Musical notes once filled Maggs X’s mind, when they were preparing to be an opera singer and showcased their voice to all who would listen. Now, instead of reading sheet music, X reads the gene expression profiles collected from the organs of Mexican cavefish. But they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I wanted to be an opera singer, but when I got there I was like, this doesn’t really suit me because I wanted to use my mind more intellectually,” said X, a postdoctoral fellow in the Wes Warren lab, who goes by the pronouns they/them.
What suited them was the pull of research.
“Science is cool because it can be mentally stimulating, because you’re analyzing results and answering questions that you have, but then there’s opportunities to go into the field and actually go look at the organisms,” X said.
They find that bridging the gap between their creative side and their intellectual side creates a perfect harmony that best represents the impact they hope to have in the research field of evolutionary genomics and contributing to conservation efforts.
X began to study interspecies traits and behavioral patterns while earning their bachelor’s degree in biology from Manhattan College. They contributed to research that observed behaviors in giraffe calves, the distribution of bat populations and how those numbers change over time, and they have studied the evolution of egg laying and live births of snakes. The research on snakes that X pursued contributes to an increased understanding of how genomic variation may influence the evolution of reproductive features of live birth, like extended embryonic retention and placentation, which provide nutrients and oxygen during pregnancy.
“I get all of the intellectual freedom, which I love, and I enjoy critical thinking and talking to other people who care about the environment and health,” X said.
They obtained their master’s degree at Columbia University and earned their Ph.D. from the Richard Gilder Graduate School in the Museum of Natural History. X went on to join Bond LSC as a postdoctoral fellow in the Wes Warren lab.
They work with cavefish, through dissection experiments at the Stower Institute, or single nuclei isolations back in the lab. For isolation procedures, the Warren lab uses a Singulator system, where they place tissue, from the organism’s liver, brain, or other organs in the machine in order to isolate its nuclei. This results in a concentrated solution of nuclei, packed with complex gene and trait information, that researchers can use to create a cell atlas.
“Ten years ago, I didn’t even know that technology could do these things. I just love what’s possible now, and what helps you look for answers,” X said.
This technology helps researchers like X learn more about the Mexican tetra species of cavefish. This species of fish displays certain traits that can help with medical research because of their ability to adapt to changes in environmental habitats, whether it be surface waters or caves. Some populations of Mexican tetra became blind and experience alterations in their metabolic activity over time, so their use in research studies is invaluable. This can translate to understanding more about the evolution of certain genes in diseases, such as diabetes. Features like these have supported Mexican tetra quickly growing into a new biomedical model.
“If we can show the public that these non-model organisms have this value, my hope is that it could help with conservation efforts,” X said. “We have to conserve these habitats, because once we lose them, there’s no way to understand the therapeutic treatments we could develop based on what these organisms naturally do.”
X believes that this research helps them keep conservation efforts at the forefront of their mind and bring more awareness to these underestimated organisms. X’s work to sustain and preserve ecosystems as they are comes from an overall love for science and what they do at Bond LSC.
“I love science because you get to exercise all of your curiosity and you can always find an answer or, if there’s not one, you still push it as far as you can to try to find one,” X said.
Although X still plays piano in their free time, they find performing in the lab with science experiments and conducting analyses gives them more satisfaction and fulfillment. From lab procedures to field observations, X enjoys how much being a biologist suits their personality.