I am an evolutionary biologist interested in the genetic mechanism and ecological drivers of adaptation. Currently, I am a Postdoctoral Researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Daniel Bolnick at University of Connecticut. In the Bolnick Lab, I study the genetic and genomic basis of the immunological battles between stickleback fish and its tapeworm parasites.
I will start a tenure-track assistant professor position in Haverford College, PA in July 2021. My lab will focus on the genetics of floral adaptation and pollination ecology, using monkeyflowers as a model system.
A little more about my motivation to study evolutionary genetics: I am deeply fascinated by the natural world. Colorful flowers, cute animals, magnificent landscapes are visual beauty presented by the nature. I appreciate them as most people do. But as a biologist, I have the privilege to explore and uncover another depth of beauty, the delicate way that organisms function. There are numerous examples of how creative and beautiful those tricks are, just to name a few: orchids are the masters of camouflage. They are able to produce the same scent emitted by female bees and generate the flower petal mimicking the shape of female bees, to seduce male bees to mate with it. While the male bees try to “mate” with the flowers, they unintentionally transfer the orchid’s pollen among them. You might be wondering how on hell can the orchid “know” what scent and color pattern male bees like? And how can the orchid generate the similar scent and color pattern, given the fact that animal and plants probably have been separated hundreds of millions years?
If it is still not miraculous enough, how about this one? If you ever watched Pirates of Caribbean, you might still remember the plot “part of the crew, part of the ship” – after serving for years, old “Bootstrap” Bill, crawled with weeds and shells on his head, becomes part of the ship of Flying Dutch. Of course we know this is just movie/fiction – something unreal. But I am going to tell you that this could happen, and it is happening on ourselves! This time the crew is virus and our body is the ship. Over the long history of evolution, virus repeatedly invaded human body and some virus DNA got preserved in our very own genome! We used to think that our genome is like a super accurate watch. Unfortunately, evolution is a blind watchmaker. Instead of being like an accurate watch, our genome is actually more like a hodgepodge – a few functional genes scattered in the ocean of DNA “junks” (whether those sequences are really junks is still controversial). Appreciate it or not, the “crew” has more diversity than we want and they make contribution to the “ship” – an essential human placenta gene was actually borrowed from an ancient virus!
Amazed by those little secrets of the wonderful natural world, often times, I feel imagination is less miraculous than reality in biology. I consider it a great pity if I live my life while ignoring them.
As an old Chinese saying goes, “it is better to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books”. Besides science, outdoor is my passion. I like biking, hiking and traveling. (The background of my profile photo is where the Pandora planet movie scenes in Avatar were from. Yes, that’s my hometown! Just google “zhangjiajie” to check out)