The Faculty Spotlight is a chance for the department to highlight our faculty and the work they do. July’s spotlight goes to Christine Merlin who is an Assistant Professor of Biology. She joined Biology in August 2013. Christine’s research focuses on the study of  circadian clocks using the monarch butterfly as the model system.

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Christine Merlin received her bachelor’s in Biology, master’s degree in Invertebrate Physiology and Ph.D in Insect Physiology from the University Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris. From 2007 to 2013, she was a postdoctoral fellow in Neurobiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA, in Steven Reppert’s laboratory, which focuses on the biological basis of monarch butterfly migration. Merlin joined the Department of Biology at Texas A&M University as an Assistant Professor in 2013, and is also a member of the Center for Research on Biological Clocks, the Texas A&M Institute for Neuroscience, and a faculty of the Interdisciplinary program in Genetics.

Merlin has been the recipient of a prestigious Charles King Trust Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Medical Foundation, and her research at Texas A&M is currently funded by the NSF.

What projects are you currently working on?

Current projects in my lab are focused on circadian biology. We study how circadian clocks keep time and how they control the rhythmic daily and seasonal physiology and behavior in animals. We use the monarch butterfly as a model organism because of its incredible migration and the fact that its clock is very similar to those of humans.

What got you interested in circadian clocks?

As far as I can remember, it is not “what” but “whom” got me interested in circadian clocks… Going into my Ph.D, I was fascinated by the sense of smell and had no intentions to work on circadian rhythms at all. I joined the lab of Emmanuelle Jacquin-Joly and Martine Maibeche to work on pheromonal communication in moth species that are agricultural pests. This is when Emmanuelle introduced me to circadian rhythms. When she was a graduate student she had shown that female moths emit pheromones rhythmically, presumably to attract conspecifics during a narrow window of time at night, and she wanted to know whether males’ pheromonal reception would be in synch with females’ pheromonal emission. This was an exciting time because the first insect olfactory receptors had just been cloned in Drosophila. I ended up studying the circadian clock control of pheromonal reception in male moths, from the molecular players to the physiological output. Intermingling two fields during my graduate studies has been immensely rewarding, but I gradually became attached to circadian biology.

Why did you choose to focus on monarch butterflies as a model system?

Just a year into my Ph.D, I read a paper from Steve Reppert’s lab showing that circadian clocks were controlling monarch navigational abilities during their migration. It was the first time I heard of the involvement of clocks in such a cool behavior. Three years later, I applied in Steve’s lab for a postdoc and got in. I have worked on monarchs for the past 10 years now. The monarch is not only a great model to study the genetic basis of migration, but it also turns out to be a great model to study circadian clock mechanisms and their genetic and neuronal control of complex behavior.

Describe a recent research collaboration that has impacted your lab/research.

It will be very difficult to only cite one.

The person who has the biggest influence on my lab/research has been undoubtedly my partner, Jerome Menet, who is also a circadian biologist and a colleague in the department. We really function as communicating vessels. There is not one day we go without discussing about our respective labs progress or proofread each other’s work. What’s probably the most impactful is that we can be brutally honest with one another’s ideas. This kind of support is precious, especially when you are a young PI! We also formally collaborate of course, and Jerome’s help in bioinformatics analysis of ongoing high-throughput sequencing projects has been critical to our progress.

I am also very lucky to have a great team. Everyone, from the undergraduates to the grad students to the postdoc working in my lab, is motivated. They are the ones who make things happen and their hard work is starting to pay off.

What advice would you give to a new graduate student?

Buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Buckle up, because you are going to have to work hard to be successful, no matter which career path (academia, industry) you want to pursue. Take every opportunity to learn new things, work smart, pay attention to details and be efficient. Those are skills that you will be able to leverage on pretty much every scientifically related job.

Enjoy the ride, because grad school can be the time of your life. Doing science should be fun, at least most of the time. A good way of ensuring that you will thrive is to pick a field of interest to you and to choose your mentor wisely. Ben Barres has written a sort of guide in Neuron on “How to pick a graduate Advisor” with pros and cons, and I encourage every new graduate student to read it.

What attracted you to the biology department at Texas A&M?

There are many reasons, but three of them come to my mind right away. First, Texas A&M has a hub of renowned clock researchers with complementary expertise to mine. Second, as I alluded to before, I was half of a two-body problem, both being at the same stage of our careers, and in the same field. The odds of both of us being able to get tenure track positions in close-by locations were very low. We got two job offers at A&M! Also, being in Texas places me right on the monarch migratory path. So the math was pretty simple…

Tell us about a project or an accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career so far.

To my heart, that’s developing reverse genetics in the monarch butterfly. This was a crazy project a few years back that I carried out as a postdoc in the laboratory of Steve Reppert. We did not even know how to raise monarchs in the lab at the time. It was not easy, it took time, it took teamwork. When it finally worked, the feeling was amazing: the monarch could now be used as a genetic model.

 

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