Species Resilience and Science Advocacy: Getting to Know the Whitehead Lab at UC Davis

Dr. Andrew Whitehead working in the field
Dr. Andrew Whitehead in the field, deploying minnow traps to catch Gulf killifish, during our studies on the ecological impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Photo Credit: Patrick Sullivan
Written by Nicole Drake

In the lab

Genetics, climate change, and conservation become highly intertwined in Dr. Andrew Whitehead’s lab. Although he works on a variety of research endeavors, he mainly focuses on how wild species respond to human-induced stress, such as the effects of climate change, and how that may affect an individual organism’s progeny. Essentially, Dr. Whitehead attempts to monitor how climate change and pollution will shape the genetic makeup of multiple generations.

“What we study are the consequences of how humans are changing the environment." He said "When we think of environmental change, we can think on a long timescale of mountains moving, but since humans became abundant in the last couple thousand years, that’s radically altered a lot of environments….So we need to look at how biodiversity is changing because of human-environmental change, and predict what kind of species are at highest risk.”

Killifish have been a key model species for Whitehead lab research. Killifish are well-adapted to live in estuaries, which are naturally stressful places. Estuaries comprise the area where a river meets the ocean, so they are filled with constantly shifting factors, strong water currents and human pollution. Therefore, killifish must be flexible to change in order to do well in their environment. Whitehead’s labs study what makes species resistant to change and how human-caused changes in environment might break the species or force them to adapt to additional human stressors like climate change. The data Whitehead’s lab analyzes allows them to begin building a model which can predict how dire each organism’s ecological situation is. From there, conservationists can prioritize the appropriate species which may be more closely threatened by environmental changes, and may allow more species to be retained to keep biodiversity at a steady level.

Atlantic killifish
Atlantic killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus). Image credit: Andrew Whitehead

Accomplishments and minor setbacks

Dr. Whitehead is proud of how his work combines different disciplines and blends fields together, allowing a melange of applied and theoretical science to uniquely study human impacts over short and long timeframes. He said, “I like that we really try to understand resilience over different time scales; we consider [our subjects] evolutionarily and physiologically. Something that’s become apparent is that in 20, 30 years of evolution, things unfold very quickly. We often think of evolution as a gradual process, but in some cases, species can also evolve very quickly to changing environments.” 

It is not necessarily all fun in the lab; being an environmental researcher with the Trump administration has come with its difficulties. Dr. Whitehead admitted that it may be difficult to handle the pushback researchers often receive in his field. Corporate money and lobbying against environmental legislation are difficult to fight against, in addition to the physical bombardments that can occur. He said,” We get pushback by petrochemical companies and their allies trying to discredit our research at conferences and meetings, particularly our students.” However, he retains hope that good will come out of these difficulties. “It’s an opportunity for a discussion. [The hecklers] don’t have the capacity to raise doubts about the science, so they just try to discredit the research. We just try to stick to the science and let it speak for itself,” Whitehead said.

The image of “an entirely objective scientist in a white lab coat” is something that Dr. Whitehead endeavors to push against. “It’s not good enough these days. Scientists need to be better advocates for science and truth, and try to communicate the take-home messages from their research,” he said. Whitehead believes that an issue of image lingers throughout society, with people perceiving scientists’ authority to be compromised once they start to advocate for their research instead of stay huddled in the lab. He said, “I’m coming around to the idea that we [as scientists] need to do more. Keeping on the lab coat has, in a lot of ways, failed.”

Despite these negativities, UC Davis makes the task of staying positive easier according to Dr. Whitehead. He said, “I appreciate the breadth and depth [of the research] that you find here; a lot of institutes just have one or the other. I’m surrounded by world-class researchers which is a huge benefit….To be surrounded by such talented folks is so great for me, and [Davis’s] geographical location is hard to beat.”

Classes with Dr. Whitehead

Whitehead’s classes at UCD are something he is also passionate about. He teaches EXT120 (Aquatic Toxicology) and EXT150 (Evolution in Human Altered Environments), each of which excite him to spread the knowledge that the courses contain. Dr. Whitehead described EXT120 as though “you take toxicology and put it underwater to see what’s important to chemicals [there].” His main interest is in EXT150, which expands the course’s view beyond toxicology and incorporates evolutionary biology, agricultural science, and urbanization of society, amongst other topics. According to Whitehead, “Toxicology itself is just a fraction of the course. It takes a much broader view beyond that, to include the many dimensions in which human activities alter the environment.” 

Beyond anything else, Dr. Whitehead urges students to reach out and get to know their professors.

He said, “There’s a preconceived notion that professors are unapproachable, but there’s nothing more they want to do than talk about their research. Most professors are willing to put aside an hour or so to talk to you about their research; I’d say nine out of ten times you’ll get a positive response.”

Dr. Whitehead encourages all students to attend lab meetings, volunteer, and reach out to their professors. He wants everyone to realize that “Sending an email a couple of times isn’t being annoying, it’s being persistent.” 

To contact Dr. Andrew Whitehead, email him


Meet the Author: Nicole Drake

Nicole Drake is a third-year UC Davis EEB major and ENT minor. She is also a trained and certified yoga instructor who enjoys walking on the beach and a good cup of coffee. Nicole previously worked at the San Francisco Zoo and has a great passion for wildlife conservation and ecology. Her favorite animal to work with was the Magellanic penguins

 

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