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Christie Sukhdeo

College: City College
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2012

On the Wings of Butterflies

"The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough," the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote some 90 years ago. The butterfly may still have time enough, but do humanity and the ecosystem that people have so disrupted?

Christie Anne Sukhdeo (City College, B.S. in biology 2011) won a 2012 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship by proposing to look at how the butterflies and birds, which pollinate Colombian coffee and cocoa crops, reveal the impact on biodiversity of human-caused habit changes. "We can model two types of possible changes: One is in the community structure of birds and butterflies that result from the conversion of natural habitats into agricultural lands," she says, "and the other is identifying key bird and butterfly pollinators of coffee and cocoa crops."

But as her NSF fellowship gets under way in the fall and she starts a doctoral conservation biology program at the University of New Orleans, she will focus on a slightly different target: the fragmentation of biomes in Madagascar due to human activities. (The NSF grant allows recipients to change direction in their graduate research.)

Butterflies, nevertheless, will remain her indicator. "They're easy to work with, to identify and to capture, and they're just beautiful creatures," she says.

The fellowship is the most prestigious award that a graduate student in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) can receive. Providing $126,000 over three years, it recognizes and supports exceptional students who have proposed graduate-level research projects in their field.

This spring, Sukhdeo is wrapping up a postgraduate year at City College with support from the CUNY Research Foundation. Since her senior year, she has been a research assistant in Assistant Professor David Lohman's molecular biology lab, completing a study of the phylogeography of Melanitis leda, a widespread Southeast Asian butterfly, and is preparing a paper about her findings. (Phylogeography describes the distribution of variations among individuals in a species due to either genetic [genotypic] or non-genetic [phenotypic] causes in a given area and within a historical framework that permits analysis of the divergence occurred.)

The first months spent on Melanitis leda proved frustrating. "After designing and carrying out many trial experiments and working with my mentor, I was still not obtaining the successful results needed to proceed to the next step of my investigation," she says. "Knowing that obtaining unfavorable results is part of scientific research and the journey to mastery is slow and tedious, I continued to work on the project with determination and my mentor's guidance. Professor Lohman was very supportive. He helped me get to where I am today in my academic career."

Her research at City College set the stage for her upcoming doctoral work with New Orleans Associate Professor Nicola Anthony, who focuses on the roles of species ecology and landscape history in shaping patterns of evolutionary diversification and genetic variability.

Sukhdeo came to ecology via a roundabout route. Born in Guyana, she and her family came to New York in 2000, when she was 12. Initially intending to become a New York City public school teacher, she enrolled in a City College undergraduate teacher-training program that came with a full scholarship. She finished that program - indeed, she graduated with New York State teacher certification in biology - but by then research had captured her imagination. "It's hard to decide at age 17 what you're going to do in your life," she says.

Her first undergraduate research project, with Professor Jeffrey Steiner, chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Science, delved into how microbes interact with soil (specifically, how the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae forms neo-minerals in soils through the crystallization of clays). The next was an environmental project with adjunct Assistant Professor Diomaris Padilla in which she examined aerosol particulates with a scanning electron microscope and energy dispersive spectroscopy.

Then it was on to Lohman, where for two years she did DNA extractions, polymerase chain reactions (PCR, which is a technique to amplify copies of a section of DNA, making thousands or millions of them), PCR cleanups and DNA sequencing. Along the way, she received a New York City Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Scholarship, as well as several City College grants to support her studies.

In the summer of 2011, she was off to Sri Lanka and Thailand, traveling under a CCNY City Seeds Fellowship to study the interaction of Buddhism with biodiversity conservation in Southeast Asia. Buddhism, she explains, promotes biodiversity by forbidding the killing of animals and plants. Lohman is the principal investigator, and this was her last undergraduate opportunity to do fieldwork.

"To me, this project has shown how non-biological approaches can be used to curb biodiversity loss," she says. "The results of the study can be used to increase people's knowledge about the types of organisms present in the communities studied and their ecological values. The religion or way of life can help get the message across to the people effectively and quickly."

That trip "crystallized my undergraduate research experiences and played a significant role in defining the research I would like to undertake as a graduate student," she says.

Just a few months before, she had had her first fieldwork experience, again with Lohman. "I went to the Dominican Republic to capture butterflies to use for my project," she says. "This fieldwork experience made me develop a strong liking for butterflies. I prefer working with them over rodents any day."