Biodiversity and Environment Network

2013 Student Projects

Jim Dines is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences with a broad interest in the evolution of mammals. His dissertation research has focused on the extremely reduced hip bones of extant cetaceans (whales and dolphins). Often described as useless vestiges of a terrestrial heritage, the hip bones in cetaceans actually play an important role in mating and are potentially targets of sexual selection.  Using digital imaging and novel morphometric approaches, this line of research explores the striking diversity in size and shape of these enigmatic structures. One significant result is that the morphological divergence of hip bones is tightly correlated with species mating ecology.

Justin Hall is a graduate student working with the USC Keck School of Medicine and the Natural History Museum of LA County. His research focuses on the origin and evolution of avian (bird) flight. Nearly all of the most important fossil specimens for understanding the origin of avian flight are housed in collections in China and Germany. Using a high-resolution portable laser scanner, Justin is working to build a digital dataset of these dinosaur and bird skeletons. Through visits to these various collections, he will scan the fossils and create high-resolution digital models of the skeletons, and also take precise measurements of critical anatomical features. Ultimately, such digital models will serve as pilot data to acquire further external funding for advanced software to conduct biomechanical analyses of flight and create animations of predicted flight behavior for these fossil animals.

Asif Zubair is a graduate student in both the Department of Molecular and Computations Biology and the Keck School of Medicine, studying gene-to-phenotype mapping. Within species, phenotypic variation characterizes the biodiversity that we observe. Genome Wide Association Studies [GWAS] are one technique used in identifying the genetic variants that form the underlying basis of this variation, based on statistical modeling of genetic factors. Asif’s research works to move beyond this approach, to combine population genetic models and molecular biological knowledge through network models. Applying mathematics of dynamical systems together with computer simulations may allow researchers to recover more cryptic genetic variation than traditional GWAS analyses and identify the genetic factors that influence specific phenotypic traits, the understanding of which may be beneficial in disciplines such as human health and agricultural research.