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Michelle Stitzer

Graduate Student

Contact Information:

University of California

Davis, CA




I am a graduate student in Jeff Ross-Ibarra’s lab in the Population Biology Graduate Group at University of California, Davis. I’m interested in how transposable elements impact maize and teosinte genomes. Transposable elements are like viruses trapped inside the plant’s cells, passed vertically from parent to offspring. They encode proteins that allow them to move to new locations within the genome, which means that sometimes they jump to a position that changes how an important gene functions. Most of the time, though, they don’t produce such drastic impacts, but are good markers for studying how the maize genome has changed through time. Transposable elements make up 85% of the maize genome, so there’s plenty to study!

Why I became a scientist:

I could tell the quintessential story of how a childhood spent communing with nature dictated my love of evolutionary biology — growing up outside, sifting glacial till through my fingers, searching ravines for artifacts left behind by early 20th century logging endeavors. In retrospect, this immersion contributed heavily to my development, and might just be why I became a scientist. But that’s not the way it felt. The outdoors were a backdrop to my world. When visiting national parks and nature reserves with other families, I scoffed as they oohed and awed over the mossy trees, verdant brush, and signs of animal life I saw every day. I didn’t understand their appreciation, and told them so. They just laughed, and said I was too used to being outdoors.

When I moved to Seattle for college at University of Washington, I knew I wanted to study biology, especially the logical underpinnings of genetics, but intended to supplement my biology degree with coursework in history. After somewhat accidentally taking an archaeology course, I began working towards an anthropology degree, which quickly supplanted any history coursework. I attended archaeological and paleontological field courses, and cultivated an appreciation for study of the past mediated not through a written record, but instead through bone, artifact, and change in DNA sequence.

But aside from anything else, the paramount reason I became a scientist was the thrill of experimentation that came as an undergraduate researcher in Ben Hall’s lab in the Departments of Biology and Genome Sciences. I studied the recolonization patterns of west coast populations of rhododendrons after Pleistocene glaciations, and how rhododendrons moved and diversified across the Asian continent, acquiring red flower color and speciating as the Himalayas ascended. After a few years working in the lab after graduating, I applied to graduate school, and chose UC Davis for a good balance between evolutionary biology and ecology, and use of applied and theoretical approaches. It’s hard to envision myself as a scientist, but gets a bit easier when I think about a line written by the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky: “For a scientist who is worth his salt, the main privilege is that he is paid for what he would have liked to do anyway.”

2009 BS Biology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
2009 BA Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA


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