ScholarWorks Spotlight: Celebrating the Human Side of Research - Dr. Jonathan Allen

By Alex Flores Glosson - Instruction & Research Librarian

In this series, we are spotlighting researchers who have contributed to W&M ScholarWorks, our institutional repository. We asked each researcher to identify a scholarly work and share the “human story” behind it. Who are the people behind the data and theory, and how were they affected by the scholarship?   

We hope you will enjoy learning more about what happens “behind the scenes” of research, and that it encourages you to explore the collections in W&M ScholarWorks. 

If you are interested in being part of the series or contributing to ScholarWorks, please contact your librarian liaison.

An interview with Dr. Jonathan Allen:

A Novel Report of Hatching Plasticity in the Phylum Echinodermata” by A Francis Armstrong,  Holly N. Blackburn, & Jonathan Allen, article published in the American Naturalist 

Explain your article in a tweet OR explain your article to a five-year-old 

Echinoderms delay their hatching in response to environmentally-relevant changes in salinity. Intertidal animals, like sand dollars, appear able to modify their development to avoid the stress of freshwater runoff.  

What inspired you to study this research question? 

This work began as a collaboration between myself and a colleague at Tufts University. He was interested in the effects of changes in salinity (the saltiness of sea water) on early development in marine invertebrates (Allen and Pechenik, 2010). Out of that, I began to collect data on how later developmental stages produce twins (and triplets and quadruplets) in response to changes in salinity also (Allen et al. 2015). During that work, two undergraduates (Frances Armstrong and Holly Blackburn) helped me discover a very unexpected response: that the embryos stay inside their capsules when salinity is low. This appears to be a mechanism for them to avoid the stressful environment of freshwater influxes that occur when it rains on the coast. This, of course, is something that happens often (think of a rainy VA spring) but biologists had not explored how the resulting variation in salinity affected development. Watching the embryos continue to develop into larvae, but not hatch was fascinating. It is a a bit like birds hatching as fully feathered and capable of flight rather than with just tufts of down on them.  

How does your research connect with/to the courses you teach? 

I teach a course on the Integrative Biology of Animals (Biology 302) and in that course I talk about research into developmental plasticity. There are famous examples of this across animal phyla and one of my favorite examples is a species of tree frog that hatches early in response to predator cues. There are wonderful videos of frog embryos ejecting from their capsules when they detect the vibrational cues of a snake who wants to eat them. Students love seeing his biology in action and it is great for me to follow that up with an equally interesting (to me) example of marine animals also being flexible in their development. The fact that it was done by WM undergraduates makes it all the more interesting and satisfying for current students to learn about.  

What didn't make it into the article that's interesting? 

One of my favorite things is to watch students mature and learn about the process of science. Often that process is not linear. For both of the students who are the lead authors on the paper, they experienced the full range of emotions. In fact, some of the figures in the paper are based on data that the students thought were mistakes on their part because when we collected them they didn’t match our hypothesis. The students were actually rather upset about this. It was a real joy to explain to them that the ‘wrong’ data that they thought they were collecting were actually teaching us something new about the biological world that no one else had noticed before. Both Frances and Holly, the two undergrads, have gone on to complete advanced degrees (a PhD at UC Davis for Frances and an MD at UVA and now a PhD at Yale for Holly). So now when I see them I get to refer to them as Dr. Armstrong and Dr. Blackburn, but I still think back on them as undergraduates who were just getting their research feet under them at the time. It’s the best part of my job to see our students go on to do such great things after they leave WM with some real research training under their belts. It’s a bit like watching them hatch in a way... 

Articles and book chapters archived in ScholarWorks are findable through Google and can reach a larger audience. Find out how to add your works to the institutional repository by talking to your liaison librarian.