Wednesday, April 25, 2018
URSP Student Alexander Kourmadas Researches Steller’s Sea Cows
I have always been interested in natural history. When all of my friends went in and out of the “dinosaur phase” of childhood development, my interest didn’t dissipate. Instead, it progressively expanded to encompass more and more of the history of life. Until I finally got onto social media at the behest of my freshman class at GMU, I used the internet almost exclusively for Wikipedia articles and their bibliographies. My main interest both then and now was the intersection between modernity and deep time: organisms and ecosystems, like the Steller's sea cow, that represented how the world was long ago but lasted until very recently. My research plans for the future all tend to revolve around this principle of using recent history as a window into deep history.
Seven years ago, ancient DNA (aDNA) research took a huge leap in actually creating a fantastically enigmatic question - who were the people that shared Denisova cave with Neanderthals and our ancestors? They lived until relatively recently, interbred with both Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans, and produced complex art. They were identified from DNA from a molar and a pinky bone, though, so it is completely unknown what they looked like. This and similar discoveries by aDNA researchers have filled me with awe and inspiration. In carrying out this project, I hope to bring the same sense of wonder at the world to others that existing aDNA research brings me, but right now mainly to learn more about Steller’s sea cows and to learn the methods I need to do this sort of research in the future. In the rest of my career, I would like to use similar procedures to generate and utilize genetic data from diverse recently extinct organisms.