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Award Winner Q & A - John Swenson

Q. What award did you receive and when?

I was fortunate to receive the AES Research Award at the 2016 AES meeting in New Orleans.

Q. What degree are you seeking, from what institution, under whose guidance?

I am seeking a Masters degree in Marine Biology from San Francisco State University. My adviser, Karen Crow-Sanchez, is amazing.

Q. What is the most important (actual or potential) finding of your research?  Give us a little background on the subject.

My goal is to uncover the molecular mechanisms by which manta rays and their relatives (Family: Myliobatidae) evolved. Key adaptive traits arise when gene expression patterns are tweaked during development, resulting in different body plans that are adapted for different lifestyles and environments. The Myliobatidae have a particularly intriguing body plan, being as they are the only living vertebrates with three pairs of functional appendages: pelvic fins, pectoral fins, and cephalic lobes. We know why each of these appendages are present in the Myliobatidae and what functions they serve, but we really have no idea how they came to be.

By examining gene expression patterns during development and comparing those to patterns already found in the little skate (Leucoraja erinacea), we may begin to understand how the Myliobatidae came to adopt their present form. And since this family of rays has such a unique body plan, we may even learn something totally new about the ways in which evolution produces novelty.

Q. How is the award going to help you complete the project?

This award is going to go towards a high quality cDNA library preparation kit.

For this project, I must start with tissue, extract volatile RNA, isolate messenger RNA, and convert the messenger RNA into a stable form of cDNA, which will later be sequenced. The most difficult and crucial part of this process is the RNA -> cDNA conversion, and the AES Research Award will ensure that I have all the necessary tools to complete this step efficiently and effectively.

Q. What are your other research goals?

Honestly, I am focused almost entirely on this project at the moment and haven’t thought much about other specific research goals. Broadly, I think elasmobranchs are the most beautiful animals on the planet and I would like to learn as much as I can about them.

Q. How did you get started in research/shark bio/science?

I have been intrigued by sharks and rays for as long as I can remember and my first underwater experience with a manta ray changed my life.

Since I began college, life has taken me in a thousand different directions, but I have always felt magnetized towards sharks. This passion has been my north star; even as I was working jobs that weren’t at all related to elasmobranchs, I was always thinking about how I could apply whatever skills I learned to elasmobranch research. Eventually, after several years, my interest dovetailed with opportunity and now I feel quite lucky to be doing the kind of research I have wanted to do for the last decade.