Alumni Profiles Series: Heather Evans
Dr. Heather Evans is a Conservation Geneticist working at the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC). She received her B.S. in Genetics from the University of Georgia in 1998, and her Ph.D. in Genetics and Genomics from Duke University in 2005. She was advised by Dr. Randy Jirtle and studied genomic imprinting during her time at Duke. Following a brief break postgraduation, she joined the Genomics and Microbiology Research Lab at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, where she focused on conservation genetics for aquatic species across the Carolinas and Virginia. In her current position, she works with both terrestrial and aquatic species, conducting research and consulting on various projects to help manage and conserve North Carolina’s species diversity.
What made you pursue a Ph.D. in genetics?
I knew I wanted to study genetics as early on as my high school days. Those were the beginning years of The Human Genome Project, so it was a big deal. Genetics was quickly coming to the forefront for medical applications, and I was really drawn to that. I considered both M.D.-Ph.D. and Ph.D. programs but decided to do the latter because I was really interested in the research side of working in gene therapy and applied genetics. Duke had a lot of excellent labs that suited those interests. During my first year in the program, I rotated in both clinical gene therapy-based labs and basic research labs. My graduate advisor at the time encouraged me to focus on a broad biology research focus to help me get a better foundation for a variety of different fields. That suggestion ended up being great advice, and I am glad I listened to it. My dissertation focused on genomic imprinting, a form of gene regulation directly implicated in several human disorders. I analyzed genes in both mice and humans to discover imprinted genes and performed phylogenetic sequence comparisons to look for regulatory regions that might impact genomic imprinting regulation.
How did you launch your career in conservation genetics?
I had not planned on working in the conservation genetics field. In fact, I was still planning on working in applied genetics and gene therapy after graduation. However, I also wanted to focus on taking care of my family since my children were very young at the time. I decided to stay at home for a few years to focus on them before resuming career-related activities. When I was ready to return to work, I wanted to ease back into the lab environment because I knew was out of practice. During this time, I looked around for part-time positions to practice benchwork before thinking about my next steps career-wise.
As luck would have it, I found a volunteer position at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences’ Genomics and Microbiology lab. The experience exposed me to the field of conservation genetics, beyond the population genetics classes I had taken in school. I realized that while I was used to thinking of applied genetics in clinical and healthcare contexts, there was this whole other field where you could do applied genetics in a very meaningful, translational way in wildlife and conservation. And it was really cool! I had always loved animals and found ecology fascinating. This position gave me a chance to work with wildlife using the genetic skills I had gained during my Ph.D.
I started officially working at the museum and continued to learn about how genetics can be applied to wildlife management. After a few years of working with a principal investigator, I was offered a job doing contract work for various state agencies, which I did for about seven years. Then in 2020, NCWRC decided that they would like to have their own conservation geneticist, which is uncommon for state agencies in the southeast since they typically contract out their genetics work. They created a position for a Wildlife Resources Conservation Geneticist, I applied for it, and was hired.
Tell us more about your career as a conservation geneticist.
When I was working at the museum, my focus was mainly using genetics to track hatchery stockings as well as analyzing population genetics of aquatic species. What’s great about my work is that I have always worked very closely with a management biologist for every project. It’s a team effort—we teach and learn from each other. Together, we talk about the ecological questions that need to be answered, what is the best way to collect samples, how can we best answer the questions using genetics, and how we can then apply the results we are getting from the genetics depending on the ecology of the species. I’ve used genetics to answer question on species presence/absence in ecosystems, health, and diet of various species.
In my current position, I have been able to take the same techniques and apply them to terrestrial systems in addition to aquatic ones. Because of the increased project load and genetic work requested from NCWRC, we still contract several projects out to other labs. One of my roles is consulting on those contracted projects to ensure that our deliverables are met. I make sure that the methodologies being proposed are going to answer our species management questions and help interpret the genetics results for our biologists. I’m never bored: there’s always a different species to learn about. What is great about DNA is that it is so universally applicable. You can take techniques that have been developed for humans and apply them to wildlife in meaningful ways. I love it!
What advice would you give students interested in conservation genetics?
If you are a graduate student studying genetics or biomedical science, I would recommend looking outside your home program to explore courses in the ecology program. Even if the courses are not related to genetics, it will be worth taking some applied ecology courses because you come into the class thinking about how ecological questions can be answered using genetics. Similarly, if you are an ecology student interested in conservation genetics, make sure you go and take some genetics classes! Find reviews, book chapters, and methodology papers that will acquaint you with the field. Do some reading outside what you have been assigned and about things you are interested in. Find conferences where you can hear about the types of conservation genetics work being done and talk with people in the field.
What advice would you offer to all graduate students?
I would advise current graduate students what my graduate advisor told me, which was to make your Ph.D. training foundational instead of focusing on a niche area. After your Ph.D., you can specialize in many fields, but the more foundational knowledge you have, the better you are going to be set up to take whatever paths may arise. If you talk to anyone who is further along in their career and ask them if this is what they had planned on doing all along, very rarely are people still on that initial path. Don’t be afraid to take the opportunities that come your way – that is how you find new paths that haven’t been walked before.
Also, don’t be afraid to initiate and hold important, real conversations. For example, I had children in graduate school, and balancing graduate studies and family is challenging. But I think, especially for women, having children at any stage of your career is challenging. Talking about support structures and seeking guidance to help navigate such events will help in creating more inclusive spaces for women in science. Cherish time with your peers during the first few years of graduate school and make strong bonds with each other. As you move through your Ph.D. and start to wrap up, these are the people who will be your support system.
Ph.D. student, Genetics and Genomics
Anushka Katikaneni is a second-year Genetics and Genomics Ph.D. student in the Molecular Genetics and Microbiology department in the School of Medicine. She studies how stickleback fish adapt to new environments in Dr. Craig Lowe’s lab, focusing on both genetic and phenotypic changes. Outside the lab, she can usually be found reading or going to Casino and Rueda (“Cuban Salsa”) and Contra dances classes and socials. Follow her on Twitter @AnushkaKatikan2.