Ryan York is a CEHG graduate fellow in the labs of Russell Fernald and Hunter Fraser. He is a graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles. His research is focused on the evolutionary genomic basis of brain and behavior, with a specific interest in the courtship behaviors of Lake Malawi cichlid fish.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, personally and professionally?
I am a graduate student in the labs of Russell Fernald and Hunter Fraser. I grew up in the Bay Area, and did my undergrad at UCLA. Before coming to Stanford, I worked as a research technician, first in Stephanie White’s lab at UCLA, studying the molecular bases of bird song, and then with John Allman at Caltech, researching neural traits unique to humans. My research is broadly concerned with understanding the evolution of brains and behaviors across disciplines, from genes to organisms. I am also a musician and artist and am interested in the intersections of art and biology.
Did you always want to be a scientist? What initially got you interested in science and genetics?
I didn’t always want to be a scientist. I was not someone who, as a child, knew they were destined to study a specific species or natural phenomenon. In fact, I began my undergraduate years as a Jazz Studies Major, having semi-professionally performed and recorded as a double bassist since the age of 14. What’s more, in high school, I was a “bad” science student, constantly feeling like I couldn’t measure up to those in my class who seemed to show natural talent for understanding and memorizing facts about enzymatic reactions and taxonomy. I was interested, but disengaged, convinced that my future lay in the Arts. Yet when I began taking classes in history and sociology in college, I realized that a whole world of interest existed for me outside of art. I caught the bug of wanting to understand human behavior, and that drive led me to crave more and more fundamental levels of understanding. Sociology led me to psychology, psychology led me to neuroscience, and neuroscience led me to genetics and molecular biology, and ultimately to where I am now.
Can you tell us about your current research and what you want to achieve with it?
My current research is focused on investigating how genomes produce the great behavioral diversity observed in animals. Despite decades of research, we still don’t fully understand how variation in genes and their regulation changes the function of the brain and its main output, behavior (especially our own). Historically, this has been due to technological constraints that incentivized researchers to focus on just a few model systems and behavioral types. Recent innovations in sequencing, neurobiology, and behavioral analysis are now allowing behavioral biologists to expand their focus to new species and groups displaying extreme behavioral diversity. My work attempts to develop methods that integrate these new approaches in order to understand how behaviors evolve and vary across biological levels.
I am primarily focused on an extremely diverse group of fish (cichlids) from Lake Malawi in East Africa. Though Lake Malawi is only around 5 million years old (i.e. very young, geologically speaking), there are already over 800 species of Malawi cichlids. Over 100 of these species perform a mating behavior, called “bower building,” that I am particularly interested in. During breeding season, males of these species will competitively build 3D structures out of sand to attract females, either in the form of a classic “sand castle” or as an excavated depression we a call a “pit”. We have shown that whether or not a male builds a castle or a pit is species-specific and innate, and that if you hybridize a pit species and castle species, the resulting hybrids will build both structures, resulting in a “pit-castle” bower.
To understand the genetic basis of this behavior, I am combining whole genome sequencing and RNA-seq in the hybrids, to uncover variants affecting the regulation of neural genes during different behavioral states. I am also using high-throughput behavioral phenotyping and genetic methods for analyzing signatures of recent neural activity to understand how variation in the cichlid genome leads to different behavioral and neural traits. I am now also working on applying these genetic methods to other types of data and species, including deer mice and fruit flies.
Were there specific people to whom you would attribute your academic and professional success?
There have been various people in my life who have had substantial impacts on my path (though not necessarily in ways that would lead one to predict that I’d end up in science). First off, my family has always been very supportive of whatever I wanted to pursue, be it jazz or evolutionary genetics, and have, at least, attempted to always show real interest in the odd topics I get obsessed with. In high school, my bass teacher, Seward McCain, supported my desire to major in music in college, but also strongly advocated for getting a full education outside of music, in order to avoid being one dimensional.
Multiple people in the sociology and anthropology departments at UCLA – Andrew Deener, Doug Hollan, Zsuzsa Berend, Jeffrey Prager, Alan Fisk – were instrumental in helping me figure out my life outside of music, and how to productively pursue my academic interests. Stephanie White charitably brought me into a real neuroscience lab as a research assistant when I, on paper, had no business being there. John Allman took my ideas seriously and guided me, with expert care, toward the better ones and away from the bad ones.
I have had a great experience working with my graduate advisors, Russ Fernald and Hunter Fraser. Both are wonderful advocates, collaborators, and mentors, and both have made possible whatever success I’ve achieved at Stanford.
Can you speak a bit to the role you see CEHG playing on Stanford campus?
I have found that CEHG provides a home for researchers who may be considered outliers or misfits in their own fields, be it due to their interdisciplinary focus or constant concern for achieving the next big thing (rather than what is currently fashionable). CEHG allows scientists to pursue these ideas at all levels – graduate, postdoc, faculty – knowing that they are supported both institutionally and intellectually.
As both a CEHG fellowship and research grant recipient, this has been really important for my growth as a researcher, and has allowed me to collect data and, in turn, produce work that is much more interdisciplinary and wide reaching than would have otherwise been possible.
What are your future plans? Where do you see yourself professionally in the next 5 or 10 years?
I am very excited to keep helping pioneer the study of behavioral evolution within the biological sciences. There is currently a small, but very motivated community of researchers who are working on ways to tackle this problem, and I would very much like to play a role in expanding this field’s focus and participation. To that end, I’m starting a postdoc this Fall in Tom Clandinin’s lab, to work on fundamental issues in the behavioral evolution of fruit fly species, and develop tools and methods that can be applied to a variety of species. In the future, I’d like to have my own lab, teach, and advocate for the benefit of using evolutionary perspectives in neuroscience, psychiatry, and human genetics.
What advice would you offer to other grad students or postdocs who are considering pursuing a similar educational and career path as you?
GET INTERESTED. It’s true that science is difficult, and to do it well requires knowledge of, and training in, an array of topics. But, in my experience, one of the main determinants of whether or not someone sticks with, and is successful in, science is their level of engagement with their topic.
Research benefits from an almost obsessive focus. Deeply wanting to know the answers to your questions somewhat forces the attainment of needed skills and knowledge. To me, this should be the way a researcher progresses, in the service of a project or question they are interested in, rather than in the service of the requirements of a graduate program or CV.
Tell us what you do when you aren’t working on research and why. Do you have hobbies? Special talents? Other passions besides science?
I still compose, record, and perform music, though the amount depends on where my research is at any given moment. These days, I am increasingly interested in working on ways to integrate science and art, both in the production of my music and visual art, and in the way my scientific work is displayed and disseminated. I also rock climb quite a bit and am, as of recently, an extremely amateur dumpling maker.