Alison Ravenscraft is a 2015-2016 CEHG Fellow and a PhD candidate in the Ecology and Evolution track of the Biology Department. She is coadvised by Professors Kabir Peay (Stanford) and Carol Boggs (University of South Carolina). Her dissertation investigates the ecological and evolutionary relationships between host nutrition and microbial gut flora, using butterflies as a study system. Before she came to Stanford, Alison spent a year as a Harvard Trustman Traveling Fellow and lived in the Peruvian rainforest, where she worked as a field assistant on a project investigating an ant-plant mutualism. She received her BA in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology from Harvard University in 2009.
This content has been transcribed from an interview that took place on Stanford campus Wednesday, October 14, 2015 with CEHG’s Director of Programs, Cody Montana Sam and Communications Manager, Katie M. Kanagawa.
Can you tell us about yourself?
I am now a sixth year Ph.D. student, which is terrifying to say. I started in Carol Boggs’ lab, but she took a position at the University of South Carolina. So I started working with Carol on butterfly nutritional ecology, which is really where her focus is.
But around the time that Carol was thinking of moving, she and I were starting to talk about the possibility of there being another player here, because the butterflies have some interesting behaviors that people still don’t fully understand. We were wondering if symbiotic microbes, and particularly gut flora, might be interacting with some of those behaviors. There are some interesting patterns in butterfly nitrogen-seeking behaviors, and I was interested in whether gut flora might play a role there, because we know, in other systems, gut flora are really important in supplying nutrients that the animal isn’t getting from its diet.
Can you talk a bit more about the techniques you use to characterize butterfly microbiome gut bacteria?
I mostly use amplicon sequencing, which means I take all of the raw DNA extracted from the butterfly, which includes a lot of butterfly DNA but also microbial DNA. Then I amplify the 16s region of the bacterial ribosome. I have primers that are pretty broad, that will amplify any bacteria and won’t amplify hosts. Once you filter out the butterfly DNA that does get through, you end up with all these fragments from the same gene across many different bacterial species and then there are really great databases that already exist where you can match that sequence to known bacterial species. I also do this for the ITS region for fungi. Basically, what you get out of that is a list of the bacteria and the yeasts in butterfly guts. I haven’t done shotgun sequencing yet, but I would like to so I can look at the full genome of these bacteria and fungi living in the gut. I think that might be somewhere I would want to go for a postdoc, because I am very interested in function.
Going back in time, how did you first become interested in science?
I was really little. The story that my family likes to tell is, when I was two, my mom would put out this kiddy pool (I lived in St. Louis and it was really hot in the summer). My mom was doing a really good job; she hooked the hose up to the sink so I could have some warm water in the pool. She’d spent all this effort and time and I would get in for five minutes and a bug would fall in the pool and I would run screaming into the house (laughs). This happened several times.
She told my dad about this and he was like, I think I know what to do. So he went and got a bunch of bug guides, those Audubon field guides, and the next time this happened, and any time we found a bug in the house, he’d be like “Alison, what is it?” He’d flip through these beautiful guides full of photos of insects. Then I started running around with all these field guides, identifying bugs, and it’s basically been that way ever since. We like to joke that he went a little too far because now I’m a professional butterfly hunter (laughs). My mom has suffered through many summers with our porch covered in bug bottles!
Is there one person who you think has had the biggest impact on your career?
That’s hard. Probably, in terms of getting me here, my dad, with the field guides.
Also, towards the end of college, sort of on a whim, I ended up signing up for a women in science mentoring program and was paired with a postdoc at the time who is now a professor in Toronto, named Megan Frederickson. When I was an undergrad at Harvard, I got a grant for “a year of purposeful travel,” which is amazing. I love that they do this. I got to work with Megan in Peru for that whole year. She was a wonderful mentor, and we’re still in touch. I think that probably had the biggest impact because that was that weird transition between college and “what do I do with my life?” I think having that year and living on a field station, interacting with Megan and all the scientists there, made me realize how much I liked that.
What is it like working in Kabir’s and Carol’s labs?
They’re amazing, really wonderful. Carol and Kabir are the perfect mentors and I really like having them in combination. Carol is very established, she knows a lot of names in the field, she sets me up with people from around the world, and I feel really comfortable just chatting with her about my research and my future. She is really good at reminding me about deadlines. Kabir is great because he is just starting, so I get to see the complete other side of what I might be going through sometime in the semi-near future, watching him pick his first grad students and postdocs and get a lab set up. Whenever I have questions, I just knock on his doorframe, because his door is always open, and it’s always informal and always comfortable. And Kabir’s knowledge of microbial ecology has been really key in helping me get into the field.
Do you have advice for other grad students?
It will all work out. Getting started is extraordinarily stressful. I initially proposed a conservation project, reintroducing the Bay checkerspot [butterfly] to Jasper Ridge and, after about a year and a half of permitting issues, we got the permit, but the Stanford administration decided not to go through with it. That was stressful since I was almost to my quals, with no project. And it worked out. I redesigned a project that ended up shunting me into gut flora, which I am really excited about. I want to say, you’re at Stanford, there are a lot of amazing opportunities, it will work out.
Also, ask for help and, if there is something bothering you, talk to somebody about it.