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Biodiversity Blog


Meet Stengl-Wyer Fellow: Julia York

 About to dissect a Harpagifer antarctius specimen for a transcriptome study (Photo Lloyd Peck)

The Stengl-Wyer Endowment supports year-long fellowships for doctoral candidates pursuing dissertation research in the area of Diversity of life and organisms in their natural environments. Recipients will receive a 12-month stipend of $34,000, full tuition and fees, staff health insurance, and an allowance of $2,000 to cover research and travel expenses. 

The inaugural year of Stengl-Wyer Fellowships of 2020-2021 supports four fellows. Julia York is the third of our Q&As with the fellows. Her research seeks to answer questions about proximate mechanisms that contribute to the high levels of host plant specialization characterizing most herbivorous insects. She studies the evolution of temperature sensation in animals that are adapted to specific thermal environments using phylogenetics, sequencing, and electrophysiology.

1. Tell us where you came from before UT, and what you studied then?

I did my undergraduate and master’s at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. My very first month there I started working in a comparative physiology lab. The lab is interested in comparing how animals breathe and adapt their respiratory systems to achieve biological feats like hibernation or migration. I worked all through my degree on a project that was eventually published in eLife, on the bar-headed geese. These geese migrate over the Himalayas and are able to fly (which requires a lot of oxygen) in a very low oxygen environment. My first summer of undergrad I raised 17 geese from eggs so that they imprinted on me. Then we trained them to fly in a wind tunnel at the university, and lowered the oxygen to measure various physiological parameters at simulated altitude. It was an amazing experience and taught me a lot about the persistence it takes to do science.

During my masters, I compared high and low altitude ducks and geese to see if they had adapted the mechanics of their respiratory systems to breathe more efficiently or effectively. Birds have a totally different respiratory system than mammals or amphibians, and flight is the most energetically costly form of locomotion so they are very interesting to study to understand how the respiratory system can evolve. 

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Julia with her undergraduate and master’s supervisor, Bill Milsom, in Peru doing field work for her masters. (Photo Bruce Moffat)

2. What got you interested in studying the evolution of temperature sensation in animals that have adapted to specific thermal environments?

I grew up in Alaska and climate change is easily observable there. In just a few years things have changed so much. That experience made me interested in studying how organisms will adapt to climate change. In school I always loved my neuroscience classes, so I think this is a perfect intersection of evolution, climate change, neuroscience, and weird animals. I feel a kinship with polar animals, so studying the fish of Antarctica is perfect for me. I love reading about them, it always makes my day better.

3. Does Texas present a unique situation, challenge or benefit for your research?

When I arrived in Texas I also learned about how the state is laid out with a temperature gradient that runs north-south, and a humidity gradient that runs east-west. It is the perfect natural experiment for someone interested in temperature. I am investigating the Texas leaf-cutter ant that has expanded their range from south to north Texas as they’ve evolved, and how their temperature sensation evolved in that time. The leaf-cutters are particularly interesting because they co-evolve with the fungus they grow in gardens and feed on. The fungus has its own temperature preferences and the ants need to be responsive to that.

4. Where do you see your research agenda heading here at UT? And how about after?

At UT and because of the Stengl-Wyer I’ve had a lot of freedom to pursue scientific questions that are interesting to me, but also get involved with learning about the culture of academia, how it got to be that way, and how we can make it a better place for everyone. I’ve served on the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committees for the Department of Integrative Biology and the College of Natural Sciences, the UT Sexual Misconduct Working Group, and published a paper on systemic change in Ecology and Evolution. This is an aspect of my education at UT that I did not expect, nor particularly desire if I’m honest, but I consider this work to be an integral part of my research agenda and I’m grateful for all the opportunities and space I’ve been given to learn about these issues.

 Leaf cutter ants. (Photo: Alex Wild)
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