An evolutionary biologist dives into microscopic marine mysteries.
from STANFORD magazine
by Jill Patton
Tucked into the labyrinthine recesses of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, among 32 million specimens and cultural artifacts, is the slow loris. Rather, century-old specimens of the petite nocturnal primate from Southeast Asia, with whom Elora López-Nandam became quite acquainted.
After spending a summer extracting and decoding their DNA while an undergrad at Columbia, López-Nandam turned her attention to another sluggish creature, the sea cucumber, and the conservation implications of its genetic diversity in the coral reefs near Fiji. Along the way, she decided to devote her life to exploring big questions: how life on Earth has changed over the past 4 billion years, and what roles humans have played in those transformations.
Now a PhD candidate at Stanford in the lab of evolutionary biologist Stephen Palumbi, López-Nandam has spent the past six years in the Marshall Islands, American Samoa and Palau, and at Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, Calif., analyzing the genetics of coral to determine how they have adapted to major stressors such as mass bleaching events and nuclear bombing. “We have such a poor understanding of basic coral cell biology,” López-Nandam says. “What I’m trying to do is ask really fundamental questions about how these animals grow and how they’re actually operating on the cellular level, in order to piece together why they’re dying now.”