JOB TITLE: Assistant professor of zoology, Michigan State University
FAVORITE TRINITY MEMORY: Too many to count–here are two. The first is that abstract feeling of the day I moved into Trinity: the smell and feel of Jarvis (before renovations) on a humid August day, my first day of college. The whole place seemed electric with possibility–so many young people starting their lives in such a small place: a very exciting time for me. The second, more concrete one that comes to mind was this: a bunch of my very good friends once did a field biology course for two weeks with Joan Morrison and Christoph Geiss in Death Valley, California, where we camped and traveled around learning about desert biology and geology. We had a blast!
REPORTER: What was the subject of the work you had published in Science?
GALLANT: Fish have evolved electric organs for the purposes of communication and navigation six times in the history of life. Most fish that have electric organs use them for communication and navigation, though some use them for defense and predation, like the electric eel. My research is aimed at two fundamental questions: where do electric organs come from, and once you have an electric organ, how does it diversify to perform all of those amazing functions? We found that the same set of about 30 or so genes seems to underlie the repeated evolution of electric organs from ordinary skeletal muscle in four of these groups of electric fish, which is, needless to say, surprising!
REPORTER: Why were you drawn to researching electric fish?
GALLANT: Well, it all started at Trinity! In my first semester at Trinity, I took an animal communication course with Kent Dunlap, who also studies electric fish. Soon after, I was working in his lab and forming these questions that I am still trying to answer!
REPORTER: What most interests you about your research?
GALLANT: My mother is a nurse and my father is a mechanic. I like to think of myself as a perfect intellectual hybrid between the two–I love to understand how the little parts of biology come together to make a functioning system; it just so happens that it is biological and not mechanical. In biology, so many things seem “messy” and “imperfect,” but this is only because we don’t fully understand the history and process behind how these traits and processes evolved. Shedding light on these processes is deeply satisfying to me. I also get to work with a lot of really smart, fun people who are also into this kind of stuff. And the travel is fantastic.
REPORTER: What do you hope to accomplish through your study?
GALLANT: Ultimately, we hope to understand how electric organs have evolved in all six groups of electric fish, and we have some good ideas in four. We are working with the other groups currently. More broadly, we are hoping to apply some of these principles to understand how other types of traits, particularly complex ones, may have evolved multiple times in the history of life. Finally, it may be possible one day to apply what we’ve learned in electric fish to build biological batteries to power biomedical devices that act as pacemakers for heart arrhythmias, bladder control disorders, or even power or control artificial limbs.
REPORTER: What professor at Trinity had the biggest influence on you? Why?
GALLANT: The faculty at Trinity are undoubtedly one of its greatest assets. I feel fortunate that I realized this early on and decided to take the maximum course load possible every semester. Each professor I took a course with helped me refine the way that I tackle a problem in my life, from the Human Rights Program, to the English Department, Philosophy Department, education, and even theater and dance. I would be remiss, however, to leave out the entire Biology Department. There is scarcely a day that goes by that I don’t think of one of them when I’m explaining something to a student or trying to understand this new ream of data that has come back from the sequencing facility.
REPORTER: What advice would you give to Trinity students pursuing a career in biology?
GALLANT: Get into the lab as soon as you possibly can. Find good mentors and start forming your own questions. Biology has a long tradition of mentorship, and it is specifically these relationships that make it possible for you to get into the field. Those relationships are really made in the laboratory.