By Victoria Dekle
Salamanders, one of the oldest lineages of extant animals, are beloved by biology Ph.D. student, Paul Hime. Some of Hime’s research subjects, however, may not be on the top of everyone’s cute animal list. Take, for instance, the North American hellbender salamander – an aquatic amphibian, largely unchanged since before the age of dinosaurs, that can grow over two feet long. “They’re in the water. They’re slimy. They’re big,” Hime said with a grin.
These large and nearly endangered amphibians live in many of Kentucky’s cool rivers and Hime is working with his laboratory director and adviser, David Weisrock, to study the hellbenders in their native environments and to assess species boundaries in this group. In order to do this, Hime and his colleagues go into the field, don wetsuits and snorkels, and tag individual salamanders for study.
I asked Hime how they could catch and tag such a large specimen.
“We have some tricks of the trade,” he said, smiling. “We dive to the bottom of creeks and rivers with underwater lights and search under large rocks for these elusive salamanders. Once we find a hellbender, we gently coax it into a mesh net and briefly bring it ashore for study before returning it to its rock.”
These days, Hime is collecting more than salamanders, for he was recently awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. This prestigious and highly-competitive award will provide Hime with three years of financial support while he completes his doctoral degree here at the University of Kentucky.
Hime has been a self-described reptile and amphibian lover for his whole life. He studied these animals during his undergraduate studies at Washington University in St. Louis, while also working in the evolutionary ecology lab of Professor Jonathan Losos. “It was an awesome experience!” he exclaimed. “I got a lot of experience doing research early on.”
After graduating and wrapping up his work in the Losos lab, Hime moved across town to the St. Louis Zoo to work in their reptile and amphibian department. While hands-on work at the zoo was exciting and it encouraged Hime to consider new research possibilities within the field of evolutionary biology and species conservation, Hime realized that he would need to further his education to pursue his career goals.
“I saw that a career in research was really the way to go and that getting the Ph.D. was a necessary requisite for the work I wanted to do later.”
Those interests in evolutionary science and conversation led Hime to contact Assistant Professor David Weisrock in the Department of Biology at the University of Kentucky. This month, Hime will begin his third year as a graduate research assistant in Weisrock’s laboratory.
Hime works on a variety of projects in the Weisrock lab, but his main emphasis is on two particular projects – 1) his dissertation research on genome evolution in amphibians, and 2) a conservation project of hellbender salamanders in the deep, cold rivers across the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
Hime received the National Science Foundation Fellowship for his research initiatives with amphibian genome evolution. In short, this project asks why some lineages of amphibians have much greater levels of species richness than others and what roles changes in the genome may play in diversification.
Images of laboratory goggles and amphibian tanks come to mind when we hear about Hime’s research, but graduate research in evolutionary biology looks a little different these days. “I naively came to graduate school expecting to spend a lot of time in the field and a lot of time at the laboratory bench,” he explained, “extracting DNA, amplifying up genes, and I was very wrong! Unbeknownst to me, coming to graduate school in biology nowadays now necessitates that you become a computer programmer.”
Hime thinks that he has found a great home for his research and scholarly development here at the University of Kentucky. Other than Weisrock, Hime’s committee includes Randall Voss, Catherine Linnen and David Westneat in Biology and Christopher Shardl from the Plant Pathology Department.
“I think my department is moving in some really exciting directions with a lot of the recent hires…I think it’s really becoming a center for cutting edge evolutionary and systematics research.”
He also mentioned that the cross-talk between laboratories in the department is very strong and that the department is very supportive of graduate students.
“It was important to me to be able to have a leading role in where my research goes and my adviser, David Weisrock, has been very supportive at every turn of that.”
One day Hime would like to follow the lead of Weisrock and other researchers in evolutionary biology by having his own laboratory and to be working in an academic environment. “I would love that – being able to do not only the research and the teaching, but also mentoring students.”