The Vertebrate Zoology. Taught by Dr. Toby Daly-Engel,

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. 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. 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 on 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.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.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.