I am a first-generation scientist, and thus initially lacked insight into what would become my biological interest and research focus. However, my interest stems from a love of nature, life, and evolution. My first research endeavor was to assess population drift in freshwater mussels that were collected from many different regional sources. While the research did not result in publication, the experience in Dr Jeff Thornsberry’s lab at Northwest Missouri State University convinced me to pursue a career in biological research.
As a graduate student I worked on engineered chromosomes at the University of Missouri with Dr. James Birchler. This project entailed investigating the inheritance of various small engineered chromosomes, derived from a supernumerary B chromosome in the maize genome. I used the natural mechanisms of B chromosome inheritance to accumulate different sizes of transgenic and non-transgenic minichromosomes in successive generations. After accumulating multiple minichromosomes, I examined chromosome pairing and segregation, vector expression, and characterized a fortuitously discovered a heritable endoreduplicating chromosome. While I was able to publish some of this work, my exposure to a great many cytological phenomena associated with repetitive DNA inspired my future pursuits to understand centromere evolution.
In my first postdoctoral fellowship, I worked with Jonathan Wendel to identify and characterize centromeres in allopolyploid and diploid cotton species using both microscopy and bioinformatics. I created a ChIP-seq technique using an antibody to the centromeric histone in cotton, developed cytological methods and fluorescent probes for creating a cytological karyotype of cotton, and invented bioinformatics scripts to distill the centromeric sequences of multiple diploid and allopolyploid cotton species. Due to the repetitive nature and size of cotton genomes, only the smallest diploid cotton genome could be reliably assessed. However, by collaborating with a previous mentor, Kai Wang, we characterized the Gossypium raimondii centromeric retrotransposons and inferred their subsequent expansion and contraction in allopolyploids.
My second postdoc entailed characterizing the genome of the species that poses the greatest threat to soybean yield, the soybean cyst nematode (Heterodera glycines). This project involved annotating the H. glycines genome and disseminating this information by creating a genomics web portal, scnbase.org. I investigated the mechanisms of copy number variation in the genome, as a means to identify parasitic genes of relevance to breeding SCN resistance in soybean. The analysis was a collaborative effort of many labs, particularly in the Genome Informatics Facility with Andrew Severin and Thomas Baum’s lab at ISU. My experience with this project greatly expanded my bioinformatics capabilities and my grasp of scientific collaboration.
Currently, I am an associate scientist in the Genome Informatics Facility at Iowa State University, working with a group of amazing people. Here, I work on a multitude of projects, including a continuation of my previous research. Some of these projects involve: characterizing the genomes of endangered abalone species, assessing the cellular roles of small RNAs in nematodes, creating user-friendly bioinformatics tutorials, assessing transposition in irradiated maize, trans-splicing in nematodes, etc. With the huge variation of collaborative projects that come into the Genome Informatics Facility, the constant influx of novel ideas creates an environment conducive to my development as a contributing member of the scientific community.