This month’s Faculty Spotlight highlights Dr. Heath Blackmon. An Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology, Dr. Blackmon uses beetles to study evolutionary biology, particularly genome evolution.
Heath Blackmon received his B.S. in Environmental Science from Oregon State University in 2010. He then began work on his Ph.D. at the University of Texas in Arlington where he studied genome evolution in invertebrates. While at UT Arlington he built a database of invertebrate karyotypes containing over 15,000 species. He completed his Ph.D. in 2015 and moved to the University of Minnesota. In Minnesota Heath collaborated with Emma Goldberg and Yaniv Brandvain on theory-based projects. With the Goldberg lab, he developed a phylogenetic model of chromosome evolution while his work with the Brandvain lab focused on the theoretical population genetics of sex chromosome inversions.
Heath joined the Biology Department at Texas A&M as an assistant professor in 2017. He is a faculty member in the EEB and Genetics interdepartmental graduate programs. His lab works on theoretical and empirical projects focused on the evolution of large-scale genome structure. For empirical projects, his lab often uses beetles as model organisms because beetles are probably the most fantastic group of animals on the planet.
Tell us about your research and what lead you to your field.
I have been fascinated by the diversity of beetles since I was a kid. Almost one-fourth of all the organisms that humans have named are beetles! Some are as big as your hand while others are so small they can float away on a light breeze. How has this amazing diversity in species and morphology evolved? This question led me to the field of evolutionary biology. My research focuses on understanding how traits (especially traits of the genome) evolve over long time periods.
When did you realize that you wanted a career in academia?
As an undergrad, I did a plant diversity survey as an independent project. When I was done, I realized that I had learned something that nobody else in the world knew – this sense of discovery (even if it was a small one) hooked me on research and academia.
What advice would you have for students to be successful in graduate school?
Graduate school is hard work, and I think the only way to make it through is to find a topic that you love and a lab that you feel comfortable in. The relationship between the advisor and the graduate student is so important you have to make sure you find someone with whom you can communicate. If you do this then hard work that is required turns into something very rewarding and satisfying.
Describe strategies that you plan to use to create an inclusive research environment for your students.
I have developed explicit expectations for students that join my lab. First among these is to treat all lab members with respect and dignity. Furthermore, by having a set of specific expectations for undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoc it should help to reduce the chance of implicit bias negatively effecting traditionally underrepresented groups.
What graduate and/or undergraduate courses would you like to develop in the future?
I have a real passion for the history of science. I have previously taught a seminar on the foundations of evolutionary biology and would love to develop an undergraduate or graduate course that delves even more deeply into the key discoveries and ideas that have been integral to the development of modern evolutionary biology.
What are the most challenging and the most rewarding parts of being a new professor?
Taking on responsibility for others is a new challenge and reward for me. It is exciting to teach and explain new ideas to undergrads and grad students joining the lab, but it is also sobering to know that I am in large part responsible for the experience that these students have.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
I love science fiction; I try to take a little time every couple of days to read classic science fiction like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, or Larry Niven.
You lived in Minnesota for 2 years. Tell us what are some of the more noticeable differences living in Minnesota as compared to Texas, besides the weather.
I’ve enjoyed living in many parts of the U.S., but I always miss the food when I’m not in Texas – hot sauce that is hot, the best barbecue in the country, and all the Tex-Mex and Mexican food you could want.
We understand that you started a program called Vets Who Code. Can you tell us about that?
I have a lot of respect for people that serve in the armed forces and then get out and start on a second career. That is the path that I took to get here today. Part of my community service and outreach efforts are designed to help people that are doing this. Specifically, I am teaching undergraduate veterans basic coding skills through my Vets Who Code program. I hope that these students will be more competitive in the job market and that maybe a few of them will even decide to go into a research field.