Graduate Student Spotlight
A high school dropout from landlocked Idaho, I am perhaps one of the more improbable candidates to be working on a PhD in marine biology. Yet, here I am in an office on Onyx Bridge, in the lab with the jellyfish blazoned on the door.
I grew up on the Sagebrush Ocean of southern Idaho, 500 miles from the Pacific. Despite this, or because of it, I have always had a fondness for the sea. In college, my passions were split between science and poetry, and eventually I pursued a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies, which allowed me to pursue a bit of each.
Upon graduating, I was accepted into the master’s program in environmental studies at the UO. The summer before beginning the program, I read Oceana, a book by ocean activist Ted Danson, in which he writes, “Experts say we’re within a century—possibly even less—of inhabiting a world where the only viable seafood left in the oceans will be jellyfish.” This quote—hyperbole, I later learned—haunted me. Upon arriving in Eugene, I was determined to research jellyfish. (Although, at the time, I could have told you more about jellybeans than jellyfish: fruit-flavored, kidney-shaped, Ronald Reagan’s favorite). In the most fortunate coincidence of my career, just as I began graduate school, the university hired a new professor, Kelly Sutherland, who specialized in gelatinous zooplankton. Equally fortuitous, she agreed to serve as my advisor. With her guidance, I gained a deep appreciation—even admiration—for the resilience and simplicity of jellies. These organisms endlessly awe me, pulsing persistently, brainlessly, since the Precambrian.
My doctoral work has shifted from “true jellyfish” (phylum Cnidaria, class Scyphozoa) to another gelatinous organism: appendicularians (phylum Chordata, class Appendicularia). Appendicularians are unique in their ability to feed on particles 10,000 times smaller than themselves— down to bacteria. This is unusual; most predator-prey ratios are around ten-to-one. As a consequence, appendicularians are an important link between bacteria and higher trophic levels. I currently research how appendicularians feed. Our research seeks to answer, essentially, whether there are mechanisms that allow these organisms to be “picky eaters,” and if so, to elucidate how this selection process occurs at the feeding-filter level. Selective feeding can have profound ecological impacts on the size and composition of the marine prey field.
Thus far, my work with gelatinous zooplankton has taken me to Japan, France, and, most recently, Israel. But most days you can still find me in the corner office on the fourth floor of Onyx Bridge, feeling fortunate to be a member of the lab with the jellyfish blazoned on the door.
Conley is a doctoral candidate in Kelly Sutherland’s lab through the Oregon Institute o f Marine Biology.
Not everyone has a moment when they know what they want to pursue. I was lucky and had two.
The first occurred as a senior in high school when my biology class went to a conference on the biology of aging. I listened to people talk about the questions with unknown answers, and how they were discovering solutions. Like a freshly unearthed gem or fossil, each discovery was unknown to anyone before. Suddenly, being a research scientist was not a career restricted to movies or novels. It was an actual option, and I wanted it.
The second moment occurred as I took a developmental biology class at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, SD. During this course, I learned that the same core gene networks are expressed as an embryo develops, whether it is a human, a chicken, or a zebrafish. Diverse species differ less in the tools they use (i.e. genes) than they differ in what they build with those tools. For one lab project, we observed zebrafish embryos as they developed. As I followed this incredible process, I watched as the same gene networks that drove my own development were used to form something vastly different. At that point, I already knew I wanted to do research, but in that moment, I knew what I wanted to research—the evolution of gene expression.
When I applied to graduate programs, one of my instructors remembered how enthralled I was with zebrafish in my developmental biology class. She suggested that I apply to Oregon, where zebrafish got its start as a model organism. A few months later, I was visiting the University of Oregon as a prospective graduate student. I loved the collaborative nature of the program and the unbridled curiosity that was evident. As I left, I knew I wanted to come back.
In my first year at Oregon, I met students who became my friends and colleagues. I survived classes and quarterly exams. I did research rotations studying evolution, development and even a little neuroscience. I had rewarding experiences as a graduate teaching fellow. I even managed to have some fun through it all. At the end of my first year, I joined John Postlethwait’s lab, where I now study the evolution of gene expression in zebrafish and related species.
The highlight of my time in graduate school, however, did not involve studying these small tropical species, but studying distantly related fish at Palmer Station in Antarctica. During my time in Antarctica, I sailed on a research vessel where I hauled in fish from the trawl and did in vitro fertilizations as we sailed back to the station. And I only got sick a couple times on the constantly churning seas. Back on land at the station, I set up embryo incubators with near-freezing water, helped exchange survival caches on the surrounding islands, and even got to see the first embryos of the season on the day before I headed back to Oregon.
So what’s next for me after I finish my degree? I loved my experiences as a teaching assistant during college, as a graduate teaching fellow in graduate school, and as a mentor to students working on their honors theses. It is so fulfilling when you see that moment when someone just “gets it.” But after experiencing research, even the fulfillment of teaching may not be enough to pull me away. There is just too much out there to learn and too many discoveries still buried and just waiting to be unearthed. (2014)
I am not what you would you would call a traditional student. Unlike most students at the University of Oregon, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy after high school. While serving as a hospital corpsman treating sick and injured Marines, I found myself increasingly interested in human physiology and psychology. I was especially interested in human cognition and a question burned in my brain: How does a three-pound fatty blob of cells in our head drive our life and experiences? Five years later I received an honorable discharge and I used my GI Bill to obtain a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in biology at UC Santa Cruz.
During my undergraduate studies I became hooked on the idea that all of our cognitions are based on physical neuronal systems. After graduation, I was accepted into the UO Summer Program for Undergraduate Research (SPUR). I worked in Dr. Paul Dassonville’s visual cognition lab studying human susceptibility to visual illusions. While in the program I met many students from around the world. We bonded over our strong interests in science, technology, and Oregon’s beautiful outdoor recreation. It still remains my favorite summer of all time. As a SPUR scholar, the collaborative atmosphere fostered by brilliant scientists impressed me. In particular, I was drawn to the research of Mike Wehr and his mechanistic stance that neurons drive our thoughts and behavior.
The following year, I was accepted into the biology PhD program and I soon joined Wehr’s lab. How neural circuits function in the cortex has remained an elusive problem in systems neuroscience. While the cortex is primarily comprised of excitatory neurons, approximately 20 percent are inhibitory neurons and their role is poorly understood.
Scientists have long known that a sound wave originating from the right side of the body will move the right ear drum more than the left one. These eardrum movements are converted into an electrical signal and then compared in your brain. This way you can know where a sound is coming from even if you can’t see it. My work has revealed a novel role of these inhibitory cells in the processing of sound location cues in the auditory cortex. I demonstrated that in this sound localization circuit, while inhibition has little to no role in processing sounds originating from the side of the head, it plays a strong role in the processing of sounds that originate from in front of the head.
In addition to my research I have also had the opportunity to mentor undergraduates and teach lab sections. Throughout my education I have had the fortune of gifted mentors who got me excited about science and supported my goals. It is my hope to pay this forward, sharing my passion for science with young minds and being the best mentor and teacher that I can be. Soon I will graduate and move on to a post-doc or two. I will miss hiking Oregon’s trails, tide pooling on the coast, and yelling, “OOO!” at Autzen stadium. In the future, I’d like to have my own lab and utilize the recent advent of new genetic techniques that allow researchers to turn neurons on and off with lasers in living animals. With this technique and the collaboration of colleagues, I hope to continue to investigate the role of inhibition in cortical circuits and figure out exactly how our neurons work together and make us who we are. (2013)
I have always been fascinated with the natural world. A native Oregonian, I grew up gazing into tide pools at the coast, hunting for rough-skinned newts in the Cascades, and fishing in the countless rivers and lakes all over the state. These early interests spurred me to pursue a career as a biologist.
I’m what you would consider a nontraditional student, not only because I’m older, with two teenage children, but also because I have taken a roundabout path to get to my current position. I first attended the University of Oregon in the fall of 1989, but made my way through different universities on a path that culminated in an associate of arts degree from Chemeketa Community College. I spent the next ten years running my own construction business.
I returned to the UO in the fall of 2001. The research being done at the university with zebrafish and threespine stickleback piqued my interest and I found myself totally engrossed in BI 355, Vertebrate Evolution and Development, taught by Chuck Kimmel. This course introduced me to the world of “evo-devo.” To understand how an organism develops and how evolution tinkers with development to give us, as Darwin so eloquently put it, “endless forms most beautiful” is truly amazing. I immediately volunteered in Kimmel’s lab.
After receiving a bachelor’s in science, I took a job as a lab technician managing stickleback aquaculture. I saw firsthand how research proceeds and was given the opportunity to contribute in many different investigations. As a research technician, I took advantage of the years of accumulated zebrafish husbandry knowledge that developed at the UO and helped create resources and protocols for stickleback husbandry that are now used by researchers around the world. I also contributed to several stickleback research projects, including studies in population genomics and opercle (bone) evo-devo, some of which included collaborations with the Postlethwait and Kimmel labs. This work led to my being an author on several papers, which I found very gratifying, and it encouraged me to further my career as an independent research biologist.
Today, I am a master’s student designing a project to investigate the phenotypic and genetic distribution of threespine stickleback in the Willamette Basin. Very little is known about the distribution of Oregon stickleback populations and nothing is known about the populations in the Willamette basin, which has a deep and rich geologic and anthropogenic history. To pursue my research, I am collecting stickleback from sites throughout the basin at a variety of spatial scales, and documenting specific traits important for adaptation. Taking advantage of new DNA sequencing technologies, I intend to obtain a genome-wide view of patterns of divergence across these populations, and ultimately to associate unique genomic differences with adaptations to local conditions. When my project is complete, it will be the first such detailed phenotypic and genetic study of threespine stickleback in Oregon, and one of the first such genome-scale projects of any organism.
I’m indebted to the mentorship and the remarkable collaborative research environment that I’ve encountered and for the support of my family. It’s an exciting time to be a biologist and I’m delighted and thankful to have the opportunity to contribute to expanding our understanding of the genetics (2012)