Emily Weigel


Georgia Institute of Technology
Department of Biological Sciences
Atlanta, GA 30332


My three main areas of interest:

1. Where do novel traits come from?

Novel traits can arise from mutation passed on to offspring, sure. But sometimes the traits are not passed on vertically (i.e. parent to kid), but rather horizontally (i.e. species to species; think Spiderman and Peter Parker). I am currently exploring how food-feeding insects acquire novel, functional traits from bacteria and fungi. I am searching for patterns of shared transfer based on organismal ecology, and so far, I have found quite a few. My collaborators and I conduct our work primarily through bioinformatics databases, but we also conduct fieldwork at Charlie Elliot Wildlife Center, in Mansfield, GA; in Boone, NC; and in Rochester, NY.

2. How are traits used in reproductive life history and mating decisions?

Broadly, I am interested in how communication affects sexual selection. In particular, I study how males and females make mating decisions, and what impact those decisions have on the evolution of species. I seek to understand which factors communicate with whom to mate, how the “best” mate might change with ecological and evolutionary time, and what consequences result when decision-making factors, such as visual cues, are altered or decay. I am interested in whether traits trade off in importance for mating decisions and reproductive life history, and how demography might plastically alter what traits to express (and when). This work formed the foundation of my dissertation, and several papers are forthcoming on this topic.

My dissertation species: the three-spined stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus aculeatus). Produced by Blue Wake Media. Please see the original YouTube post for comments. If you need or prefer, here is a post-interview transcript PDF. Enjoy!

3. How do we learn and speak about evolution?

Because I study evolutionary biology in populations, I cannot ignore how human populations conceptualize and communicate about evolution. My work has focused on how students initially acquire evolutionary ideas, and what techniques can best be used to learn how evolution works. I am currently wrapping up one grant-funded project to see how written explanations of evolution change over time, and I have two upcoming NSF BEACON grant–funded projects, to:

  1. Examine how the nature of feedback influences student writing about evolution.

  2. Use feature-extraction of pop-culture evolution writing to guide science writers in writing about evolution in ways that are interesting, relatable, and factually correct.