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iLabs: We LOVE When “The Julies” Come to Play in Our Lab!! :)

July 6, 2014

The Julies.  Who are these mysterious individuals who share the same name, share our passion for broadcasting science news to anyone who’ll listen, and get as excited over armpit bacteria of primates and bacterial symbionts of planthoppers as another person might over a surprise new car or diamond necklace?   ( Though if you send them either a new car or diamonds,  that’ll be okay too — after all, those can always be traded in for something REALLY exciting, like the latest Next Gen sequencer! )

Strange? Not to us  — though given that we feel our lab is our playground, I can understand if someone thinks that. I am actually writing about the wonderful connections and collaborations we are starting to share with our counterparts in the NRC’s Genomics and Microbiology Research Lab — “The Julies,” aka, Dr. Julie Horvath and Dr. Julie Urban, two incredibly creative and accomplished researchers here at the Museum.

Dr. Julie Horvath is the director of the Genomics and Microbiology Research Laboratory, as well as research associate professor in the Department of Biology at North Carolina Central University in Durham. She describes herself as a “comparative evolutionary genomicist interested in understanding the evolutionary forces that have shaped primate genomes and that cause human disease.  The focus of her work is “based on species relationships, or phylogenies, which she first established for lemurs, and more recently, for all primates. These species relationships are applied to many of her research questions. Several examples of Horvath’s research investigate the connection between genotype (DNA sequence) and phenotype (traits and characteristics) that make flora and fauna unique.”

An expert in primate genomics, she recently published a paper in the Journal of Human Evolution that provides insight into how evolution, through our genes, shaped our teeth, in particular enamel thickness, to differentiate us from our “primate relatives and forebears.” The paper’s citation is: “Genetic comparisons yield insights into the evolution of enamel thickness during human evolution.” Julie Horvath, Gowri Ramachandran, et al. Journal of Human Evolution, Online May 5, 2014. DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2014.01.005

She is also very involved with the research into the microbiomes of human skin, especially the bacteria in armpits (Armpit Microbiome ) and is working closely with Dr. Rob Dunn of NC State University, researcher and author of popular science books, such as The Wild Life of Our Bodies.

Dr. Julie Urban, who is also involved in the skin microbiome research, is the Assistant Director of the lab, and has a double PhD, one in Human Factors Psychology and the other in Ecology, Evolution and Behavior. She describes herself as “an evolutionary biologist whose primary interests focus on planthoppers, a diverse and often morphologically bizarre group of sap-feeding insects in the Order Hemiptera. Dr. Urban combines DNA sequence data with features of insect morphology to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the planthoppers.”

Her pursuit of planthoppers has turned her into someone who excitedly talks about peanut-heads and dragon-heads (the shape variations for planthopper heads) and she uses a reverse-direction leaf blower to vacuum up planthoppers in the wild. Her hunt for these creatures has taken her to “Belize, Costa Rica, Peru, French Guiana, Nicaragua, Ghana, Zambia, India, and Malaysian Borneo) as well as sites in the US, particularly in Arizona, California, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Utah.”

And if all of their work wasn’t exciting enough, they bring along a whole raft of “partners-in-crime” – post docs, grad students, other researchers, all with their own particular “love.”

Take Dr. Sarah Council. Her work is all about the microbiome of the human skin. So whether it’ belly buttons, armpits,  or behind the ears , she will figure out what bacteria are living there.

Dr. Julia Stevens (yes, another Julie/Julia name!) has come to the Museum to work on soil microbiology, having recently completed her PhD. work (which involved collecting Lionfish and scraping the mucus layer off of them to learn about their microbiome)

She  recently visited our lab with a group of Kenan Fellow teachers learning about our lab programs (and micropipetting as well).


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The Kenan Fellows program site description reads:  “Solutions-driven K-12 teachers selected as Kenan Fellows engage in a year-long fellowship in partnership with university researchers and industry experts. The program provides opportunities for development and advancement inspiring educators to drive innovation in North Carolina public schools. Key components of the fellowships are a five-week summer research experience with a mentor in a local workplace and two weeks of professional development. From this experience, Fellows create innovative lessons for students and professional development workshops for their colleagues.

If you want to see what they’re up to, you can follow their group’s  Twitter postings.

Dr. Heather Farrington brings a love of all things “salamander.” Her research involves the evolutionary genetics of Asian Salamanders, and her other “face” is that of Outreach Coordinator for the research lab – spending her time strengthening connections with us, the public, and others, to get the word out on what goes on behind “those glass walls.”

She recently worked with our lab to create a project on the Chytrid fungus affecting reptiles and amphibians, and this project draws visitors both to our lab and hers, in their quest to understand this disease and its impact worldwide. In fact, this project, funded by a grant from IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Services), was a three-way collaboration between Dr. Farrington in the Genomics and Microbiology Research Lab, Dr. Dan Dombrowski in Veterinary Services, and our staff member, Nirmala Rajbhandari in our lab.

And then there’s Dr. Dan Fergus, whose special love for “Demodex sp.” drives him to scrape people’s faces or, the newest method —  “Super glue on a Microscope Slide attached to someone’s face then ripped off” —  to collect these tiny creatures!!

So what could POSSIBLY happen when you mix people who love armpit bacteria, planthoppers, face mites, salamanders, lionfish, and soil bacteria, with exceptional teachers AND  all of us in the Micro World Investigate Lab who are crazy about all things microbial and scientific????

Why it’s a veritable EXPLOSION of scientific discoveries, and class and public activity possibilities! And who benefits?  Well let me draw the final connecting thread.

Aside from the fact that we’re all science geeks and just LOVE getting together to share all our works, there is another REALLY EXCITING thread pulling us all together.

We are all participating in a huge NSF-funded grant program, which you can read all about at Your Wild Life.

It is led by Dr. Rob Dunn, and includes both Julies, their lab researchers, the Education Dept at the Museum (including us!!), other researchers at the Museum, and a number of  local teachers in the Kenan Fellows program.  It is a multi-pronged approach to utilize the research of all these scientists as the rich source material for citizen science projects, new class modules, new discoveries, and innovative teacher training, as well as a way to introduce Next Generation Science Standards!

Not only will we be able to bring some amazing cutting-edge research into our classes in the Micro World Lab, but teachers will spread the fruits of this effort statewide.

But it won’t stop there as the eventual goal is to reach out not only to schools all over North Carolina, but to schools worldwide.

So the possibilities are limited only by the interest and energy of the people involved, and based on what we’ve encountered so far, the problem will NOT be, “Gee, what shall we do in our lab,” but “How can we fit it all in?!” And THAT is a GREAT problem to have.

In closing, we would simply like to say that we are SOOOO excited to finally be starting collaborations with The Julies and their staff, Rob, the teachers, and all the researchers. We’ve all worked hard for the last two years to get to this point. Now, the FUN BEGINS!

So to all of them, and our readers: Come play in our lab anytime!!!

On a related note: In the next post, we’ll show you how this project brought together in our lab and into the Museum’s Daily Planet, a lowly face mite, researchers and NPR’s The State of Things host, Frank Stasio!  Stay tuned.

One Comment leave one →
  1. permalink
    July 6, 2014 7:35 pm

    Hi Deb, I love reading your blogs. thanks, Aunt Pat

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