Only the coolest scientists hang out in Nerd Corner! This Week: Dr. Cassandra Extavour of Harvard…
Dr. Cassandra Extavour is a Geneticist at Harvard University
CB: What are your research interests in a nutshell?
CE: I’m a developmental biologist, and my interest is in the evolution of developmental mechanisms – especially the mechanisms that control early embryonic development. I’m most interested in the fate of the germ cells, the cells that ultimately make eggs and sperm. In my lab we study the evolution of the genes that control the ‘decision’ of germ cells to become germ cells.
CB: It’s so interesting to think about evolution acting on the developmental process. The whole field of evo-devo is fairly new is it not?
CE: Well the questions that it’s asking are very old – but the ways in which we’re able to address them now using the tools of molecular genetics represents a new approach.
CB: You’re at the forefront of the EVO-DEVO-ECO research, and you are launching the new EDEN network. Can you tell us a little about this project?
CE: Sure! I was trained in Drosophila genetics, and Drosophila is a fantastic model organism for many reasons. People have been working on this organism for over 100 years, so there are tools, methods and protocols that are well developed for use with Drosophila. However, several organisms that we’re now interested in studying have perhaps never been looked at in a lab setting. So the purpose of EDEN is to provide funding for researchers to develop techniques for use with less traditional organisms. We hope to take the protocols that are developed with EDEN funding and have them publicly available, so that researchers don’t need to ‘reinvent the wheel’ when they want to try a molecular technique with a novel organism.
CB: What are some of the novel organisms that people are starting to look at in this way?
CE: Yes, these are known as ‘emerging model systems’. In my lab we use crickets, milkweed bugs, lobsters, shrimp, spiders, mites, fleas…lots of different arthropods! In labs that have traditionally studied mammals like the common mouse, new species of mice are being investigated, as well as shrews, voles and possums. In the plant world people are working on mosses, ferns and many types of algae.
CB: You took a trip to Panama last year, was this trip for collecting some of these critters?
CE: That trip was actually for an invertebrate biology class I teach. The best way for students to appreciate invertebrate diversity is to see it! The tropical ocean represents some of the most biodiverse habitat for invertebrates, so we take our students to Panama for a week for them to see the organisms in their natural habitats.
CB: There must be a large waiting list for this class!
CB: Can you tell us about one of your most recent publications?
CE: I have a book chapter coming out that I’m really excited about. It’s in a book called ‘Key Transitions in Animal Evolution’. My chapter was co-written with a student, and we make hypotheses about the evolution of the genetic control of germ cell formation. We predict that key genes involved in the synthesis of germ cells may have evolved analagously in different organisms. We look forward to testing our hypotheses by examining the genome-encoded proteins of several organisms to find genes (and encoded proteins) that are analagous to the ‘OSCAR’ gene of Drosophila.
CB: So which organisms will you examine in this regard?
CE: It’s always nice to stay close to home…so we work with several arthropod species.
CB: What advice do you have for budding biologists?
CE: You need to find a subject that truly interests you! If you are a person who likes to ask their own questions, then biology is a great place for you. Also, there are many ways to approach science – if you have a negative experience in one field or setting, that doesn’t mean that you don’t like science…you just need to find the area that suits you the most. I changed fields between my PhD and my postdoc, so this advice rings true for me. Be open to the idea that science takes many forms, and it’s important to find what niche works best for you.
CB: Do you have any non-biological talents?
CE: I’ve been an instrumentalist for most of my life, and for the past 10 years I’ve also been a singer.
CE: Yes, I have done several concerts in Boston since I’ve been here!
CB: IF you could have 3 guests for dinner, who would they be?
CE: Opera singer Joan Sutherland (who also changed her direction mid-career), Ernest Everest Just – a not so famous cell biologist – but one of the first black scientists to work at Woods Hole Marine Institute. He worked there at a time when it was racially segregated, yet he was an extremely prolific and successful scientist. Thirdly I would choose Malcolm X.
CB: A very ecclectic crowd! What would be on the menu?
CE: These days I’m really into raw kale. So I would definitely include a salad comprised of kale. I’m also into pastry, and making things I’ve never made before…so I think I’d like to try making donuts.
CB: Kale and Donuts! I love it!!! Dr. Extavour, thanks so much for having a chat with me!
Want to hear more about EDEN, Dr. Extavour’s upcoming book chapter and much more?
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