I am an evolutionary biologist and parasitologist broadly interested in understanding the fundamentals of parasite diversification.
I graduated with a B.A. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2008. There, I was exposed to the complex world of parasites and became fascinated with host specialization and parasite manipulation. Specifically, I wanted to know how parasites evolve to exploit the ecology and life history of their hosts.
Since coming to the Clayton-Bush lab at University of Utah I have focused on developing an innovative system for tracking parasite adaptations to novel hosts in real time. Unlike many other host-parasite systems, we are able to start with a single parasite lineage and track both the phenotypic and genotypic changes that underlie adaptation and diversification in divergent ecological environments. Ultimately, I am interested in the origin and types of changes that underlie the evolution of reproductive isolation. I hope that by understanding how selective forces influence parasite microevolution, we can begin to appreciate the processes that have allowed parasites to become so incredibly successful and diverse.
My research focuses on a well-studied parasitic feather louse, Columbicola columbae. This species primary infests rock pigeons (Columba livia), but has also been found on other species of pigeons and doves. C columbae completes all stages of its life cycle, including reproduction, on the body of its host. Thus, mating is more likely to happen between lice on the same host species than between lice on different host species. This degree of inherent isolation may facilitate adaptive differentiation by reducing gene flow between populations occupying different host individuals or species. In this way, the pigeon-louse system mimics island systems, making it an ideal model for studying adaptive evolution and ecologically driven speciation.
Experimental evolution of parasite body size
Like many other parasites, the size of lice is positively correlated with the size of their host. I am interested in experimentally recreating this host-parasite relationship across a range of host sizes to understand how lice evolve to exploit different sized hosts. Fortunately, domesticated rock pigeons have been artificially selected for dozens of extreme phenotypic characteristics, including body size. By using different sized breeds of C. columbae’s native host, I am able to manipulate host size to examine the impact on parasite phenotype.
I may be the only person in the world interested in louse sex. My recent research has suggested that louse body size plays an important role in reproductive compatibility among conspecific populations of C. columbae. This has led me to explore the mechanics and sexual preferences involved in louse reproduction to ask how reproduction might be affected by the evolution of differences in body size in response to selection imposed by different sized hosts. The evolutionary mechanisms explored in my research lie at the heart of ecological speciation and an ultimate goal of my work is to understand how reproductive isolation could evolve via divergent natural selection.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF RESEARCH
My time spent in Colorado and Utah has solidified my love for the mountains. I generally enjoy hiking, camping and being outdoors. I jump at every opportunity I get to travel. Although, now wherever I go in the world, I can’t help but notice the local pigeons…