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Maria Strangas

College: Graduate Center
Awards: National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, 2013

Lizard Lessons

When she graduated from East Lansing High School, Maria Louisa Strangas gave this as her senior quote, drawn from the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip: “If your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously re-examine your life.”

Eight years later, as a CUNY Graduate Center doctoral student, she is heading into the Brazilian forests to study how temperature patterns have affected the evolution of some rare lizards.

Armed with a 2013 National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Strangas (University of Rochester, B.S. in ecology and evolutionary biology, 2010) intends to look for Gymnophthalmid lizards found only on certain mountains. Her three-year, $126,000 grant is the most prestigious award for graduate research in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

“I’m interested in thermophysiology, which is how temperature affects physiology and what temperatures allow lizards to perform optimally,” she says. “One thing I’d like to do is look at patterns to try to identify regions of the forest that might harbor the species most vulnerable to future climate change.”

Her work grows out of her curiosity about the process of diversification in the Atlantic forest of Brazil, which has received far less attention than the country’s Amazon forest.

“The genetic structure and physiological traits of lizard populations can reflect past climate events,” she says. “My NSF proposal involved looking at three pairs of sister species; one of each pair lives in wet, humid forest, while its closest relative lives in dry, rocky areas. Looking at behavioral, physiological and genomic differences between the species can show how past climate change and glacial cycles have influenced their evolution.”

As an undergraduate, she worked on research projects documenting the composition of forests near Rochester, studying meadow pollinator communities and surveying woodland amphibians. She also worked with loggerhead sea turtles through ARCHELON, the Sea Turtle Conservation Society of Greece.

After graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 2010, she went to work as a technician in the laboratory of City College assistant professor Ana Carnaval. Carnaval studies spatial patterns of biodiversity and their underlying evolutionary and ecological processes, with the aim of improving biodiversity prediction and conservation in tropical regions. Strangas’ research diverges from the main thrust of the laboratory by looking at physiological changes.

“I was very interested in the questions her lab was asking,” Strangas says. “I’ve been interested in ecology and evolution for a long time and studied them in college. Working in her lab was fascinating while I decided whether to go on for a doctorate.”

During those years, she also taught fifth- and sixth-graders science at an afterschool program in Queens. Carnaval continues to be involved as her Ph.D. mentor.

At the moment, Strangas is extracting DNA and building phylogenetic trees that reflect relationships among the various lizards she hopes to encounter. She also is comparing the distribution of her target species to maps of climate stability.

The Carnaval lab “is building models to predict areas of the forest that have been incredibly stable over time,” she says. “Those niche areas appear to have the highest species diversity and the most genetic diversity within the species.”

Strangas adds that she chose to study lizards because they are extremely vulnerable to climate change and don’t move far during their lifetimes. By sampling particular populations, she will get information not only on their evolutionary histories but also about the climatic histories of their locations.

And, yes, her research is all but certain to involve getting her knees green.