PH.D. student uses forum to explain how she's exploring the mysteries of evolutionary development

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PH.D. student uses forum to explain how she's exploring the mysteries of evolutionary development

Evo-devo's the thing.

That's ee-voh-dee-voh, a biological concept – not something related to rock music. Though, for sure, the concept could lead you to mind-bending lyrics.

Heidi Connahs, a graduate student in biology, laughs easily when asked about her evo-devo, or evolutionary developmental biology focus. Along with several other graduate and undergraduate students, she showcased her work at this year's 10th annual joint University of North Dakota-North Dakota State Northern Plains Biological Symposium, held recently in the Memorial Union.

Connahs is getting a Ph.D. here in molecular biology. She was both a poster presenter – "Molecular Evolution of an Epigenetic Silencer" – and a session moderator at the symposium. Students from both the UND and NDSU participated, with 12 posters on biology-related topics, from Connahs's genetics-based poster to wheatgrass development to studies of caterpillar hormones.

"It's really exciting to participate (in an event such as the symposium) because one gets to meet such a variety of students" working in many disciplines, said Connahs, who's from Chester, England.

Behind each poster is some deep research. For example, Connahs's work tackles the field of evo-devo.

"It's simple really: I'm working on the evolutionary development of life," Connahs said. To explore that, she's trying to figure out what environmental factors can trigger, at the molecular level, changes in the colors that butterflies display on their wings.

"It's truly amazing the diversity of life – and yet, all organisms are related to each other," she said.

Sharing that kind of fascination with the deeper meaning of scientific research is what the symposium is all about.

"I think that this a really good exercise for students giving poster and oral presentations to their peers," said Turk Rhen, UND associate professor of biology, one of Connahs's Ph.D. advisors (her other advisor is Rebecca Simmons). "The other thing that's really nice about the symposium is that we get to see what individuals at the other main research university are up to."

The Northern Plains Biological Symposium – which alternates between UND and NDSU – brings presentations on ongoing biological research at both schools. Presentations are given by graduate and undergraduate students from both universities.

This year's conference covered a breadth of biological topics including: mitochondrial DNA variation in Eastern North Dakota populations, how anthropogenic chemicals and temperature influence gene regulation in amphibians and reptiles, next-generation DNA sequencing, and seed bank effect on native prairie reconstructions, according to one of this year's symposium organizers and UND biology graduate student Gregory Cain.

The Symposium was started in 2004 by graduate students from NDSU as forum for students and faculty from both universities to come together share their current research, network and build future collaborations between biology departments at the universities. Most participants have been graduate or undergraduate students, so the conference also serves a professional development function.

UND hosted the symposium for the first time in 2007.

Juan Miguel Pedraza

University and Public Affairs writer

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