21-Year-Old Doctoral Grad Receives National Science Foundation Grant

Alex Pyron has been studying in CSI Biology Professor Frank Burbrink’s lab since he was 17. Perhaps that seems like a good time to start college, but what is remarkable is that he began his graduate program at that age, after receiving a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from Piedmont College in Georgia at 16. During his tenure at CSI and the CUNY Graduate Center, Pyron has racked up two Master’s degrees and a PhD.

Reminiscing on what it has been like studying under Burbrink, along with fellow PhD candidate Tim Guiher, Pyron says, “Tim and I were Frank’s second and third PhD students, so it’s been kind of a learning process for all of us. Our research program has been less structured. It opened us up to a wider range of research questions, rather than focusing on single projects. Frank and I have published seven or eight papers on various subjects in evolution and systematic biology. Working here and working with Frank has been very different than it would have been anywhere else. It’s more of a free-form learning experience.” Thinking back on when he first moved to New York, Pyron notes, “It was kind of a strange experience, but I think Frank facilitated that a lot. There have never been any restrictions in Frank’s lab on what we could do, what kind of questions we could ask, and what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

Now, along with a number of prestigious grants that he has received, such as one from the American Museum of Natural History Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Fund, and the American Philosophical Society from their Lewis and Clark Explorers Fund, Pyron can add the National Science Foundation Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship in Biological Informatics, which, according to Pyron, “was awarded on the basis of the work that I’ve done here with Frank, to do further research at Stony Brook University.”

Pyron’s doctoral thesis was entitled ” Systematics of Historical Biogeography of the Lampropeltinine Snakes.” “This is a tribe that only occurs in North America–there are about 31 species, and it comprises a great deal of non-venomous snakes in North America that people are familiar with that aren’t venomous (e.g., a black rat or corn snake). In this group you see everything from 18- to 24-inch short-tailed snakes that live only in Florida, to the gopher snake that lives throughout most of the central and western U.S., which grows up to nine feet long—it’s the largest snake in North America. So you have a large range of variation here. The question was how did that range of variation evolve, and what does that really tell us about the underlying evolutionary process that can drive the evolution of things like size, diet, and color patterns, especially with things that we see such as coral snake mimicry?”

Last summer, Pyron began work on the research that he is now continuing as he pursues his post-doc at Stony Brook. This investigation employs the use of new genetic methods “toward building a tree of life [that includes] all species. We’re working specifically with the advanced snakes, a group which contains about 2,500 species. We have a phylogenic tree that illustrates the evolutionary relationships of these [snakes]—about 700 of the 2,500 species—that we’re going to be using to examine things like where on the planet did they originate; what has been the evolutionary history of life history traits, like whether they lay eggs or give live birth; how they’ve dispersed between temperate and tropical areas; and the most important thing: what factors underlie the distribution of species richness over the globe…”

Once Pyron completes this ambitious research, he says that “my main goal is to get a job as a researcher and professor teaching biology at a major research institution, but continuing the research I’m doing now indefinitely.” Underscoring his passion for things that slither, Pyron adds, “Pretty much the only thing I care about doing professionally in my life is scientific research investigating the evolutionary history of snakes…”

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