I do conservation genetics, so genetics of endangered and threatened species or species of conservation concern. I work on a variety of different fish and wildlife species: amphibians, fish, mammals, birds. Mainly using and gathering genetic data that can help managers conserve and manage these species. Probably the most interesting thing is with the candy darter. It’s a fish and it’s native to West Virginia - it’s pretty much only found here and a part of Virginia. It was recently listed under the Endangered Species Act as endangered. Part of the reason for that was due to the research conducted in our laboratory. So we found that it was rapidly hybridizing with an introduced non-native species. We were able to use genetic data to track how quickly the hybridization was occurring and how rapidly it was spreading throughout the candy darter’s range. That was one of the primary reasons that the species was listed as endangered. It was pretty much going to go extinct if that hybridization continued. And if it weren't for the genetic data that our lab generated to be able to track that hybridization spread, then it would probably be extinct already.
If you weren’t working at WVU, what’s the most likely alternative?
I would love to be an actress - a movie star on the big screen! But that probably wouldn’t be likely, even though that would be my dream. I’d probably be working for a conservation non-profit. I’d like incorporating the scientific data in a nonprofit setting to help conserve species while at the same time taking into account human needs and interests.
Moment you knew what you wanted to study?
As a kid and in high school, I always had an interest in conservation. I grew up up outside of Baltimore in a more urban setting; I did not grow up fishing, hunting or camping. It wasn’t until I went to college that I went camping for the first time.
I never thought when I was in college that I would do genetics. If someone told me that I would be doing genetics, I probably would have told them they were crazy - because I just associated it with fruit flies. Not something I was interested in.
After I got my master's in forensics, I saw that genetics could actually be a tool to answer some really cool questions. And then I thought - when forensics got kind of depressing - if I use this tool that I’ve learned, this genetic tool, to go back to my primary passion of conservation. That’s when I discovered the field of conservation genetics.
Moment you knew what your current role was right for you?
It was probably when I started teaching the classes that I’m teaching now. I’m teaching a conservation ecology class and conservation genetics. I want to inspire that next generation and get them excited about conservation.
Introducing them to how genetics can be used and then getting them involved in my research and how my research can be applied to these conservation issues, that’s probably when I realized that this is the right role for me. I’m so excited about those topics, and I get super excited when a student comes up to me and says, “I didn’t even know about genetics! I didn’t know it could be used in all these different ways!”
Favorite part of social distancing?
I always suspected I was an introvert. I’m very content working from home. I’m with my kids and with my family a lot more. We’re getting outside a lot more. I actually like Zoom! So I’ve liked it; it’s gone well for me. I’m suited to quarantine life. It’d be even better if I were in that apartment in Rome.
Least favorite part of social distancing?
Missing out on the daily interactions with colleagues and students. Just having people swing by your office or talking to the people in the office next door. Those kind of casual interactions.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?I think I would live in Rome. So we went to Italy last summer and there was a place where they had these apartments above this old ancient Roman theater. You could live in the apartments above it; they were built into the theater. I really like how Rome has that intersection between really old history and the modern stuff right there. I like the food, the laid back atmosphere and the walkability of it.
Just for Fun
Favorite book: A Thousand Splendid Suns
Favorite movie/tv show: Schitt’s Creek
Favorite Spotify playlist/band/song: Flogging Molly
Favorite local restaurant: Iron Horse Tavern
Favorite local activity: Geocaching