This weeks PhDetails is with Maggie Lazzeroni. Maggie was raised in Sussex County, NJ and is now a Brooklynite, doing her PhD at the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History. Her research is inspired by a natural curiosity in the invisible details that make organisms function the way they do. This curiosity led Maggie to transfer to a biology major during her undergrad, through her masters at Columbia University, and now to her PhD. Maggie’s current research is focused on understanding how substitutions in the genome, which have accumulated over evolutionary time, has influenced the evolution of live-birth and egg-laying in pit vipers—an awesome group of highly venomous snakes. She hopes this work will provide scientists with a foundation for studying the genomic underpinnings of reproductive modes in other snakes and lizard groups, and it will help us understand the precise mechanisms that underpin processes involved with egg-laying and live-birth.
What is your favourite band/musical artist pre 1980?
I probably listen to Queen the most but I also have a soft spot for Bruce Springsteen, The Who and Neil Young because I grew up with my Dad listening to them. Taking it back a bit further, I love Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
Favourite band/musical artist post 1980?
My not so guilty pleasures are artists that sing dramatic ballads like Whitney Houston and Shania Twain. But on a daily basis I listen to Bishop Briggs, Rilo Kiley, Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, Ingrid Michaelson—just a lot of ladies I guess! My favorite artist is Brandi Carlile. Her voice is magic.
I don’t have a favorite film to be honest. I like documentaries, dramas and Indie movies though. Recently I watched Suicide Kale, which is a film written by Brittany Nichols. It represents queer women just being people. You know, it doesn’t center around a dramatic coming-out story or some type of trauma. Finding movies like this always makes me really happy.
Where do you study and who is/are your supervisors?
I work at the American Museum of Natural History through the Richard Gilder Graduate School (RGGS). I work in the Herpetology Department, supervised by Frank Burbrink and Cheryl Hayashi.
What year of your PhD are you in?
I’m starting my second year
Who’s giving you the money – and for how long?
I’m funded through a fellowship as part of RGGS for four years.
Do you have any publications – if so where?
I published an article with Julio Angel Soto-Centeno and Nancy Simmons in American Museum Novitates in 2015. I also just got an article accepted to Ecology and Evolution with my co-authors Frank Burbrink and Nancy Simmons.
Did you do a masters - was it about?
Yes. I did my masters at Columbia University in the Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology Department. My research was on the evolution of thermoregulatory regimes in bats. After my undergraduate internship, I was fascinated with how bats regulate their temperature because I had worked with a group of bats that required extremely hot and humid caves to roost. From this I learned that different species of bats regulated their temperature differently. Some maintain a relatively constant body temperature, just like humans. This regime is called homeothermy. Then, others enter short bouts of torpor, a state of decreased energy and metabolism, lasting less then 24 hours. This is called daily torpor, or daily heterothermy. Then, others hibernate which is a state of torpor lasting more than 24 hours. I wanted to know how these regimes evolved. So I explored the relationship of thermoregulatory regimes and the evolution of a protein, leptin, which has been associated with the evolution of heterothermy. In my research, I found that leptin actually isn’t directly involved. Moreover, after doing an ancestral state reconstruction, I found out that the earliest bats likely used daily heterothermy. I was excited about this finding because earlier research predicted that the earliest bats were homeothermic.
Do you do fieldwork?
Unfortunately, I have yet to do field work. I get most of my data from preserved tissues in collections around the country. I’m hoping to do a project during my PhD though that’ll bring me to the field.
How many PhDs did you apply for – what were you looking for?
1st round—three. During this application process I was looking for a program where I could study the evolutionary genomics of behavior. This was difficult to find because it is a really new field and I was still trying to understand my perspective as a researcher. I ended up accepted the offer to do a Masters at Columbia so I could figure this out.
2nd round—I only applied to the Richard Gilder Graduate School because I knew I wanted to do a project on the evolutionary genomics of reproductive modes of squamates, snakes and lizards. My advisor, Frank Burbrink, had written a paper about how reproductive modes evolved in squamates. So I met with him and pitched the idea of looking at the genomic underpinnings of this. All went well and I got in! Other than research focus, I was looking for a program where students were given the freedom to do the research they wanted. Some programs have PhD students work on their advisors projects. This didn’t sound appealing to me. I also wanted to go somewhere small and with museum collections.
What is the most bodged piece of equipment you have had to use during field/labwork – did it work?
I briefly did a project about how plants regulate their temperature. For this, I used a thermal imaging camera. While the camera worked really well, I had to rig the plant I was imaging to rotate around a disk, and shoot it at several different angles. This involved some very awkward manoeuvring. I did the work in a lab where most people were at benches running PCRs and the like. But there I was, standing on top of my bench for an hour taking photos while a plant spun in circles on the floor. Needless to say, no one had any idea what I was doing.
What one piece of advice would you give to a masters student applying to PhDs now?
Write your application essays well ahead of time and ask your advisor to edit it. Having multiple eyes on your writing and research design helps immensely.
What supervisor traits are important to you?
Accepting, prioritizes their students, supportive and relatively hands off.
What do you think are the worst supervisor traits?
Controlling, dismissive, or just generally negative. Doing a PhD is hard. I’ve been lucky to work with very positive and supportive people.
How often do you meet with your supervisors?
About once a week
In one sentence what is your PhD about?
Identifying genomic variation that underpins the evolution of live-birth and egg-laying in snakes.
What has been your academic highlight of the last year?
I submitted an extract of DNA to the New York Genome Center to get a high coverage whole genome of Lachesis muta, the bushmaster snake. This is a highly venomous snake that lays eggs, despite being nested in a clade of live-bearers. This whole genome will serve as the foundation for my research. It’ll also serve as a great resource for other scientists studying reproductive modes or venomics.
Which academic idol/scientist have you met?
Although I have met many scientists that I have a lot of respect for, I don’t know if I’ve met someone that I consider an idol.
Which academic idol/scientist would you most like to meet?
When I was a teenager I read a lot of Jane Goodall’s work. This cemented her as an idol because I was so young. I would love to meet her.
Who has been your academic role model/inspiration and why?
The person who mentored me during my summer undergraduate internship, Angelo Soto-Centeno, made a big impact on me. It was through working with him that I stopped being intimidated by scientific research. He would say “don’t do it if you’re not having fun”. I keep this in mind when I’m struggling with something because it reminds me to re-focus on the parts of research that I enjoy instead of getting bogged down.
Do you have a favourite paper?
I’ve never been someone that has many favorites. Perhaps my favorites are those that inspired me to do new projects. In which case, Pyron and Burbrink 2014, and Yu et al. 2011 would be two of my favorite papers.
What has been your favourite conference so far – why?
North American Society for Bat Research. Very energetic and student friendly.
What hours do you typically work?
M-F, 10am-5pm with reading on commute.
How do you avoid procrastinating?
I write down a plan for the day before I start working and try to do something to relax after I meet each goal
What motivates you in your day to day PhD life?
I try to keep a list of reasonable longer term goals that I can keep an eye on to keep me going. My spouse and I also like to take short road trips that serve as markers in time for me and keep me motivated.
What do you do when you’re not working – how do you balance it with your PhD?
I write and sing. I originally went to school to be an opera singer, so music is a big part of my life. I also like knitting, going to parks and going to the movies.
If a genie could grant you one wish to help with your PhD what would you wish for?
To magically have whole annotated genomes for all pit vipers
What would be your dream job?
To be a professor in a liberal and rural area with my own lab and students
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Hopefully finishing a post doctorate position with an accepted position as a professor somewhere
One word to sum up your future in academia: curiosity.
Where is somewhere you would like to work in the future?
I think McGill or the Royal Ontario Museum would both be amazing institutions to work for.
What do you want to achieve outside of academia in the coming year?
I want to start making music with people again and plan a beach vacation with my spouse.
What essential tool hardware/software could you not do your PhD without?
R and high performance computers
Do you have a favourite organism?
My favorite animal is probably a Bonobo. I find their social structure really interesting.
Are there any social interactions/meetings which have enhanced your PhD experience?
Yes. Basically all social gathers at the museum have enhanced my PhD experience in some way. It’s great to talk with other scientists.
If you could change one thing about your group/department structure what would it be?
I would love for more people from underrepresented groups to be part of the program. That being said, I know this is a goal of the institution.
What major issue in your subject area is yet to be addressed – why is it important and why isn’t anyone addressing it?
A plug for my dissertation—the evolutionary genomics of reproductive mode! I think it hasn’t been addressed more seriously because we didn’t readily have access to whole genome data until recently.