New Kids on the Blog: Katie E. Grogan & R. Shawn Abrahams

 Name: Katie E. Grogan

Current Position, Institution, & Department: Postdoctoral fellow in the Departments of Anthropology & Biology at Pennsylvania State University

Contact information (if you want people to be able to reach you):

What is your elevator pitch? AKA what do you do/study?

My research uses human and non-human primates to ask how genetic and epigenetic variation impacts inter-individual differences in fitness across environmental conditions. With the effects of human-induced climate change becoming more pronounced, understanding the interplay of the environment, evolutionary genomics, and individual fitness is critical to our ability to conserve biodiversity and understand humanity’s ability to adapt to climate change.

What is your background & When/how did you know you wanted to get into the world of scientific research?

I decided I wanted to study animals at the age of 8 after giving up on being an Olympic figure skater. I grew up in Kentucky surrounded by animals of all kinds (e.g., dogs, lizards, turtles, snakes, birds, fish, etc), watching tv shows about elephants and wolves on the Discovery Channel, and they fascinated me. As I got older, I focused more on becoming a scientist who studied animals. During my undergraduate studies at Vanderbilt, I started doing research in a molecular ecology lab and fell in love with genetics. Since then, I’ve been refining the questions I’m interested in and adding humans to the list of organisms I’ve studied. That list now includes aphids, marmots, howler monkeys, ring-tailed lemurs, white-throated sparrows, and humans!

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

I once walked around Toliara, Madagascar with a stranger’s poop on the back of my pant calf for 24 hours without realizing it. I had to fly to South Africa with it still on my pants. 

What do you do when you’re not working?

Walk or run with my dog. Read voraciously. Hike. Be with friends. Watch Kentucky basketball with my dad. Drink cider or cocktails. 

What are your hopes for 2020?

Get a faculty job & a second dog. Submit my ‘leftover’ papers from my PhD and first postdoc (N=3) and run >350 miles. 

Image may contain: R Shawn Abrahams, smiling

 Name: R. Shawn Abrahams (They/Them)

Current Position, Institution, & Department: PhD Candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

Contact information (if you want people to be able to reach you):

What is your elevator pitch? AKA what do you do/study?

I study the the evolution of plant metabolism. My dissertation research focuses on the specialized metabolites called glucosinolates (Mustard oils) and how they have become such a diverse and complex group of defense metabolites. To that end, I utilize insights from comparative genomics, phylogenomics, and plant-insect interactions. Did I mention polyploidy? That’s in there too.

What is something that fascinates you from another field?

Physics and astrophysics have recently caught my interest. Specifically when it comes to time, relativity, quantum theory, and how that relates to biology. For example there is a great interview with the physicist Carlo Rovelli on one of my favorite podcasts “On Being”, where he describes everything in existence as interactions, or “happenings”, at different time scales as opposed to static things. Both a dirt clog and a stone of the same size are collections of sediment and rock, but one will be gone in a day and the other may last hundreds of years. A kiss is a happening made up of all of the same things the individuals kissing are, but it only last for a moment. Whereas the happening of a person, that is to say the cells and molecules that make up an individual, can go on for a lifetime. Physics is a broad field, but understanding it can change how we perceive our world.

Top 3 favorite organisms?

Not counting any humans: 1) My cat Zsa Zsa (Below, she’ a feisty Cornish Rex) 2) The Zilla macroptera that I planted my first year of grad school and that finally flowered after 4 years of growth. 3) The Putranjiva roxburghii that sat in the back of our greenhouse for those same 4 years until I only recently realized it was there! It represents a convergent evolution of mustard oils outside of the Brassicaceae (Mustard family). Basically, it is a tree where the leaves taste like radishes. 

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When/how did you know you wanted to get into the world of science research? 

As a kid I loved plants, they surprised me. Specifically, while watching the Private Life of Plants with David Attenborough, there is a time lapse scene of a bramble crawling across the forest floor. I knew plants were alive as a fact, but I hadn’t internalized it until that moment. I was hooked. I had heard the word botanist somewhere and decided that would be my career. At the same time other kids my age wanted to be sensible things like astronauts so my parents were a little confused. They suggested I become a doctor and have a garden instead, little did they know I could be both! It wasn’t until high school where I was entered into a magnet program for environmental science and Everglades restoration, that I really started to take the idea of scientific research seriously. One of my teachers had her masters in plant biology and mentored me. I was our student herbarium curator for the school’s Everglades flora collection and I participated in several science projects associated with Fairchild Tropical gardens, in Miami Fl. It’s hard to believe that I would be doing what I’m doing today without that experience.  

What was the biggest obstacle that you had to overcome?

My first fall semester of graduate school was particularly rough. It had all of the normal characters you might expect: imposter syndrome, anxiety, loneliness. But that semester my campus had also made national news for protests headed by black students of the “Concerned Students 1950” organization and the Mizzou football team. Racist acts on campuses in the US are common enough that I had experienced my fair share by then, either directly or indirectly.  This was different. A lack of sufficient action on the part of the administration to racially charged events (A swastika displayed on a campus dorm, harassment of the campus’s first black student body president) led to wide spread protests. The events on campus became tangled up in emotions from the then recent murder of Michael Brown, the unarmed teenager shot by police not two hours away in a neighborhood that was similar if not the same as many undergraduate students attending the University. 

As these kinds of things are, it wasn’t neat. Some members of the campus were in open support of the protests demanding action, others actively upset. I remember one graduate student going on a rant about how the protests were damaging their degree and that the students should be forced to stop. The worst of it, for me, came with a shooting threat posted to social media, saying that they would “shoot every black person [they saw]”. It was easy to not show up on campus that day, but there was at least one professor who refused to cancel their exam suggesting that students should stand up to the “bullies” that made the shooting threat. Even just recalling it all now feels like a fever dream. It probably says a lot that I haven’t mentioned yet the university administration abruptly canceling graduate student health insurance at the start of that semester, days before renewal. They used a change in IRS federal policy to justify the action, but have since reevaluated with protest pressure and a lawsuit by the graduate student union. 

My friends and family worried for me, and I worried that I had made the wrong decision going to graduate school. What good would my study of evolution be for people around me suffering? If I was smart and capable surely I should be doing something more than indulging my interests in the mysteries of life. I don’t think I so much overcame that semester as much as survived it. In the end, I decided to stay the course. I decided I needed to be here, in science, particularly for times like those, for students who would have to go through what I had to go through.

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