Postdoctoral Fellow: Brian J. Stucky Proposal Number: 1612335
This action funds an NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology for FY 2016, Research Using Biological Collections. The fellowship supports a research and training plan for the Fellow to take transformative approaches to grand challenges in biology that employ biological collections in highly innovative ways. The title of the research plan for this fellowship to Brian Stucky is "Collections as repositories of natural history data: New tools, methods, and data to better understand the evolution of flesh fly parasitoids." The host institution for this fellowship is the University of Florida, and the sponsoring scientists are Robert Guralnick, Akito Kawahara, and Samuel Wong.
The goal of this research is to help unlock the potential of biological collections as repositories of natural history data by: 1) developing new methods for capturing life history data from collection specimens; 2) developing new software for phylogenetic comparative methods that provide a robust framework for analyzing these data; and 3) applying these new methods and software to a model phylogeny, the evolution of the parasitoid lifestyle in the highly diverse flesh flies (Diptera: Sarcophagidae). Phylogenetic comparative methods (PCMs) are important research tools of modern evolutionary biology because they can reveal the large-scale processes that create biological diversity - in other words, PCMs help us understand how evolution works. Effective use of PCMs requires detailed knowledge of species' natural history traits, yet for the most diverse groups of organisms, such as insects, such data are often unavailable. Biological collections contain extensive natural history information that could help address this data shortcoming, but new computational tools and research methods are needed to mobilize and exploit these data. Parasitoids - insects that feed parasitically as larvae but eventually kill their hosts - account for up to 25% of all insect species and are crucial for controlling agricultural pests, but relatively little is known about the evolution of their parasitoid lifestyle. The flesh flies are a large insect family that includes many parasitoid species of major economic, forensic, veterinary, and medical importance. The Fellow's research applies new data from multiple museum collections to improve understanding of parasitoid evolution and diversity. More broadly, the new analytical methods developed for by the Fellow will be applicable to a wide variety of evolutionary questions beyond this particular study.
The Fellow is being trained in laboratory and computational methods for capturing genetic and natural history data from collection specimens, statistical techniques for PCMs, and strategies for teaching and public outreach. Data and results from this project are being made freely available online, and all new software is open source. The Fellow's outreach activities include teaching university students about PCMs and collections data, mentoring undergraduates, and providing public educational programming about the diversity, biology, and value of flesh flies.