Using geckos, grad student tackles the ‘queen of problems in evolutionary biology’

Thursday, Aug 08, 2019 • Media Contact : UT Arlington Media Relations

A graduate student at The University of Texas at Arlington has received a prestigious National Science Foundation grant to fund his research in evolutionary biology.

Jose Maldonado, second-year doctoral student in biology, was selected to receive a 2019 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. 

Jose Maldonado, a second-year doctoral student in biology, was selected to receive a 2019 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. The GRF program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing research-based graduate degrees at accredited United States institutions in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.

Maldonado, whose faculty adviser is biology Associate Professor Matt Fujita, said he was shocked when he received the news.

“I couldn't believe I had won,” he said. “I read the email over 10 times to make sure I had read it correctly, and that my eyes weren't playing a trick on me. That was followed by pure joy and excitement as the realization set in.”

The GRF award will support Maldonado’s dissertation research into why sexual rather than asexual reproduction evolved as the dominant form. Asexual populations grow at a faster rate and thus have a demographic advantage, but one possible disadvantage is that harmful mutations can accumulate in asexual lineages. These are normally purged in populations with sexual reproduction.

“As these mutations accumulate, they reduce the organism’s fitness and eventually lead to the extinction of asexual lineages,” Maldonado said.

He will test this prediction using an asexual gecko species, Lepidodactylus lugubris, also called the mourning gecko. This species arose from hybridization between two diverged sexual species.

“We are planning to resequence the whole genome of both asexual and sexual geckos from natural populations, then test which geckos have accumulated more mutations,” he said. 

How sexually reproducing organisms evolved from asexually reproducing ancestors is a question that has long puzzled scientists and is known as the “queen of problems in evolutionary biology.” 

While growing up, Maldonado loved reading books on natural history and visiting natural history museums. He developed his fascination with biodiversity while attending Trinidad Garza Early College High School in Dallas. After learning about the theory of evolution, he says, he became hooked on the subject. Upon graduating from high school, he enrolled at UTA and started working on a B.S. degree in biology. 

After taking an undergraduate genomics course taught by Fujita, Maldonado began working in his lab as a researcher. He enjoyed it so much that he stayed on after earning his degree in 2014, the same year that he was honored as the top student worker at UTA. He worked as Fujita’s lab manager for two years before starting his doctoral studies in 2017.

“Jose is the hardest-working undergraduate that I have known, and as my lab manager, he collected more data than many of my graduate students combined,” Fujita said. “Now as a graduate student, he is ready to make his mark in academia with his own research agenda. He is passionate about the science and excited to see results. The promise of discovery drives his motivation to push himself further as an intellectual.”

Fujita noted that Maldonado is also committed to outreach and helping other students.

“Jose has served as a tutor for high school students who are struggling in STEM, hoping to give them the tools to not only excel in their classes but to find an appreciation and perhaps—like he did—a passion,” Fujita said. “We have also had high school students as interns in the lab, and Jose took them under his wing and served as their primary mentor for conducting research. He continues to mentor undergraduate researchers as they seek to gain experience in the lab beyond the classroom.”

After earning his doctorate, Maldonado wants to apply for an NSF postdoctoral fellowship, with the eventual goal of becoming a faculty member at a research university.

“I want to carry out research, teach evolutionary biology courses and help bring more diversity into the STEM community to build a more inclusive scientific community,” he said.