new professor in EES, Lin Meng who will be working with BSCI professor Carl Johnson.

This year’s lone faculty application, led by assistant professor Meng collaborating with Johnson, will focus on the effects of artificial light at night (ALAN). Meng studies ALAN and Johnson studies the molecular mechanisms of timekeeping. The pair will compare the effects of ALAN on two plant species with different life-history traits. The first, Arabidopsis thaliana, is a long-day plant, meaning it needs less nighttime to induce flowering whereas the second, Schlumbergera is a short-day plant and will not flower with less than 12 hours of night. They will use multiple ALAN treatments to tease apart effects of ALAN on each species.

Excitingly, Evolutionary Studies will be funding two pilot projects in the anthropology department this year. The first, led by graduate student Taiye Winful, will study the effects of chronic stress on physiological conditions in a Nigerian population. Many studies investigate how genetics can control the levels of stress hormones in the body, Winful’s will be one of few that incorporates the impact of environmental factors. Winful’s dissertation has thus far focused on data available through Bio-VU and other sources; this grant will allow collection of data at Lagos State University Teaching Hospital in Nigeria. According to Winful, “this approach further contextualizes how genetic and social factors influence health outcomes.” This project will be in collaboration with senior lecturer Modupe Sorunke of Lagos State University.

McCormack will lead the second project from the anthropology department. McCormack’s research will focus on calcified dental plaque from individuals that lived in the years 600-1200 from Santa Rita Corozal in Belize. McCormack is specifically interested in the microbiome associated with the human mouth. According to McCormack, “analysis of this sample of individuals will also inform future exploration into the disease ecology of Classic and Postclassic Mayan populations in Belize.” McCormack will collaborate with Assistant Professor Rick Smith at George Mason University.

For the second straight year, a graduate student in the Patel Lab will receive funding to research Caenorhabditis elegans evolutionary biology. Schaffner’s project looks at the genetic abnormalities associated with a protein required for meiosis in C. elegans. The abnormality in this case is that a specific gene necessary for meiosis in C. elegans is missing in related species. Schaffner hypothesizes that this gene is present not as something generally required, but something required to negate the presence of an additional, deleterious gene.

According to Evolutionary Studies director, Antonis Rokas, “we are beyond excited to see the outcomes from these diverse projects from these three departments. The funded projects showcase the amazing talent within our group and collaborative nature of evolutionary studies at Vanderbilt.”