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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., June 11, 2020—Luana Maroja, associate professor of biology and chair of the biochemistry program at Williams College, has been awarded a prestigious grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The five-year, $300,000 grant will support her research that examines how new species arise and persist across different environments.
Maroja’s project, titled “The Evolution and Maintenance of Variable Species Boundaries,” combines field work with new technology to increase understanding of how speciation—the process through which new species are formed and a fundamental driver of biodiversity—takes place. Working with a complex of field cricket species, with a focus on two local species, the project will also involve measurement of behavior and other traits related to mate choice as well as collection and analyses of genomic data.
“Traits that prevent species from mating with other species are not static, they depend on the history of a particular population and vary across space,” said Maroja, whose research interests include population genetics, speciation, hybrid zones, and sexual selection. “We will use field and laboratory experiments to identify traits that define two closely related species and test how those traits vary across space. Using new analyses tools in wild populations, we hope to inspire research in evolution, behavior, and conservation.”
The NSF-supported project is a collaboration with Erica Larson and Robin Tinghitella, faculty members at the University of Denver’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Larson’s areas of interest include the genomic analyses of hybrid zones in various organisms, including crickets. Tinghitella, an expert in sexual selection and insect songs, studies other cricket species.
The research team aims to gain a deeper understanding of how the species’ genetic composition and their main ways of recognizing each other vary across space. By identifying the factors that influence this variation, they hope to understand the role that evolutionary forces such as selection, migration, and mutation play in speciation. “Completing the assembly of the cricket genome and making that information available to the public will contribute to future research,” Maroja said. “And we’ll have a better understanding of the biodiversity in our world.”
Maroja joined the faculty at Williams College in 2010. Her areas of expertise include evolutionary genetics, speciation, and landscape genetics. She teaches courses on evolution, and her research has been published in journals such as Ecology and Evolution, Evolution, and BMC Evolutionary Biology, among others. She received her B.S. and M.S. from Brazil’s Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, and her Ph.D. from Cornell University.
Founded in 1793, Williams College is the second-oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts. The college’s approximately 2,000 undergraduate students are taught by a faculty noted for the quality of their teaching and research, and the achievement of academic goals includes active participation of students with faculty in their research. The college is also home to roughly 100 Master’s students enrolled in its renowned graduate programs in Development Economics and the History of Art (the latter offered in collaboration with the Clark Art Institute). Students’ educational experience is enriched by the residential campus environment in Williamstown, Mass., which provides a host of opportunities for interaction with one another and with faculty beyond the classroom. Admission decisions on U.S. applicants are made regardless of a student’s financial ability, and the college provides grants and other assistance to meet the demonstrated needs of all who are admitted.