From GCC to Cornell

Alumna Maria Akopyan is making a splash in biology

As an academic counselor, I am always on the lookout for ways to encourage students to find their passions and stay the course as they work to accomplish goals. I was presented with such an opportunity on February 27, when Maria Akopyan, a PhD student at Cornell University, in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and a GCC alumna was invited to speak about her research on the Evolution of Color Diversity in Red-Eyed Tree frogs. Her passion for biology was evident and her eyes gleamed with pride as she described her research and her path to success. Akopyan sat down with El Vaquero for a more personal look at her success and what GCC had to offer her.

Describe your academic experience at GCC?

I was very strategic when it came to my education at GCC. I knew I wanted to transfer to UCLA and major in biology. I was an EOPS student and saw my counselor, Greg Perkins, regularly who helped devise my academic plan. I was admitted to all but one of the schools I applied to, including my dream school (UCLA). I received a lot of attention and support from my professors at GCC. I didn’t realize how special that was until I moved on to other institutions and had to vie for the attention of faculty.  

Did you participate in research opportunities at GCC?

After transferring to UCLA, it was difficult to find research opportunities outside of a lab. In 2012, I contacted Dr. Javier Gago at GCC and asked if I could conduct an independent research project at the Baja California Field Station on the local population of the spotted sand bass in the Gulf of California.

What was your major at UCLA? Describe your academic experience at UCLA?

[My major] was biology, in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Although I was prepared academically, I did not know how to manage my time on the quarter system, or how to take advantage of the resources at a large research institution. It took me a while to assimilate, which is why I took two extra quarters to finish my bachelors. Although my experience at UCLA was challenging, it taught me how to seek opportunities on my own.

How did you prepare for graduate school?

After UCLA, I worked as an intern at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Dauphin Island, Alabama working under Dr. Ken Heck in the marine ecology lab. Working closely with Dr. Heck, his lab technicians and graduate students, I acquired skills and techniques both in the lab and field. Pursuing a graduate career was always an intimidating thought for me, but after working in Dr. Heck’s lab, I felt prepared to begin my graduate studies.

Describe your graduate school experience at California State University, Northridge.

I received training in nearly all aspects of the scientific process at CSUN – asking compelling questions, applying for grants, designing experiments, collecting data, conducting analyses, preparing manuscripts, and presenting findings both within and outside of the scientific community. The holistic approach of my graduate training at CSUN is reflected in my accomplishments in research, teaching, and service.

Why red-eyed tree frogs?

The red-eyed tree frog is the world’s most charismatic amphibian and a symbol of biodiversity. Populations of the red-eyed treefrog exhibit substantial regional variation, including differences in color pattern, body size, and male advertisement calls. This unique pattern of diversity provides an exciting opportunity to explore the underlying evolutionary processes.

What did you learn about the red-eyed tree frogs?

I discovered population-level differences in both male and female courtship behaviors of red-eyed treefrogs, and that females preferred to mate with local males. My results demonstrate that female mating displays and the role of males as signal receivers may be widely overlooked, challenging the paradigm of unidirectional courtship signaling in frogs. I also found that hybrid red-eyed tree frogs exhibit coloration that is distinct from either parental populations, and that the majority of individuals sampled within a contact zone are hybrids. These findings contribute to our knowledge of how new species evolve even amidst genetic exchange between populations.

How did you secure funding sources to study the tree frogs in Costa Rica and Panama?

My professor had start-up funds from the university to establish her research program, which initially funded my master’s research. I later began applying for my own funding and raised money to pay for some of my research expenses as well as my stipend. The majority of the funding I received was through CSUN. I also applied for grants and fellowships from external sources.

Current PhD Research

What are your research goals at Cornell and what are your future academic goals?

I am conducting research in the field of evolutionary genomics. My research goal is to understand the genetic mechanisms that allow species to adapt to rapidly changing conditions. Specifically, I am exploring the genetic basis of local adaptation in the Atlantic silverside (Menidia menidia), an estuarine fish distributed along the world’s steepest thermal cline in the western Atlantic.

My ultimate goal is to become a biology professor because I am passionate about both research and teaching. I am committed to collaborate with colleagues and mentor emerging scientists as we share the responsibility of not only acquiring, but also spreading knowledge about the natural world to support the health and sustainability of our planet.

What is your message to students who want to major in biology?

Studying biology can be quite challenging because life is complex and dynamic – don’t let that frustrate or discourage you. Rather, see it as an inspiration, an exciting challenge that requires YOUR unique expertise and creativity. Being a good student doesn’t mean studying all day and neglecting all other aspects of your life. This may work in the short term when you need to cram for a test, but it is a very difficult and miserable lifestyle that is rarely sustainable. My advice is to remember that education is a life-long journey, so pace yourself and enjoy the ride.

Nare Garibyan can be reached at [email protected].