Faculty Spotlights

Faculty Spotlights


Dr. Christina Zakas (New Faculty in Fall 2019)

PhD in Genetics, University of Georgia
B.S. in Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Research website: https://sites.google.com/site/christinaznyu/research

Other NC State graduate program affiliation(s): Ecology and Evolution

Dr. Zakas’ lab studies evolutionary development genetics in marine models. On her website, Dr. Zakas details her research interests as the following:

I am broadly interested in understanding the evolution of life history strategies and developmental processes. To understand how the environment influences genetic variation, I use an integrative approach combining genomics, population genetics, and evolutionary developmental biology. I use marine invertebrates as model systems because they have a wide array of fascinating developmental modes. By studying organisms with atypical reproductive and developmental strategies, I can learn about the rules that govern major evolutionary transitions.

Dr. Zakas will officially join the exceptional NC State Genetics faculty in August 2019. Having obtained her bachelor’s degree just down the road at UNC Chapel Hill, she is looking forward to coming back to the Triangle with new skills, knowledge, and research projects. Specifically, she chose to host her research at NC State because of the opportunities available to work collaboratively with other labs across the university. “My work is interdisciplinary, and I want to draw from the expertise in many different fields at NC State.” With the Genetics program spanning across five different colleges, the avenues for interdisciplinary research are endless.

At the start of the new 2019-2020 academic year, Dr. Zakas will be eager to find students who are interested in the evolution of development and life history, specifically in marine organisms and environments. She’s looking for students who are not only strong academically, but who are confident and inquisitive. “Answering major evolutionary questions requires having a broad knowledge base and a propensity to go wherever the most interesting questions lead.”

Dr. Zakas has been published many times, most recently in the peer-reviewed biomedical and life sciences journal, eLife. Many of her publications can be found below:

– Zakas, C, JM Deutscher, AD Kay, MV Rockman. 2018. Decoupled maternal and zygotic effects shape the evolution of development. eLife. 7:e37143.
Zakas, C, MV Rockman. 2015. Population transcriptomics reveal limited genomic divergence in a species with a heritable life-history dimorphism. Evolution & Development. 17:4 240-247.
– Zakas, C, MV Rockman. 2014. Dimorphic development in Streblospio benedicti: genetic analysis of morphological differences between larval types. International Journal of Developmental Biology. 58: 593-599.
– Zakas, C, K Jones, J Wares. 2014.  Homogenous nuclear background for mitochondrial cline in Northern range of Notochthamalus scabrosus. G3: Genes Genomes Genetics. 4: 225-230.
– Zakas, C, J Wares. 2012. Consequences of a poecilogonous life history for genetic structure in coastal populations of the polychaete Streblospio benedicti. Molecular Ecology. 21: 5447-5460.
– Zakas, C, N Schult, D McHugh, K Jones, J Wares. 2012. Transcriptome analysis and SNP development can resolve population differentiation of Streblospio benedicti, a developmentally dimorphic marine annelid. PloS one. 7: e31613.
– Zakas, C, D Hall. 2012. Asymmetric Dispersal can maintain larval polymorphism: A model motivated by Streblospio benedicti. Integrative and Comparative Biology. 52: 197-212.
– Zakas, C, J Binford, S Navarrete, J Wares. 2009. Restricted gene flow in Chilean barnacles reflects biogeographic and oceanographic transition zone. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 394:165-177.
– Allen, JD, C Zakas, RD Podolsky. 2006. Effects of egg size reduction and larval feeding on juvenile quality for a species with facultative-feeding development. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 331: 186-197.


Dr. Caiti Smukowski Heil (New Faculty in Spring 2019)

PhD in Biology, Duke University
B.A. in Biology, University of Pennsylvania

Lab: www.csheil.com

Other NC State graduate program affiliation(s): Biology, Genomic Sciences

Dr. Heil’s lab studies “hybridization, recombination, adaptation, and genome evolution utilizing the Saccharomyces yeasts as a model system. Hybrids have long been used for agricultural purposes, and recent genome sequencing has illuminated the ubiquity of past hybridization events in natural and industrial populations, like in the fermentation of beer and wine. We are therefore interested in how hybridization influences the evolution of populations, and whether hybridization provides genetic variation that aids a population in adaptation to new and changing environments. We combine experimental evolution, genetics, and genomics to address our research questions and identify genetic mechanisms that determine hybrid fitness.

Dr. Heil will become one of many excellent faculty members at NC State beginning in January 2019. Having completed her PhD at Duke University and living nearby for about five years, she was introduced to NC State faculty at Duke hosted seminars. She also knew colleagues from her previous program who went on to take postdoctoral positions at NC State. Through these experiences, she became familiar with the diverse research conducted on campus and the scientific community throughout the entire Research Triangle. After moving away, she realized the environment and research were unique compared to other communities. Now that she is returning to the area as NC State faculty, she is excited to collaborate with other labs across various departments and add to the innovative work taking place.

When she starts in Spring 2019, Dr. Heil is looking to take on students in her lab who are reliable, passionate, curious, and work well with others. She’s also eager to contribute her own ideas and methods to the Genetics Program structure. “I think [Genetics] students need a foundation in grant writing, statistics, and bioinformatics in addition to more traditional courses in molecular, evolutionary, and quantitative genetics.” Dr. Heil considers these skills valuable to all students in the program, knowing they will lead to proficiency in programming language and genomic analysis among other important capabilities. “I would also love to incorporate an Individual Development Plan to explore career trajectories and expose students to training in management concepts like conflict resolution, time management, and work/life balance”, as well as other skills that are beneficial in both professional and personal environments. Through her ideas and the addition of her lab, the Genetics Program at NC State will continue to develop and remain competitive among other top graduate programs in the nation.

Dr. Heil was recognized by the Genetics Society of America in 2018, presented with the DeLill Nasser Award for Professional Development in Genetics. She also has provided a few publications, listed below:

Lancaster, S.M., C. Payen, C. Smukowski Heil, M.J. Dunham. 2018. Fitness benefits of loss of heterozygosity in Saccharomyces hybrids. bioRxiv. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/452748.
– Smukowski Heil, C., C.R.L. Large, K. Patterson, M.J. Dunham. 2018. Temperature preference biases parental genome retention during hybrid evolution. bioRxiv. doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/429803.


Dr. Rubén Rellán-Álvarez (New Faculty in Spring 2019)

PhD, Aula Dei Experimental Station (Spain)
M.S., Autonomous University of Madrid (Spain)
B.S. in Environmental Sciences, Autonomous University of Madrid (Spain)

Lab: www.rrlab.org/

Other NC State graduate program affiliation(s): Biochemistry

Dr. Rellán-Álvarez describes his lab and research as focusing “on deciphering the genetic and physiological mechanisms underlying metabolism reorganization in plants during adaptation to abiotic stresses including suboptimal temperatures and nutrient concentrations. We use a combination of quantitative and population genetics together with high precision metabolic phenotyping to identify loci that have been under selection during adaptation to particular environments and that are involved in the determination of metabolic traits. We then use reverse genetics, heterologous expression to functionally characterize the allelic effects of candidate genes. In particular we are using maize glycerolipid remodelling during the process of maize adaptation to different highland environments across the Americas as our study system. Using the approaches above together with maize landrace mapping populations grown in highland and lowland common garden fields in México, we have identified loci that explain distinct glycerolipid patterns in highland maize. We are currently functionally characterizing these loci with the goal of understanding their contribution to maize adaptation to highland conditions and transferring beneficial alleles to modern maize varieties.”

Dr. Rellán-Álvarez will be joining NC State’s distinguished faculty in the Spring 2019 semester. The well-established Genetics Program and diverse range of research attracted him to NC State, particularly the quantitative and evolutionary genetics work conducted across the university. Dr. Rellán-Álvarez is looking forward to contributing to this tradition of excellence with his own research in the coming years as well as collaborating with other labs in order to produce comprehensive graduate training in all areas of genetics.

As a new faculty member, Dr. Rellán-Álvarez is planning to recruit students to his lab who are inquisitive and eager to learn different methods of research. Specifically, he wants to employ students who are interested in “understanding how natural genetic variation shapes local adaptation and are willing to investigate this process using a variety of tools” from a wide range of genetics fields, such as quantitative, evolution, and reverse genetics. The invaluable addition of his mentorship, research, and participation as a faculty member at NC State will strengthen the synergetic atmosphere and continued success within the Genetics Program for all graduate students and faculty members alike.

Dr. Rellán-Álvarez has received several recognitions for his work prior to coming to NC State. He was awarded the Marschner Young Scientist Award in 2013 from the International Plant Nutrition Colloquium in Istanbul, Turkey (an organization which acknowledges researchers across the world who uniquely contribute to the field of plant nutrition). Dr. Rellán-Álvarez has also received various grants, which can be seen below along with his publications:

– $25,000 from the UC-Mexus Program. PI. Co-PI Oliver Fiehn, UC-Davis. The role of phospholipids in maize adaptation to Mexican highlands. 2016-2018.
– $100,000 from the Conacyt Basic Science Young Investigator. PI Natural Variation of lipid reorganization of plants under phosphorus deficiency. 2015-2018.
– $100,000 from the Conacyt National Problems Program Young Investigator. PI. Identification of loci involved in maize lipid metabolism for adaptation to future climate change. 2017-2019.

– Rellán-Álvarez R, Lobet G, Hildner H, Pradier PL, Sebastian J, Yee MC, Yu G, La Rue T, Trontin C, Schrager A, Haney C, Nieu R, Maloof J, Vogel J, Dinneny JR (2015) GLO-Roots: an imaging platform enabling multidimensional characterization of soil-grown roots systems eLife 4:e07597.


Dr. Anna Stepanova

PhD, University of Pennsylvania
M.S., Nizhni Novgorod State University (Russia)
B.S., University of Nevada Reno

Lab: https://alonsostepanova.wordpress.ncsu.edu/

Research areas: Plant molecular genetics, phytohomormones, synthetic biology

The overarching goal of Dr. Stepanova’s research is to understand how plants perceive a wide array of environmental signals, integrate this information with their developmental programs, and produce adequate responses that enable the plants to adapt to specific environmental conditions. She has been using various molecular, genetic, genomic, biochemical, synthetic and cell biology approaches in Arabidopsis and other plant species to explore the role of plant hormones in mediating plant phenotypic plasticity, to decipher the molecular mechanisms of auxin biosynthesis and ethylene signaling, to uncover the interaction nodes between the hormonal pathways, and to determine the contribution of translational regulation to hormone signaling/response and plant development.

Dr. Stepanova admires the commitment NC State Genetics has for providing its graduate students with an in-depth, collaborative education. She attests that NC State uniquely gives its students a “solid knowledge of both cell/molecular and quantitative/evolutionary genetics”, ultimately resulting in successful careers within the genetics field after graduation. Additionally, she emphasizes the program’s dedication to making sure graduate students develop exceptional writing and oral presentation skills while obtaining their degree.

Dr. Stepanova recently won a prestigious CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (NSF IOS) for $1,275,899. The proposal was “Tailoring hormone responses in plants via synthetic signal integration devices”, and with the new award, Dr. Stepanova has the ability to support new PhD students in her lab who have an interest in her research areas and who are inquisitive, interactive, hard-working, and resilient.

Receiving the NSF CAREER grant is not the first time Dr. Stepanova’s impactful research has been recognized. Earlier in 2018, she was awarded 1st place in the Faculty and Staff Microscopy category of the Envisioning Research Contest hosted by NC State’s Office of Research and Innovation. Some of her recent publications are listed below:

– Brumos J., Robles L.M., Yun J., Vu T.C., Jackson S., Alonso J.M., Stepanova A.N. (2018) Local auxin biosynthesis is a key regulator of plant development. Dev Cell (provisionally accepted)
– Mazzoni-Putman S. and Stepanova A.N. (2018) A plant biologist’s toolbox to study translation. Front Plant Sci 9:873. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2018.00873
– Bhosale R., Giri J., Pandey B.K., Giehl R.F.H., Hartmann A., Traini R., Truskina J., Leftley N., Hanlon M., Swarup K., Rashed A., Voß U., Alonso J., Stepanova A., Yun J.4, Ljung K., , Brown K.M., Lynch J.P., Dolan L., , Vernoux T., Bishopp A., Wells D., von Wirén N., Bennett M.J., Swarup R. (2018) A mechanistic framework for auxin dependent Arabidopsis root hair elongation to low external phosphate. Nature Commun 9(1):1409 doi:10.1038/s41467-018-03851-3
– Ferrando, A., Castellano, M. M., Lisón, P., Leister, D., Stepanova, A. N., Hanson, J., eds. (2018). Relevance of Translational Regulation on Plant Growth and Environmental Responses. Lausanne: Frontiers Media. doi: 10.3389/978-2-88945-413-6