Tag Archive for Sultan

Sultan Delivers Lectures around the World

Sonia Sultan, right, is presented with a plaque by Ellen Harrison, wife of the influential biologist Rick Harrison after whom the Harrison Keynote Lecture is named. Sultan presented the lecture at Cornell's annual Evo Day symposium in May.

Sonia Sultan, right, receives a plaque from Ellen Harrison, wife of the influential biologist Rick Harrison after whom the Harrison Keynote Lecture is named. Sultan presented the lecture at Cornell’s annual Evo Day symposium in May.

This spring, Sonia Sultan, professor of biology, professor of environmental studies, has delivered several notable invited talks in different parts of the world.

In February, she presented the annual Darwin Day talk at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Sultan was the first woman scientist to present this prestigious lecture, in which a prominent evolutionary biologist shares their research and its broader implications. Sultan spoke on “Eco-Devo Insights to Evolutionary Questions,” using results from her Wesleyan lab’s plant research to address basic questions about individual development, inheritance, and adaptation. She was also interviewed about her contributions to current evolutionary biology for the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health & Comparative Medicine podcast, Naturally Speaking.

In April, Sultan also gave a research seminar in Mexico City at the National University of Mexico’s Institute for Ecology, and in March, she presented her work to philosophers of biology at a European Union–sponsored conference in London.

Finally, on May 10, Sultan delivered the Harrison Keynote Lecture at Cornell’s annual “Evo Day” evolutionary biology symposium. The lecture is named in honor of Rick Harrison, an influential and much admired evolutionary biologist who served on the Cornell faculty until his death in 2016. Sultan’s next speaking event will be to give the closing lecture at a September meeting on “Advances in Evolutionary Biology” at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön, Germany.

Sultan Delivers Talks on New Approaches to Evolution

Sonia Sultan

Sonia Sultan

Sonia Sultan, professor of biology, professor of environmental studies, presented the keynote address at the 2017 Diebold Symposium, held at Kalamazoo College, April 27-29. Her talk was titled “Plant Environmental Response: A Weedy Answer to 3 Big Questions.” In the keynote talk, Sultan presented findings from her Wesleyan research group and discussed their implications for heredity and evolution.

In mid-May, Sultan will join an invited group of 16 biologists and philosophers at the Konrad Lorenz Institute in Vienna, Austria, for discussions of causality in evolutionary biology. The workshop is part of an international consortium of researchers and philosophers funded by the J.H. Templeton Foundation to develop an expanded conceptual framework for evolution. Following the workshop, Sultan will spend several days at the University of Lund in Sweden, as a seminar speaker and guest scientist.

Sultan Speaks at Conference on New Trends in Evolutionary Biology

Sonia Sultan

Sonia Sultan

Sonia Sultan, professor of biology, professor of environmental studies, was a guest speaker at the “New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: Biological, Philosophical, and Social Science Perspectives,” conference hosted by The Royal Society, London held Nov. 7-9.

The international event, in an effort to encourage cross-disciplinary discussion, brought together researchers from the humanities, sciences and social sciences to examine the many “developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields, which have produced calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution.”

As part of the conference, Sultan spoke about “Developmental Plasticity: Re-conceiving the Genotype,” a topic which examines the possibility of “re-conceiving the genotype as an environmental response repertoire rather than a fixed developmental program.”

Sultan’s work also was featured in an article published in The Atlantic on Nov. 28, which highlighted the move to expand upon the theory of evolution.

Using the smartweed plant and its living, environmental conditions as an example, Sultan explained how allowing the plant to grow in low sunlight versus allowing the plant to grow in bright sunlight produces plants “that may look like they belong to different species, even though they’re are genetically identical.” In low sunlight the leaves take on a very broad shape, where as in bright sunlight they are narrower. “This flexibility or plasticity in adapting to the amount of sunlight can itself help drive evolution, by allowing the plant to spread to a range of habitats,” she says.

More on Sultan’s work, as well as, the work of other presenters can be found here.

Sultan’s Book Nominated for Royal Society of Biology Award

Sonia Sultan

Sonia Sultan

A book titled Organism and Environment (Oxford University Press, 2015) by evolutionary ecologist Sonia Sultan, professor of biology, professor of environmental studies, has been shortlisted for the Royal Society of Biology Award for Best Post-graduate Textbook.The winner will be announced later this month.

In addition, Organism and Environment was named a “landmark volume” in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, and reviews are forthcoming in BioScience, Ecology, Evolution and Biology and Philosophy.

In November, Sultan will speak about her research on developmental plasticity at the New Trends in Evolutionary Biology: Philosophical and Social Science Implications symposium held jointly by the Royal Society and the British Academy. Sultan is one of 22 invited scientists and humanists from Europe, North America and Israel.

At Wesleyan, Sultan’s research group studies plant ecological development or how individual plants develop and function differently in response to different environmental conditions, in particular to factors that vary in nature such as light and shade, soil moisture and key nutrients. To examine these responses, Sultan determines developmental patterns (or norms of reaction) expressed by genetic individuals collected from field populations. These experiments reveal the interplay of genotypic and environmental factors in shaping the functional and reproductive outcomes of individual development.

Sultan has long been a major contributor to the empirical and conceptual literatures on individual plasticity and its relation to ecological breadth and adaptive evolution.

She teaches Plant Form and Diversity, Principles of Biology II, Evolution Journal Club, Evolution in Human-Altered Environments and Nature/Nurture: The Interplay of Genes and Environment.

Herman Receives Dropkin Postdoctoral Fellowship to Study Evolution of Plant-Pathogen Interactions

Jacob Herman

Jacob Herman

PhD candidate in biology Jacob Herman received a V. Dropkin Postdoctoral Fellowship to research the epigenetics of plant response to pathogen infection at the University of Chicago’s Department of Ecology and Evolution.

The V. Dropkin fellowship funds a postdoctoral researcher for up to four years to study the ecology and evolution of plant-pathogen interactions.

Herman will begin the post-doctoral position after completing his dissertation defense this April. His advisor at Wesleyan is Sonia Sultan, professor of biology, professor of environmental studies.

Sultan Authors Organism and Environment

Book by Sonia SultanSonia Sultan, professor of biology, professor of environmental studies, is the author of Organism and Environment: Ecological Development, Niche Construction, and Adaptationpublished by Oxford University Press (London and New York) in November 2015.

Organism and Environment is an authoritative graduate textbook of ecological development (‘eco-devo’) set in the context of diverse natural systems. The book explores how niche construction contributes to ecological interactions and evolutionary dynamics and includes detailed case studies showing how regulatory mechanisms lead to plastic eco-devo responses.

Sultan worked on the book for the past six years, including a year spent on a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, Germany.


Grad Student Herman, Sultan Published in Evolution, Faculty 1000

Jacob Herman

Jacob Herman

Biology Ph.D. candidate Jacob Herman and Sonia Sultan, chair and professor of biology, professor of environmental studies, are the co-authors of an article titled “How stable ‘should’ epigenetic modifications be? Insights from adaptive plasticity and bet hedging,” published in Evolution, Issue 68(3), pages 632-43. Herman was the Private Investigator on the paper.

The article also was selected by Faculty 1000, a platform for life scientists that helps scientists to discover, discuss and publish research.

Sonia Sultan

Sonia Sultan

Epigenetics is the study of ways chemical reactions change the way an organism grows and develops, and the factors that influence them. Epigenetic modifications can be stable across the individual’s lifespan and in some species even persist across generations, or they can be reversible, but it is currently unclear how the persistence of epigenetic modifications may evolve. In this paper, Herman and Sultan provide insights from the theoretical advances in adaptive phenotypic plasticity to predict the conditions that would favor the evolution of stable versus reversible epigenetic modification as an adaptive environmental response both within and across generations.

At Wesleyan, Herman is interested in the evolutionary implications of developmental plasticity. In particular, he has been studying transgenerational plasticity, a phenomenon that occurs when environments experienced by parents (or even more remote generations) influence the phenotypes of offspring, without changing the DNA sequence.

“There is a growing body of research in both plants and animals that suggests that transgenerational plasticity can have important ecological and evolutionary impacts, including influences on response to selection and population persistence in stressful environments,” he said.

Polygonum persicaria

Polygonum persicaria

Herman’s doctoral research focused on adaptive seedling responses to grandparental and parental drought stress in the widespread, introduced plant Polygonum persicaria.

“We found that functionally appropriate responses to drought stress persist across at least two generations in this species. These adaptive effects enhanced the growth and survival of ‘grandchild’ seedling offspring grown in drought conditions,” he said.

Herman’s research is one part of the larger effort in the Sultan lab to understand how individual plants respond to key environmental stresses, such as drought, and how those responses influence species’ ecology and evolution.

Learn more about ongoing research in the Sultan Lab here.

Sultan Publishes Several New Plant Studies

Sonia Sultan, professor and chair of biology, professor of environmental studies, recently had several new articles published.

A resurrection study reveals rapid adaptive evolution within populations of an invasive plant,” was published in Evolutionary Applications, September 2012. Wesleyan research students Tim Horgan-Kobelski BA ’09/MA ’10, Lauren Nichols BA/MA ’09, Charlotte Riggs ’08 and Ryan Waples ’07 co-authored the study. The paper is part of a multi-year study of the introduced Asian annual Polygonum cespitosum, which has recently become invasive in North America.

Also in September, Sultan had another paper published about the same invasive species at PLoS One (Public Library of Science One). This paper, titled, “Phenotypic Plasticity and Population Differentiation in an Ongoing Species Invasion,” was co-authored with Dr. Silvia Matensanz, who recently completed a Marie Curie International Postdoctoral Fellowship in Sultan’s lab, and Horgan-Kobelski.

In April, Sultan and her previous post-doc, Timothy Griffith, published an article, “Field-based insights to the evolution of specialization: plasticity and fitness across habitats in a specialist/generalist species pair,” in Ecology and Evolution.

Sultan and members of her lab also recently published two papers on the related topic of “transgenerational plasticity,” or the transmission of environmental influences from one generation to the next. An article by Sultan and Ph.D. student Jacob Herman, “Adaptive transgenerational plasticity: Case studies, mechanisms, and implications for natural populations,” was published in Frontiers in Plant Genetics and Genomics in December 2011. Together with Horgan-Kobelski and Riggs, Sultan and Herman also published, “Adaptive transgenerational plasticity in an annual plant: Grandparental and parental drought stress enhance performance of seedlings in dry soil,” in Integrative and Comparative Biology on April 20, 2012.

Sultan Elected to Connecticut’s Academy of Science and Engineering

Sonia Sultan

Sonia Sultan, chair and professor of biology, professor of environmental studies, has been elected to the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering. Sultan, an evolutionary biologist, joins 39 other Connecticut experts in science, engineering and technology to membership in the Academy this year. Four other Wesleyan faculty are already members of the Academy.

Election to the Academy, according to the CASE web site, is based on scientific and engineering distinction achieved through significant contributions in theory or applications, as demonstrated by original published books and papers, patents, the pioneering of new and developing fields and innovative products, outstanding leadership of nationally recognized technical teams, and external professional awards in recognition of scientific and engineering excellence.

“I am certainly honored to have been elected, and to become part of an organization that includes researchers I admire very deeply, such as Wesleyan’s Laura Grabel, Michael Donoghue at Yale (a major plant evolutionary biologist), and Robin Chazdon at the University of Connecticut (a distinguished tropical ecologist who was also elected this year),” she says.

The Sultan Lab’s recent work has addressed several timely aspects of plant evolutionary ecology,

Sultan Awarded Fellowship at Berlin’s Institute for Advanced Study

Sonia Sultan

Sonia Sultan, chair and professor of biology,  professor of environmental studies, received a fellowship from the Wissenschaftskolleg/Institute for Advanced Study for 2012-13. She and approximately 40 other fellows from around the world will work on projects of their own choice for one academic year. The group is designed to represent a range of academic disciplines from both humanities and sciences.

As a fellow, Sultan will be working on a book project that is under contract with Oxford University Press for its Ecology and Evolution series.

“In this book, I aim to bring together recent findings from a range of biological disciplines to shape an updated understanding of the developmental and functional interactions between organisms and their environments,” Sultan explains.

The institution, located in Berlin, Germany, provides optimal conditions for fellows to devote themselves completely to their chosen intellectual task while profiting from the potential for stimulation and critique provided by an outstanding community of scholars. More information on the Wissenschaftskolleg is online here.


Marie Curie Fellowship Winner Studies Non-Native Plant at Wesleyan

The annual plant, Polygonum cespitosum, is becoming invasive in North America.

The annual plant, Polygonum cespitosum, is becoming invasive in North America.

For the next two years, researcher Silvia Matesanz of Segovia, Spain will be collaborating with Chair and Professor of Biology Sonia Sultan in her plant evolutionary ecology lab at Wesleyan. Matesanz was awarded the prestigious Marie Curie International Post-doctoral Fellowship from the European Commission. Matesanz, Sultan and biology BA/MA student Timothy Horgan-Kobelski ’09 will be studying an introduced annual plant called Polygonum cespitosum that is becoming invasive in North America.

The scientists are particularly interested in understanding the evolutionary dynamics of the plant’s spread. Sultan and her research group will provide Matesanz with evolutionary expertise, which will enhance her previous Ph.D. training in plant ecophysiology, or the physiological responses of plants to the environment.

A successful non-native plant such as Polygonum cespitosum can displace native species from areas into which it spreads, altering the functional properties of the local ecosystem and reducing biodiversity. A species with this kind of impact is considered to be invasive. Sultan and Matesanz wish to determine what characteristics of this species allow it to thrive in novel environments. Polygonum cespitosum was introduced to the United States from Asia at the beginning of the 20th century and has only recently become invasive.

Sonia Sultan

Sonia Sultan

“Many plants and animals are introduced into new regions but only a very small proportion of these become invasive,” Sultan said. “People are interested to know what it is about certain species that allow them to spread so successfully.”

Sultan said that most biologists agree that “individual plasticity” or flexibility is a common property among invasive species. For example, “a certain seed might develop into a functioning shade plant in the shade and a sun plant in the sun.” Sultan’s lab has been studying how New England Polygonum plants are rapidly evolving greater developmental plasticity for different habitats.

Matesanz stated that she was looking forward to focusing on the evolutionary aspects of plants, because she hadn’t explored that avenue of research as much during her PhD program at the Center of Environmental Sciences in Madrid.

“One purpose of these fellowships is for young scientists trained in Europe to increase their expertise by taking on project that use different approaches,” Sultan said.

Silvia Matesanz was awarded the prestigious Marie Curie International Post-doctoral Fellowship from the European Commission to conduct research at Wesleyan.

Silvia Matesanz was awarded the prestigious Marie Curie International Post-doctoral Fellowship from the European Commission to conduct research at Wesleyan.

Matesanz added, “I wanted to broaden my breadth of discipline. I wanted to come to a very top-notch lab and start doing different things. And, also, improve my English language.”

Sultan explained that the collaborative project is interdisciplinary because it uses Matesanz’s “expertise in understanding plant physiology combined with my expertise in thinking about the evolutionary process. So she brings a strength that I don’t have and we give her a strength that she doesn’t have yet,” she said.

The joint research project will involve greenhouse experiments, field studies, and microsatellite genetic analyses. The scientists will try to determine how the plants are evolving in New England by testing how plants from local populations of Polygonum develop and function in different controlled environments. By growing inbred plants of various genetic lines in contrasting conditions, Sultan and Matesanz can examine how plants with a given genetic makeup can respond to different environments.

“[Polygonum cespitosum’s] typical habitat in New England, which is similar to their habitat in their native Asian region, is shady paths and forests and also along shaded roadsides. Yet, we’re beginning to see them in open sites. They seem to be increasing their ecological range,” Sultan said.

Sultan and Matesanz expect to learn more about how the plants are evolving to tolerate sunny environments. In addition they will use molecular markers that reveal genetic differences at specific DNA sequences to track the spread and differentiation of the species in New England.

The team aim to publish several papers about their experiments and attend the Ecological Society of America conference to present their results.

Matesanz’s work in Sultan’s lab is part of the two-year outgoing phase of her fellowship. For the third year of her fellowship, she will return to Spain to complete the project in collaboration with her former PhD advisor, Fernando Valladares, at the Terrestrial Ecology group in Spain’s Institute of Natural Resources in Madrid.

Sultan said that another advantage of the Marie Curie International Post-doctoral Fellowship is that it encourages collaboration between labs in other countries.

Burke, Sultan Awarded Grant from Eppley Foundation

Ann Burke, associate professor of biology, and Sonia Sultan, professor of biology, received individual grants from the Eppley foundation for research. The Eppley Foundation for Research supports advanced post-doctoral work in the physical and biological sciences, computer science, social sciences, and educational programs. Burke’s grant, worth $32,442, will help to support her postdoctoral research fellow, Rebecca Shearman. Sultan’s grant, worth $25,000, provides support while she writes a book.