Ph.D. Student Wins Prestigious National Science Foundation Grant to Study Lizard Evolution that Could Aid in Understanding How Animals and Humans Evolve

Cleo Falvey

Cleo Falvey

 

By Jeanne Leong

A National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, Cleo Falvey is studying lizards in the Rutgers University‒Camden Center for Computational and Integrative Biology Ph.D. program.

The five-year NSF fellowship includes three years of financial support with an annual $34,000 stipend.

In the lab of Anthony Geneva, a Rutgers‒Camden assistant professor of biology, Falvey will be exploring how lizards in the Greater Antilles islands evolve and how new species arise from previously existing species.

“Dr. Geneva’s work is interesting to me because it combines studying reptiles and amphibians with genomic data to answer large-scale evolutionary questions that can also improve our understanding of climate change and global warming,” says Falvey, a Camden resident.

A 2021 graduate of the University of Massachusetts Boston, Falvey spent their undergraduate years working in a lab studying lizards, beginning in the first year of college. They co-authored an article published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society about lizards in urban areas evolving to have shorter, thicker claws than lizards found in forests.

Cleo Falvey holding a lizard

Cleo Falvey began studying lizards as an undergraduate.

Fortunately for Falvey, the pandemic did not disrupt their lizard research. They traveled to the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and Panama in the summers after each of the first three years of college, so when COVID-19 hit, their focus was on writing about the research, creating graphs to include in the article, and submitting to journals.

“Luckily, I was able to do all of those things virtually,” Falvey says. “A lot of my friends had field experiments going on, and their field seasons were canceled, and they didn’t get samples that summer.”

Beginning in elementary school, Falvey nurtured a strong interest in reptiles and amphibians.

Growing up in Brookline, Mass., Falvey was interested in volunteering at the New England Aquarium years before they were old enough to be considered for a position. As a volunteer in high school through their undergraduate years, Falvey led the shark tank presentations and educated visitors at the reptiles and amphibians touch tanks by explaining how to touch the animals safely and sharing fun facts about the animals. In addition, they worked at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology’s reptiles and amphibians department.

“I set up myself in high school to major in biology in college,” says Falvey.

After spending the past year-and-a-half in remote learning classes, Falvey is excited to continue their education in person at Rutgers University–Camden, where they will conduct research that could improve understanding of how animals and humans evolve.

Falvey in the Geneva lab

Cleo Falvey in the Geneva lab

“With climate change, we are going to see more and more severe weather – warmer temperatures and cooler temperatures,” Falvey explains. “Why are some lizards more able to withstand shifts in temperature than others are? That is the broad question I am looking at right now.”

The Rutgers‒Camden interdisciplinary CCIB program is a perfect fit for Falvey. The computational biology work offers them the best of both worlds.

After spending the past year-and-a-half in remote learning classes, Falvey is excited to continue their education in person at Rutgers University–Camden, where they will conduct research that could improve understanding of how animals and humans evolve. .

In addition, they enjoy attending classes on an urban campus.

“As a woman of color, I felt very included at UMass Boston, with people who look like me, and professors who understood my background and where I was coming from. Coming into this environment and knowing that Rutgers–Camden is going to feel similar – where I can meet a lot of people from many different backgrounds, and getting to know people who have different backgrounds than me, is really exciting.”

 

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