The Ecology and Evolution research group is part of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, where Sasha is currently an adjunct
Despite the geographical distance, the units work closely with each other.
Lab members, in their own words
(in order of tenure)
Alexander Mikheyev (aka Sasha), principal investigator
I have broad interests in evolutionary biology, focusing mainly on leveraging the power of next-generation tools for answering long-standing basic questions. As a result, I like to explore new techniques, be they laboratory, computational, or involving new sequencing technologies. Although I started my career in the laboratory and in the field, presently I am more of a bioinformatician. Over the past couple of years, I became increasingly interested in applying short-read sequencing to degraded DNA, such as that found in museum, archaeological or other poorly preserved specimens. Having developed a range of tools for high-throughput processing of degraded insects, are harnessing these tools for projects ranging from ecosystem phylogenetics and phylogeography, to studying evolutionary processes using museum samples. Additionally, I maintain an interest in social insect systems, which I worked on during my graduate studies, and also nurture a more recently acquired research program using snake venoms to understand adaptation. In my spare time, I enjoy long runs, and playing the violin.
Lijun-Qiu, research technician
I have a long-time interest in molecular biology and genetics. Before joining the lab, I spent 5 years working on molecular genetics of castor bean. Now I am working as a research technician on ancient DNA, including ancient DNA extraction, sequencing and so on. So I have the chance to work with different precious samples such as museum samples; it is work requiring special care. In the meantime, I also help Misato with a project on the reproductive system of the ant Vollenhovia emeryi, which is really a new world for me. As a Chinese person, I enjoy the peaceful life and beautiful landscape here.
Maeva Techer, postdoc
My primary research interests are mainly directed towards understanding how the evolutionary and ecological processes drive and maintain genetic diversity in populations, particularly in islands systems. I completed my PhD at the University of La Réunion on the genetic diversity and phylogeography of the honeybee in the Indian Ocean hotspot of biodiversity. I combined classical population genetics and demographic inferences approaches to better understand from where insular populations may have originated, and which factors shaped their evolution since. Now focusing on Varroa-honeybee model, I have the opportunity to dig into large genomic data to understand what factors drove successful independent host switches and subsequent spread. Using the power and availability of NGS analysis tools, we will investigate history of invasive populations considering complex scenario as isolation with migration.
In my spare time, I like to relax with videos game, discovering new places in Okinawa, and go to the gym with friends. Also I am a stick insect fan!
Mariana Velasque Borges, postdoc
Hi there!! I am a biologist with a Masters in Ecology from Federal University of Uberlandia (Brazil). My main research interests lie in ecology and behaviour, specifically in the behavioural ecology of individual variation in behaviour. I completed my PhD at Plymouth University, UK, where I investigated the relationship between consistent individual variation in behaviour (animal personality) and its relationship with other life history traits and decision-making in hermit crabs. In OIST, I hope to expand my knowledge, incorporating genetics into the study of individual and group behaviour in honey bees.
In my free time, I enjoy discovering new things (from cooking to playing sports), long runs and books.
Vienna Kowallik, postdoc
I would describe myself as a microbial-ecologist by heart, I am continuously getting excited about this field. Therefore, so far, my scientific work has focused on understanding the role of interspecific interactions in this field. I studied biology at the Christian-Albrechts University in Kiel, Germany continued doing my Ph.D. working on the natural ecology of Saccharomyces yeasts at the Max-Planck-Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany, followed by a year working on eco-evo dynamics in an algae-virus system. I generally enjoy combining different approaches like field work, metagenomics, lab experiments etc. to gain deeper insight into a study system. Here at OIST I want to study the microbiome of honey bees to see which diversity we find, which differences we might see under specific settings and finally which functions the core symbionts have on their host. The honey bee system is perfect to study host-microbiota related questions as it is experimentally tractable, the microbiome is relatively simple and all core bacterial symbionts are cultivable. Lastly, and importantly, it is hard to treat what we do not understand. Therefore, understanding potential benefits which naturally associated symbionts provide to their host can help in the future to systematically improve the health of our worldwide declining honey bee.
Coming from Northern Germany I am amazed by the nature surrounding OIST. The ocean, the forests, the biodiversity….great! In my free time, I enjoy hiking and snorkeling. I love Heavy Metal music and my mood cannot be bad enough that listening to a good, loud song would not make me feel better somehow. Festivals and concerts are clearly great events for me.
Ivan Koludarov, postdoc
I am investigating gene neofunctionalization using venom genes as a model. I am interested in broad evolutionary questions, evolution of biodiversity, venoms and snakes. While I spent twelve years working in different kinds of wet labs, now I am mostly using bioinformatic methods for my research. I did my bachelor and masters in St. Petersburg State University and my PhD in University of Queensland in the lab of Dr. Bryan G. Fry.
Yoann Portugal, research technician
Hey! I am a technician in Mikheyev Unit here at OIST. My role in the group is to take care of the bee colonies we study and to make sure we have the optimum setup and facility to observe them. I also get involved in anything where engineering support is needed. Before joining the lab, I was working in China for about 8 years where I was building and starting chemical production factories. I graduated from the Hogeschool Zeeland University of Applied Science, my background is in engineering and project management and I basically like getting my hands dirty and build things.
I’m glad to have this opportunity of being in Okinawa and working on super interesting subjects with a great team.
Miyuki Suenaga, research technician
I’m working as a research technician in the Mikheyev Unit. Previously, I finished my master’s degree in Agricultural Science at Kyushu University, studying cell regulation technologies as well as evaluating positive effects of functional food on metabolic diseases. In the moment, I’m working on a honeybee project with Vienna, trying to answer diverse interesting questions using total RNA sequencing of about 2000 frozen, historical honey bee samples which have been collected for more than a decade in the U.S. and Mexico. I’m happy to work here, having the opportunity to gain all that knowledge and experience on NGS technologies.
I’m originally from Fukuoka in Japan, but I love Okinawan cuisine and culture, as well as the beautiful beaches. In my free time, I also like driving around on the island to enjoy the great scenery.
Carmen Emborski, special research
I have had a really unique opportunity to complete my studies at Texas Tech University in the U.S.A. and pursue my dissertation research here at OIST. My educational background is in biology with a focus in environmental toxicology and human health. For my research, I am studying if and how exposure to extreme diets (i.e. starvation and diets very high in sugar) within a single-generation can lead to the inheritance of metabolic syndrome (i.e. diabetes and obesity) across several generations using Drosophila melanogaster as my model organism. I am also interested in the interplay between metabolism and fitness, and more specifically how extreme diets can transgenerationally alter fitness.
While here in Okinawa, and particularly while here at OIST, I have enjoyed getting to know people from many different disciplines and cultures, including the really awesome people that make up our lab. In my free time, I enjoy scuba diving, exploring the island, trying new restaurants, making new friends, and enjoying the company of friends already made. If you have any questions about OIST, this lab, or about Okinawa, feel free to email me and I’ll be happy to share my perspective and experiences.
Agneesh Barua, PhD student
Evolution is a process at the background of all biological phenomenon, and is one that has given shape to our world as we know it. I have been interested in evolutionary biology ever since I first read about Lamarck and Darwin at school, since then I have always wondered why, and how, life decided to take the trajectory it did and produce us intelligent beings. I did my undergrads in Zoology from Delhi University and my masters, in Genetics, from Calcutta University. At OIST I work on snake venom genes to understand how they evolved. Snake venom genes are interesting wherein, in spite of being absolutely essential for the survival of the animal, they show a level of diversity that is similar to that of non essential regions, how this form of diversity still manages to maintain a functional relevance is still unknown.
Apart from working in the lab, I enjoy reading books, listening to music, doing yoga, and exploring the joyful and vibrant island that is Okinawa.
Rob Campbell, PhD student
I am interested in the intersection of materials science and evolutionary ecology – how species take advantage of material properties for evolutionary advantage, and how biomaterial structures are influenced by their evolutionary and ecological context. In short – spider silk! A polymer material with incredible properties and a finely controlled fabrication process essential to organism survival. My thesis looks at spider silk comparatively, bringing together tools from materials science, physics, chemistry, taxonomy, and bioinformatics to contextualize variation in silk production across spider species.
My first project in the lab was as a rotation student, using x-ray microtomography (micro-CT) to visualize parasitoid fly larvae inside their fire ant hosts. Before OIST I did my bachelor’s in physics and international affairs at Skidmore College (United States) and worked in sustainable development, international policy, and communications (United States; China). Then and now, my free time is all about food, foreign languages, and cultural exchange!
Collaborators and frequent visitors
Kasia, postdoc at OIST, Biological Physics Theory Unit
I am interested in applying computational methods to tacking life sciences questions. My background is in computer sciences and during my PhD I became interested in computational biology. I realized how with the current explosion of technologies producing large scale measurements in biology it has became a field of research where one can develop interesting computational strategies and make discoveries without ever working in the real, wet lab. My interests span from HIV drug resistance and evolution, through emergence of human cognition to genomics and behavior of honey bees that we are working on currently at OIST. I used to hate biology at school while right now I’m amazed by how advances in biological technologies together with developments in computing methods and hardware are transforming the way we look at this field research.
Claire Morandin, postdoc at the University of Helsinki, Centre of Excellence in Biological Interactions
I am a Postdoc at the Centre of Excellence in Biological interactions at Helsinki University in Finland. In September 2015, I successfully defended my PhD thesis, with Dr Mikheyev as my co-supervisor. During my PhD I studied the evolution and maintenance of social insect female castes (queen and worker), focusing on the evolution of caste-biased gene expression in ants. I took advantage of the power of genomic methodologies and technologies to provide new insights into mechanisms of social evolution, and the evolution of plastic gene expression. During my postdoc, and again in collaboration with Dr Mikheyev, I will expand my previous work to investigate in more details the transcriptional architecture associated with reproductive division of labor in ants. I use genomics tools such as RNA sequencing, evolutionary analysis, gene co-expression networks and methylation to answer these questions. I have had the chance to visit OIST and beautiful Okinawa five times already, and I absolutely love it, I always come back!