Avon, NC

Fish Team

Learn about us and our research!

Alex Dornburg, Ph.D.

I am an evolutionary biologist with a broad interest in vertebrates, especially fishes. With over 30,000 species, ray-finned fishes are argueably among the most successful vertebrates on our planet. Although they may look quite different from us, we also share remarkable genetic similarities with fish species as diverse as gar and pufferfishes. But just how did this diversity come to be, and how has it persisted over millions of years? Moreover, how can an understanding of this diversity aid us in understanding our own genomes? My goal is to investigate the biodiversity of fishes to answer these types of questions.

My current research primarily focuses on three topics: 1) The evolutionary history of marine fishes in threatened ecosystems (reefs and the Antarctic); 2) the mechanisms and functional consequences of gene family diversification in the ray-finned fish innate immune system; and 3) the development of theory and software to aid comparative phylogenomic research. In addressing these topics, I hope to illuminate general features of vertebrate evolution while providing critical historical context that can help us more effectively face emergent challenges to both conservation and human health.
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Lab Alumni

April Lamb

I am a M.S. student and NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University and have been volunteering at the NCMNS since 2015. My scientific interests range across a wide spectrum of the animal kingdom’s biodiversity, so my research often takes an integrative and cross-disciplinary approach to addressing applied questions that transcend traditional boundaries of ecology and evolutionary biology. Specifically, I am interested in understanding (1) how vertebrate species diversity is generated and maintained over time and (2) how non-native species introductions influence community composition and abundance, growth, and niche occupancy of native species to better inform management decisions regarding imperiled systems. Here at the museum, I work with scientists on relevant research projects that relate to fish and/or collections-based specimens. I also help maintain the fish unit’s research collection by databasing, georeferencing, and organizing data in the collection database and by processing specimens for long-term storage in the collection.

Richard Morris

After retiring as a statistician working on problems in public health and medical applications, I wondered what to do with my free time. Then I became fascinated by ideas about the underlying processes and consequences of evolution. And so, I return to earlier interests in life with new tools and perspectives. My goal is to contribute in any way I can to ongoing studies in the lab.

Katerina Zapfe

I am a Clemson University master’s student and NSF Graduate Research Fellow interested in phylogenetics and evolutionary patterns of diversity in marine fishes. I graduated from NC State University in 2015 and have since become involved in marine science education, public outreach, and research with the NCMNS fishes unit. My research interests utilize phylogenomic and comparative methods to illuminate patterns of lineage persistence and phenotypic disparity. Why are some clades more ecologically diverse than others? How have lineages persisted in the face of environmental change? By answering questions such as these, I strive to produce meaningful scientific contributions to the field of evolutionary biology to inform conservation initiatives and our collective understanding of Earth’s biodiversity. I am also an avid SCUBA diver and founding member of Future Frogmen, a Cousteau diver founded non-profit organization, and regularly contribute biological illustrations to accompany publications.

Tim Curtis

Willa Brooks

I graduated from Emory University in 2014 with a bachelors in Environmental Science and a minor in math. My primary interest lies in marine conservation and I have worked in several areas of marine science education and outreach, fisheries management policy analysis, and field and lab based marine research. Working with the fishes unit I am developing a foundation in phylogenetic and biogeographic analyses as we investigate a complex pattern of cryptic species diversity in Caribbean blennies. Understanding patterns of species diversity forms the critical foundation for much of organismal biology, and I look forward to utilizing the skills and knowledge I gain in the ichthyology unit to develop new perspectives on contemporary issues in marine conservation.

Abagail Burrus

I am currently getting my feet wet in phylogenetic studies by constructing a Lycopod Tree of Life and also studying the possible effects of Madagascar’s hypervariable climate on the community-level organization its endemic trees. I’m interested in pursuing projects in plant phylogenetics that unite integrative taxonomy, herbarium research, and applications towards conservation. What can the history of flora found in our natural history collections tell us about impending (or active) changes in the floral landscape due to factors like climate change? What other novel uses arise for collections such as herbaria when a researcher combines modern data analysis with such historical datasets? What new strategies and biological understandings can combined molecular and morphological phylogenetic analyses give us by illuminating more branches (or new pathways) on the evolutionary trees of various plant groups?

Rita Chen

I am a junior applied math major student at NC State. I’m interested in bioinformatics and am currently working on developing new phylogenetic theory on the utility of outgroups.

Joseph Flores

I am a 2014 graduate of the University of North Carolina Wilmington with my B.S. in marine biology. My primary interests are in marine life and conservation and I enjoy both field work and hands on data gathering. I am currently collecting morphometric data to better understand biodiversity patterns in several species of fish, both in fresh and salt water. Quantifying morphological change within or between species can gleam valuable insights into a range of topics including the discovery of cryptic diversity and correlations between form, function, and life history. I am looking forward to expanding my knowledge of fishes and ultimately finding a career in this field of study.

Leela Rao

I hold degrees in Zoology from NC State University, a Masters in Coastal Environmental Management from Duke University, and a degree in Veterinary Medical Technology. I love championing less celebrated species, especially those that have a profound influence on our natural ecosystems. Fishes are one such example, often seen only through a consumer lens. I seek to reveal the extraordinary and diverse characteristics of these taxa, and bring awareness to their plight for a more sustainable existence alongside humanity. Working in the fishes unit, I am involved in a study assessing the evolutionary dynamics associated with transitions between activity patterns, and am helping the unit develop a research program in fish hematology in collaboration with the museum’s veterinary staff. I also have a guinea pig named Hubble, named after the telescope that has arguably provided data for the most groundbreaking scientific discoveries in the history of humankind, and a puppy named Simba.He is fluffy and goofy, and has been taught to be wary of estranged uncles bearing gifts.