Overview of the Edwards Lab

Lab motto: We are evolutionary biologists in the broadest sense, focusing on questions from genome evolution to adaptive radiation. For lack of a better phrase, our motto is "molecular ecology with an edge". By this we mean we focus on a diversity of problems in evolutionary biology and evolutionary genetics, employing cutting edge approaches that emphasize population genetics. For us the genetic markers we employ are just as important in the design of a research project as the species we study or the problem we seek to answer. Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, particularly those interested in systematics, need to consider how their particular research problem will distinguish itself from the hundreds of other projects being conducted now that molecular ecology is so popular. One way we try to distinguish our work is by making informed choices about molecluar markers based on principles of population genetics and also by'scaling up' in our use of such markers to attract the interest not only of other ornithologists, but of geneticists, ecologists, and the wide diversity of evolutionary biologists that share an interest in inferring population and genomic history. For more, read on ...

Museum Collections: We have access to the wonderful bird collection in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the 5th largest such collection in the world (after the National Museum of Natural History, Field Museum, British Museum and American Museum) and the largest University-based collection. At 350,000 specimens we have access to virtually any species, and wonderful series within species, particularly from the Neotropics and China. Students in the Edwards lab are expected to collect their own samples for genetic analysis whenever possible, whether their projects involve sampling blood or preparing voucher specimens for morphological analysis, and all students are expected to learn the techniques of museum specimen preparation. Learning the techniques and practices of museum curation is of course essential for a thorough grounding in systematics and comparative biology, but can also add an important dimension to thesis work in behavioral ecology or population biology. On a practical level, experience as a museum curator can open up a number of job opportunities that are otherwise closed to students without such training.

Molecular phylogenetics has substantially increased the value and versatility of avian museum collections, but their use in combination with new geographical information systems and quantitative genetic analyses in particular is still underappreciated. There are numerous interesting ways to join population genetic studies and museum specimens, beginning of course with molecular analysis of the specimens themselves. Although we are not a center for research in ancient DNA, and strive to use fresh blood or tissue whenever possible, genetic analysis of decades-old or centuries-old museum skins is certainly a useful option to consider in any research project. Funds for fieldwork involving specimen collection are available through the Putnam and other funds through the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Teaching, Outreach and Community Service: Students in the Edwards lab have abundant opportunities to turn their expertise in biology and evolution to useful ends in society. First, of course, are teaching opportunities through the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. Dr. Edwards teaches a number of courses in ornithology, population genetics, molecular evolution, systematics and animal behavior. Another way in which lab members can use their expertise and at the same time increase the vitality of evolutionary biology as a discipline is by participating in our annual program "Undergraduate Diversity at the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE)", a 4-year NSF grant that brings 15 undergraduates from diverse backgrounds to SSE to present posters, received mentorship from participating students and faculty and interacting with professionals in the discipline. It is far too easy (and not always a bad thing!) to become overly focused on one's research pursuits, but sharing these with young students and conveying to them the wonder and excitement of evolutionary biology will not only improve us as teachers and mentors but will also ensure the continued vitality of a discipline that does not always receive the societal respect that it should.

Fieldwork and International Collaboration: Although our primary data is often generated in the lab, we nonetheless conduct fieldwork at a variety of locales around the globe. Scott has conducted fieldwork for the past 18 years throughout Australia and North America. He has also worked extensively in seabird colonies in Hawaii. Various postdocs in the laboratory have come with extensive field experience in Africa and Australia. We also have a long-term collaboration with Dr. Jennifer Marshall Graves in the Comparative Genomics Group, Research School of Biological Sciences, Australian National University in Canberra. This research involves understanding the evolutionary origin of sex chromosomes in birds and reptiles, and employs cytogenetic approaches such as tissue culture, epifluorescence microscopy and in-situ hybridization.

Genomics, Robotics, and Bioinformatics: In keeping with our lab motto, we strive to push the envelope when it comes to population and evolutionary genetic analysis. We were one of the first labs to employ shotgun sequencing of genomic regions in non-model species of birds. We make extensive use of cosmid and BAC libraries, and are currently pursuing a number of projects mining our collection of reptile (including bird) BAC libraries made in collaboration with Chris Amemiya of the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle and J. Robert Macey of the Joint Genome Institute in California. At Harvard we have the opportunity to employ a number of robotic approaches to DNA isolation, PCR and sequencing setup, and BAC library analysis, in our own lab and in the Bauer Center for Genomics Research (CGR) a few doors away.