This Graduate Student Spotlight highlights Allison Wilkes, a Marine Biology student who studies marine fish and their endocrinology. Allison uses red drum as a model for the thyroid endocrine system to learn how they obtain iodine from their environment.
Allison is a PhD candidate in the Marine Biology Interdisciplinary Program and is housed in the Department of Biology. She has a B.A. from the University of Tennessee and a M.S. from the University of West Florida. Her previous research has included fruit fly genetics, echinoderm bioluminescent physiology, protein crystallography, mouse neurobiology, elasmobranch growth physiology, fish osmoregulation, and coral reef fish assemblages. She is married with two step-daughters. Allison plays for and is Vice-President of Brazos Valley Roller Derby. When not working she also enjoys off-roading in her jeep and planning trips to Walt Disney World.
What inspired you to join Dr. MacKenzie’s lab?
Dr. MacKenzie himself! He was really excited about my previous work in comparative animal physiology and offered to help me learn the endocrinology I would need to succeed in his lab. He loved that I had a background in marine biology. Since we use red fish as a model for the thyroid endocrine system, he was looking forward to having a marine biologist perspective in a lab full of endocrinologists. I was excited to give a new point of view.
What projects are you currently working on?
I study how fish obtain iodine from their environment. Iodine is a rare element that all vertebrates must have in order to make thyroid hormones. Thyroid hormones are responsible for many physiological functions in the body (growth, reproduction, metabolism, homeostasis, etc). Like mammals, fish obtain iodine from their diet. But fish also have the possibility of bringing in iodine directly from the water through their gills—a unique ability that has not been well tested.
Tell us about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career.
During my masters degree, hurricane Ivan struck and devastated the Florida panhandle. After doing 2 and a half years of work on a project I was forced to scratch everything I had accomplished and pick a new project. It was the perfect opportunity to give up and try something else but I refused. Instead I learned a new physiological system and begin a new project and even got to finish several side projects in the process. During my 5 year masters I obtained 5 publications.
What are your future plans, now that your tenure as a graduate student is coming to a close?
I think I want to leave academia and move on to industry work. Fish are a common animal used in all different kinds of research, and I would love to use my molecular and marine biology skills to create and implement research projects that use fish and other animals for eco-physiology research.
What characteristics do you prize most in a colleague?
Communication, organization, flexibility and the ability to meet deadlines are vital to all types of colleagues.
What advice would you give to new/incoming graduate students?
Get a hobby, hopefully a healthy one that helps to distract you but not take up too much time. It could be taking care of a pet or spending quality time with someone you care for. Either way, you need to way to take a mental break from your classes and research so you can avoid burnout.
What undergraduate courses have you taught, and what specifically do you do in your classes to enhance student learning?
Most of my teaching has been human anatomy and physiology and comparative physiology. However I have also taught biology, ecology, vertebrate biology, invertebrate biology, chemistry, and physics. I like to use humor to help my students learn things. If we can make a funny joke or somehow relate the material to everyday life then students are more inclined to remember it.
Do you have any general ideas on how to encourage more minority students and female students to study biology and other STEM fields?
Never let anyone tell you that something is impossible. I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was 7 years old. People used to pat me on my head and suggest that I would eventually find something else to love, but that never happened. Now I tell people what I do and they respond, “Oh, I always wanted to do that, but then someone told me to pick a more realistic career.” Never let someone talk you out of your passion for science. Know that there are people out there that will support you—seek them out!
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I have so many funny/crazy stories from my many adventures that I have considered writing a book. Some of the chapters already have titles!