Note From the Chair
I write to you near the end one of the most trying years in the history of the University. Between the pandemic, our attempts to continue the education and research mission of the department, the visceral impact of climate change on our nation, and upheavals in our society, it has been a challenge to balance our professional, personal and family lives. There will be considerable financial and emotional impact stemming from the pandemic and the quarantine. As Chair, I continue to advocate for positions and resources for our department, highlighting the acute need for a biologically-informed public. Educating the public begins with providing our graduates a strong foundation in the biological sciences.
Our University has approved the recruitment of a cluster of 6 outstanding tenure track faculty to deepen and expand research and teaching related to racial equity. One of these will be a Biologist working in the general area of microbiology as it pertains to health, wellness, and equity in communities of color. We are very excited to begin interviews in the new year.
Our classes are largely remote and while the new modality does not replace in-person learning, our Teaching Faculty continue to lead us with the most effective tools and strategies for the “Zoom” classroom. The creativity in videos and youtube clips that faculty are putting together give me hope and confidence in our ability to deliver the material and keep our students fully engaged.
Several of the impressive accomplishments this semester include Dr. Kelly Hogan, recipient of the National Association of Biology Teaching award and two UNC Biology faculty cited in the NYTimes Science News section: Dr. Amy Gladfelter’s lab is making major contributions in understanding the physical attributes of coronavirus RNA ; and Dr. Alan Weakely’s lab on plant extinction .
As we move beyond our current crises, the department will rely on our alumni and supporters to continue their support as we instill the wonder and complexity of the natural world to the next generation.
Dr. Kelly Hogan, Teaching Professor in the Department of Biology is the recipient of this year’s National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) Teaching Award! NABT awards recognize teachers for their expertise in specific subject areas, for contributions to the profession made by new teachers, and to recognize service to NABT, life science teaching, or leadership in learning communities.
Please join the department in congratulating Kelly for the incredible impact she has on her students, our department, and UNC. In Kelly’s own words, “One teacher can make a difference. One teacher can help invite more students into a discipline. One teacher can help retain a more diverse group of scientists in their discipline. One teacher can help graduate a more diverse group of scientists. It begins with an inclusive mindset around course structure and facilitation.”
Dr. Gregory Copenhaver, Professor in the Department of Biology has been named Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He is one of three professors in the College of Arts & Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill to be named. Other recipients include James Anderson (Computer Science) and Richard Smith (Statistics and Operations Research)
Dr. Copenhaver was selected for his distinguished contributions to the field of plant molecular genetics, particularly for novel insights into plant reproductive biology.
"You can’t have a light without a dark to put it in” – Arlo Guthrie
Sönke Johnsen, Ph.D. '96, Kier Lab; Professor of Biology, Duke University
In the deep sea, there is little light left from the sun, but many of the animals living there produce their own bioluminescent light. Bioluminescence is used by deep-sea animals to illuminate prey, startle attackers, camouflage, and find mates. For animals looking to remain hidden, however, reflecting even a tiny fraction of this bioluminescent light may reveal them to potential predators or prey. To be maximally camouflaged against the pitch-black background, an animal must absorb almost all the light that hits it. In other words, it must be ultra-black.
Alexander Davis, Class of '18; Graduate student, Johnsen Lab
To investigate whether any deep-sea animals are indeed ultra-black, Dr. Sönke Johnsen and his trainee Alex Davis captured dozens of fishes in the Gulf of Mexico and Monterey Bay using a trawl net. When the researchers measured their reflectance, they found that 16 species from distantly related groups of fishes reflected less than 0.5% of the light that hit them, with the blackest species reflecting less than 0.05%. A reflectance between 0.05% and 0.5% is 10-100x darker than everyday black objects and places these fishes among the blackest objects on the planet. The question remained – how did they do it? Using electron microscopy, Johnsen's lab found that all 16 species achieved low reflectance with a continuous layer of melanosome (pigment containing organelles) in their skin and found the melanosomes are larger and more oblong than those in other fishes. Their computational modeling confirmed that the unusual size and shape of the melanosomes in these fishes reduced reflectance by up to 50% compared to typical melanosomes. All told, the researchers in Johnsen's lab calculated that ultra-black skin in deep-sea fishes reduces the distance they can be seen from by up to 6-fold, providing excellent camouflage in a world where every photon counts.
Faculty: In Their Own Words
"We are fascinated by the spatial organization of the genome, the “DNA blueprint” of a cell. In textbook images, pairs of chromosomes are shown to form an “X” shaped structure. While this classic shape is visible for a brief time during cell division, we now know that chromosomes tend to adopt a different spatial pattern most of the time; imagine long continuous strings of hairballs! How does this pattern of DNA folding arise and is it important for how the genome is read? As a team of biologists, biochemists and computational biologists, we use a combination of cutting-edge genomics and genome editing tools to study the form and function of the genome.
Our current research focuses on the proteins and DNA sequences responsible for the spatial folding of DNA. One protein complex we study forms a ring that can pull DNA through its center, creating a loop in the DNA strand, or link two different DNA strands together like a clamp. We now know that the hairball structure is formed by many protein rings acting on a stretch of DNA. In this way, genes can be brought close to multiple regulatory DNAs that influence their activity. Changing the activity of genes can alter the state of a cell. This work is relevant for human health since these proteins and DNA sequences can be mutated in cancers and developmental syndromes. It is important to understand how these molecular processes normally work and how their loss leads to disease, so that we could one day create therapies to treat these defects." - Dr. Jill Dowen, Assistant Professor, Biochemistry & Biophysics, Biology
"My research is at the interface of neurobiology, biomechanics, and behavior and seeks to understand the role timing plays in controlling animal movement. Timing is crucial to the nervous system; the ability to rapidly detect and process subtle environmental disturbances determines whether an animal can attain its next meal or successfully navigate complex, unpredictable terrain. Previous work on a number of animals ,has made tremendous strides elucidating uncovering how the nervous system resolves timing differences with nanosecond resolution. But, a remaining gap in our understanding is how movement and behavior are structured by detecting these tiny timing differences.
The work in my lab aims to close this gap by focusing on the flight behavior of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Studying this problem in fruit flies allows us to combine the powerful genetic tools available for labeling and manipulating neural circuits with cutting-edge imaging in awake, behaving animals. Moreover, Flies perform steering maneuvers in less time than it takes us to blink, in part by using specialized mechanosensory organs known as the halteres. The long-term goal of my work is to provide insight into how animals’ sensory structures and neural circuits have evolved with their locomotor body dynamics to finely control behavior. These tiny, club-shaped structures are evolved from the hindwings and beat during flight, regulatinging the timing of the wing steering system with exquisite, sub-millisecond precision. Additionally, halteres serve as gyroscopic sensors by detecting Coriolis forces[HKP1] body rotations. Understanding how this deceptively simple insect is capable of performing the impressive aerial feats we observe in the natural world or around our wine glasses, demands an integrative approach that combines physics, muscle mechanics, neuroscience, and behavior. We believe this work will not only fundamentally reshape our understanding the evolution of insect flight, but will also highlight the tremendous importance of timing in the context of locomotion." - Dr. Bradley Dickerson, Assistant Professor and Kenan Honors Fellow
Research At a Glance
Associate Chair for Business Administration
This year introduced some exciting changes in our departmental leadership. Marie Fholer, our department manager for the last ten years, transitioned to a position in the Dean's Office. We greatly appreciate her years of dedication and service; she will be missed! With this change, we converted our managerial position to that of Associate Chair, which would allow for some additional oversight and long-term strategic planning for our future.
Logan Brackett joined the Department of Biology as the Associate Chair for Business Administration in October 2020. Prior to Biology, he served as the Department Manager in Romance Studies since March 2017, and prior to that he served as an Accounting Technician and Assistant to the Chair in the same department since starting at UNC in 2013. His Tar Heel roots go back even further, having earned his Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies here in 2011. He currently lives in Mebane with his husband, Caleb, where they raise several houseplants and enjoy taking fresh coffee and aged tawny port on the patio.
“The thought of starting a new position mid-semester while most of the team was working remotely seemed daunting to say the least, but I couldn’t pass up on this exciting opportunity! Everyone in the department has been incredibly welcoming from Day 1, helping me get settled and oriented to the many different facets of the operation. I’m so excited to be here and cannot wait to see what we can all accomplish together going forward!”
We hope you will all join us in welcoming Logan to the department!
Staff Reflections: Working through a pandemic
This eventful year has impacted members of the Department of Biology in a variety of ways. Our adminstrative and support staff have learned to quicky adapt in order to keep the department running smoothly, even amid a shut down and transition to remote work for some. The following are thoughts from some of these incredible staff about how they have handled the transition.
Danielle (Dani) Shirilla
Work Study Office Assistant, 2017-2021
Working VERY hard behind the scenes is the Department of Biology's administrative work study assistant, Dani Shirilla. Dani started with our department in the fall of 2017, her first year at UNC. As a first generation college student, Dani's enthusiasm and committed work ethic have been absolutely amazing to witness.
Each year, Dani demonstrated her abilities to take on more responsibility, far beyond what she was hired to do. Starting out making routine copies in 2017, by 2019 she was helping to maintain our website, manage our social media content, and provide additional support to other teams in the department.
This is Dani's last year at UNC and as our trusty departmental work study assistant! She will leave huge shoes to fill. We are excited to see what the future holds!
"I am a senior in the English and Information Science programs here at UNC and I am currently applying to graduate programs pertaining to Information and Library Sciences. Throughout my undergraduate career, I have been a work-study in the UNC Department of Biology in which I made some amazing connections with the faculty and staff and learned countless skills (enough skills to land me an internship at the North Carolina State Archives). I hope to go into museums and archives as an outreach coordinator or curator to ensure that my institution promotes inclusive messages and is accessible to all members of my community. But wherever I end up, I will always be grateful to my Biology family for taking a chance on a clueless first-year student four years ago and teaching me how to become a valued team member!"