Meet the 2014 BEACON Distinguished Postdocs, Chandra Jack and Will Soto

This year, BEACON was fortunate to be able to appoint TWO new Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellows. Meet Chandra Jack and Will Soto!

Chandra Jack

ChandraChandra started working in the Strassmann-Queller lab at Rice University as an undergraduate in the summer after her sophomore year to earn money while volunteering as a member of the Rice EMS. That summer she began research looking at kin discrimination between different genotypes of Dictyostelium purpureum. Originally planning to go to medical school, Joan got her hooked on all things dicty, so she spent a year after graduating as a technician before beginning graduate work in the same lab. She received her PhD in evolutionary biology where her thesis work explored how the population structure of D. discoideum is affected by interactions with related species and with other members of the same species.

Now at MSU, Chandra joined the Friesen’s lab in the plant biology department in August. She was really interested in Maren’s research exploring the mutualism between plants and rhizobia, as well as the many methods being used in the lab. However, she isn’t sure if Maren would have accepted her if she knew her plant reputation included losing one cactus and killing another.

(Currently all of her plants are alive and accounted for.)

Her research will address the role of PMI (Plant-Microbe-Insect) interactions in driving rapid evolution using Medicago polymorpha. She will compare the response of different genotypes of M. polymorpha from its native habitat in Europe to those of invasive genotypes found in North America when they interact with local (N. American) herbivores and rhizobacteria from both environments to look for evidence of genetic variation and to see if genetic variation between the two genotypes results in changes in gene expression. She will also create models that investigate the role of PMI interactions on the relationship between gene expression and plant fitness. Chandra’s work will determine the importance of multitrophic level interactions on rapid evolution and the success of invasive species as they enter new territories.

For more information about Chandra’s work, you can contact her at chandra dot jack at gmail dot com.

Will Soto

Will Soto

Will received his B.S. in biology from California State University, Fresno. Will developed an enthusiasm in microbiology in high school biology classes but became fascinated with evolution as a subject while at CSU, Fresno. Learning about the geological history of the fossil record and the rich biological diversity that evolved through adaptive radiations was exciting to Will. Evolution’s great stories like the “Age of Fishes,” “hopeful monsters,” the Cambrian Explosion, and mass extinctions were intriguing to Will. Additionally, learning about evolution made Will wonder why there were no freshwater echinoderms or freshwater cephalopods, given the tremendous biodiversity of these taxonomic groups. “Evolution has a great folklore and causes one to wonder about the rest of the natural world,” says Will. Will’s interests in microbiology and evolution merged into one. Will was especially interested in prokaryotes due to their colossal genetic and metabolic diversity.

After graduation from CSU, Fresno, Will spent two years in Fred Cohan’s lab at Wesleyan University, where he studied bacterial evolution. “It was in Fred Cohan’s lab that I learned about microbial experimental evolution and developed an interest for the work of Rich Lenski, Al Bennett, and Mike Travisano,” says Will. “When I read the Nature paper by Rainey and Travisano (1998) about adaptive radiation with Pseudomonas fluorescens, I was completely thrilled,” states Will. “Wrinkly spreaders and fuzzy spreaders; here’s another cool story,” he adds. After leaving Wesleyan University, Will entered a PhD program at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces in Michele Nishiguchi’s lab, where he studied the sepiolid squid-Vibrio mutualism. Will pursued a microbial experimental evolution project, where he serially passaged Vibrio fischeri through a novel squid host. “I took a V. fischeri strain indigenous to the Hawaiian bobtail squid (Euprymna scolopes) and serially transferred it through the Australian dumpling squid (Euprymna tasmanica),” claims Will. “I had a great PhD advisor who allowed me complete freedom. I also had a fantastic graduate committee,” says Will. Kathy Hanley, Geof Smith, John Gustafson, and Michele Nishiguchi were all on Will’s dissertation committee. Kathy Hanley is a superb evolutionary biologist, while Geof Smith and John Gustafson (now at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater) are spectacular microbiologists. Michele Nishiguchi provided the expertise on host-microbe interactions, along with the sepiolid squids and bioluminescent V. fischeri.

In 2012, Will became a postdoctoral teaching fellow funded through a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He had two excellent postdoc advisors, Mike Travisano and Robin Wright. “I was delighted to be in Mike Travisano’s lab, as he was one of my grad school heroes!” says Will. In Mike’s lab, Will learned the tricks of the trade to microbial experimental evolution. Robin Wright mentored Will in the value of active learning, science education, and how to incorporate research into undergraduate education. “At the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, I got to teach in an active learning classroom for the first time alongside Robin Wright. The experience was invaluable!” claims Will. 

Here at Michigan State University, as BEACON postdoc fellow, Will is working with Chris Waters on developing host infection models between disease-causing marine bacteria (e.g., Vibrio harveyi) and invertebrate hosts (e.g., shrimp) for microbial experimental evolution projects. “Chris and I are trying to take microbial experimental evolution with vibrios to aquaculture,” states Will. Will concludes, “I don’t understand why more microbial experimental evolution work hasn’t been done with the Vibrionaceae. This bacterial family has much to offer in studying evolutionary biology.”

For more information about Will’s work, you can contact him at wsoto at msu dot edu.

Previous recipients of the BEACON Postdoctoral Fellowship are Annat Haber (2013) and Joshua Nahum (2012).

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