Sam Weaver with a wood frog

Sam Weaver

Research Q & A

What’s your hometown?

I’m from Anoka, Minnesota. Being from the Minneapolis suburbs means I have some very fond childhood memories of field trips to the old Bell Museum, and it’s crazy to think that I’ve ended up working for and with the Bell Museum. I am so thankful that the Bell is willing to support my research, and that I get to work in the Bell’s research collections preserving specimens for future study.

What are you currently working on?

I am now in my fourth year as a Ph.D. student in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, so I have been working steadily towards putting out my thesis chapters. My thesis is broadly focused on the role that hybridization and gene flow play in speciation and adaptation. Much of my work is focused on the potential for hybridization to facilitate adaptation to climate change in a high elevation salamander species. My funding from the Bell has allowed me to generate genetic data from across the massive genomes of these wonderful critters, and my work is one of the first attempts to reconcile genomic and phenotypic data to analyze the movement of an elevational hybrid zone. Furthermore, my work also focuses on the role that climate-imposed selection plays in maintaining species boundaries in the face of gene flow.

How are you working toward that goal?

In addition to this project, I’m also working with researchers at UNAM and the San Antonio Zoo to determine the extent of differentiation between subspecies of the mud turtle Kinosternon hirtipes. Some subspecies are listed as threatened, so this project aims to determine the degree of genetic differentiation and extent of gene flow between subspecies to determine whether any subspecies should be elevated to full species status.

Why are you focusing your work in that area?

When I reflect on why I’ve focused on this research, I think I’m largely motivated by a desire to understand how species can persist in the face of human-imposed selective pressures. Understanding the mechanisms that promote or constrict gene flow between species can help us understand what keeps species distinct, and we can work to prevent the loss of species through genetic swamping. Furthermore, uncovering cryptic diversity to preserve genetically isolated populations is important for preserving lineages that may actually be their own species before we’ve unknowingly lost them.

Where are you working on research/field work?

My research has taken me to the Appalachians multiple times to collect samples, which has been an absolute treat.

What will your next steps/research be?

In this next year and a half, I look forward to sequencing a few more samples to incorporate more geographic variation into my analyses and wrapping up my thesis! I’m eagerly anticipating finishing my last round of sequencing this summer and publishing the final two (or three, depending on how things shake out) thesis chapters, and finding a career that allows me to keep working in nature and preserving the wonderful critters we share the planet with!

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