The means of population genetics, phylogeography, and genome

The interconnectivity of genetics first piqued my curiosity in a most
unusual college course: Marine Vertebrate Zoology. Taught by Dr. Toby
Daly-Engel, an evolutionary biologist that utilizes genetic techniques to study
shark ecology, she emphasized the phylogenetic relationships found in
ichthyology. A handout, the “Tree of Extant Fishes,” was to be memorized. While
it may still haunt my test-taking nightmares, I have found it be an invaluable
resource that sits pinned to my wall. There may be numerous branches, but they
all unite by the common ancestor. The handout helped me understand how the many
genera present today related to one another genetically and divergence
physically from the common ancestor based on habitat. I’ve been exposed to
phylogenetic relationships of fish, but I want to delve deeper, learning the
relationships of other taxa by means of population genetics, phylogeography,
and genome sequencing. My goal is to combine these specializations to study the
effects of fragmentation on genetic diversity. Particularly, I am attracted to
the phylogeny of echinoderms, cephalopods, and elasmobranchs, but I’m open to
other taxa.

Despite my
interest, I have limited experience in the world of molecular phylogenetics. I
briefly worked in Dr. Daly-Engel’s laboratory. We analyzed Gulf hagfish
(Myxinidae) DNA by methods of DNA extraction and polymerase chain reactions. I
had previously performed similar analyses in my Genetics course, but with Dr.
Daly-Engel, it focused on marine life rather than biomedical practices. The
data was processed with the intention of investigating the phylogeography and
systematics of the hagfishes. Other research I’ve been involved with reaches
back to the summer of 2008 when, as an intern at the University of West
Florida, I enrolled in a non-degree seeking course called Molecular Analysis.
Essentially, I was a research technician in that I made agarose gels and
performed both DNA extractions and polymerase chain reactions. I even was able
to participate in a four-day expedition aboard the Research Vessel Weatherbird
where we collected water column and sediment samples. I later used a
spectrometer for analysis of chlorophylls a and b. The following summer, I met Dr.
Jane M. Caffrey, an estuarine and coastal ecologist. In collaboration with the
Northwest District Department of Environmental Protection, we collected
seagrass samples from both natural and restored beds in the Pensacola, FL area,
then returned to the laboratory to isolate the epiphytes from the surface of
the blades, scraping them off with a razor blade. In subsequent years, I
continued to volunteer to collect these samples. In 2013, I conducted an
independent study using this data, examining seasonal patterns in overlying
water nutrients and chlorophyll a extracted from the epiphytes. I presented
these findings at the 22nd Biennial Conference of the Coastal and Estuarine
Research Federation (CERF) Poster Session in San Diego.

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While my chosen
field is marine biology, exposure to my preferred subfields of genetics and evolutionary
biology is insufficient for my career goals. I hope this program will provide
the opportunity to hone my abilities as a scientist and delve into research
that more aligns with my interests. I know the mentorship will offer a
substantial advantage in my future endeavors when I pursue further education,
as Harvard is such a prestigious institution with some of the best minds in
their respective fields.

I want to continue
my education by first entering a Master’s program in Genetics, then pursuing a
Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology with a specialization in phylogeny. The degrees
would enable me to establish a career in research, integrating phylogenetics,
phylogeography, and population genetics by investigating the potential
relationships or dissociation between marine species. Receiving a Ph.D. in this
field is crucial for my goal of teaching marine biology in an institution of
higher education. I understand that there is potential to teach with a
Master’s, I would like to be part of the research team at a top-tier
university.