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Award Winner Q & A: John Swenson

Q. What award did you receive and when?

I received the Carrier Award for best poster at the 2017 AES meeting in Austin, Texas.

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

I’m working towards a Masters degree in Marine Biology from San Francisco State University under Dr. Karen Crow’s tutelage.

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

I’m studying the evolution and development of the myliobatid (manta ray, devil ray, cownose ray) body plan. This family of elasmobranchs exhibit unique structures attached to their faces called cephalic lobes. In ‘devil’ rays, these appendages are the parts that are considered to be the horns. Interestingly, we’ve found that these cephalic lobes develop not on the face, but on the anterior (front) of the pectoral fin and then later they fuse to the face as the pectoral fin ‘zips up’ to the body. So basically, a cephalic lobe is a part of the pectoral fin that connects to the face; a cephalic lobe is not a distinct appendage, even though it looks and functions as such. We have both morphological and molecular data supporting this conclusion.

In addition, and as alluded to moments ago, we’ve found that the expanded pectoral fins of myliobatids develop in two distinct stages: first, they grow outward (distally) and forward (anteriorly) and then later they ‘zip up’ and connect to the gill arches and the rest of the body. This finding explains why rays and skates are occasionaly found with a developmental defect in which the pectoral fin is not fully fused at the anterior: it’s because the first distal stage of pectoral fin development proceeded normally and the second zipper stage was interrupted!

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

Well, printing my poster was quite a fiasco: first, I forgot my poster at the airport and then I took a two hour $80 Lyft ride to pick up a reprint from an empty field (the Lyft app took us to the wrong address!). In the end, this damn poster cost me over $200 to print. So, in addition to lifting my spirits and confirming that other people find my research nearly as interesting as I do, this award justified the effort and expense that went into printing the poster. Personally, I think I should have gotten an award just for having a poster!

Q. What are your other research goals?

Perhaps the most intriguing goal I have related to my current research would be to artificially turn a little skate (Rajidae) into a miniature manta ray (Myliobatidae).

Hear me out: if we can identify the specific genes that cause the cephalic lobe to separate from the pectoral fin during development - and we’re close to doing this - then we could conceivably use the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool to insert those genes into the anterior pectoral fins of developing skate embryos and induce a cephalic lobe in an animal that wouldn’t otherwise develop one. Most people don’t realize just how advanced molecular biology/genetics technology is these days. I’m new to this field and the possibilities blow my mind all the time!

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

I’ve found sharks and rays to be fascinating for as long as I can remember. Even so, the first time I saw a manta ray underwater it changed my life. Trust me: if you’re reading this and you’ve never seen a manta ray in person, you need to make this your number one priority in life … well, at least put it in the top five. I promise the experience will change your life. You don’t even need to leave the US; you’re virtually guaranteed to see a manta ray on the big island in Hawaii if you go out with this company! (I have no affiliation with that company; I just went out with them once and it was one of the best experiences of my life).