Reptiles and viruses: New E&EB faculty lead research
Brandon Ogbunu Ph.D. ’10 and Martha Muñoz head some of the newest laboratories within the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department.
Courtesy of Martha Munoz and Brandon Ogbunu
Brandon Ogbunu GRD ’10 and Martha Muñoz, two of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department’s newest faculty members, tackle how pandemics arise and the secrets of salamanders’ evolution, respectively.
Ogbunu and Muñoz, both native New Yorkers, joined the E&EB faculty within the last two years and each head their own laboratories. Muñoz’s research interests focus on organismal biology, working specifically with reptiles and amphibians, while Ogbunu focuses on the applications of evolutionary biology on medicine and disease.
“I got to college, and in my first week I learned about the Cambrian explosion.” Muñoz said. “Imagine going 18 years without knowing that Hallucigenia and Anomalocaris existed and that those can be linked — in general all of those Cambrian fossils — to existing lineages. My entire understanding of my existence exploded, and I knew immediately, then and there, that I wanted to be learning about the world from the perspective of evolution, from this perspective of deep time, and from the perspective of a theory that unifies every dimension of biology.”
Muñoz credits her childhood in New York City as one of the factors that contributed to her decision to pursue the field of ecology and evolutionary biology. She explained that, growing up, she would visit the Natural History Museum, the Bronx Zoo and the Botanical Gardens. These excursions triggered a “longing to see nature in its context, in its place.”
Later in life, Muñoz added that she participated in field research in Indonesia, going on scuba diving expeditions to learn about various organisms. This experience in tangible research and observation led to her interest in becoming a field biologist in addition to an academic.
Ogbunu explained that he also formally discovered the field of ecology and evolutionary biology while pursuing his undergraduate degree. At that time, he was an avid consumer of science writing, especially the works of Stephen J. Wolf and Jane Goodall, and was forming his identity as a scientist and a professional.
In addition to his own academic experiences, he added that the HIV/AIDS epidemic also influenced the trajectory of his career. After completing college, he participated in a United States Fulbright fellowship during which he conducted malaria research in Kenya.
“That fortified my understanding of ecology and evolution as critical if we want to make real inroads against disease,” Ogbunu said. “I understood the relationship between ecology and evolution and disease, and I saw this manifest in various ways: the drug resistance problem, the disease emergence problem. At that point, the formal field that merged evolutionary and ecological reasoning with disease was new.”
Previously, Muñoz and Ogbunu taught at Virginia Tech and Brown University, respectively. When asked why they chose to come to Yale, both researchers mentioned the University’s exciting and dynamic growth due to recent investments in scientific programs and research.
Muñoz explained that her reasoning was partly “phylopatric” and partly due to the “electric” nature of the scientific scene at Yale. She also appreciated the fact that ecology and evolutionary biology was its own department at Yale, and that, in addition to her duties as an assistant professor, she could participate in research and curation at the Peabody Museum.
Ogbunu also spoke to his positive experience as a graduate student at Yale and the collaborative nature of the department as reasons for returning as an assistant professor.
“I think Yale is a place, like it was when I was a graduate student, that welcomes and encourages collaboration and cross-pollination and out-of-the-box thinking.” Ogbunu said.
One of the most important facets of the E&EB department at Yale is its faculty and researchers, according to both Ogbunu and Muñoz. Ogbunu emphasized that his colleagues, who are at the top of their respective fields, are intellectually generous, helpful and always happy to collaborate.
Muñoz explained that her research is “motivated” by the following observation: “Evolution proceeds unevenly.” In other words, she seeks to understand why certain traits and lineages appear to be inert over time while others change rapidly. She works with reptiles and amphibians to understand how their behavior and interactions with their environment can determine the pace and magnitude of their species’ evolution.
In an email to the News, Tasman Rosenfeld ’22 wrote that his favorite part about working with Muñoz is “getting the opportunity to be surrounded by dozens of [his] favorite animals (salamanders) most days of the week.”
Henry Camarillo GRD ’24, a graduate student in the Muñoz lab, praised Muñoz’s ability to bring her “excitement and passion for evolutionary biology into her mentoring.”
“In one word I would describe Dr. Muñoz as holistic,” Brooke Lee Bodensteiner GRD ’24, a graduate student in the Muñoz lab, wrote. “She has an amazing ability to comprehend the pieces of something as being interconnected and explicable by reference to the whole, and I mean this in the sense of how she approaches science, education, and mentorship.”
Ogbunu focuses on the foundational problem of drug resistant microbes and cancers. He seeks to understand how microbes and viruses evolve in order to use this information to potentially develop better treatments and response plans for pandemics.
The pandemic has offered Ogbunu another case study: How do pathogens like SARS-CoV-2 emerge? While the scientific community understands the existence of mutations and variants, Ogbunu explained that there is still much to be discovered when it comes to modeling how various mutations work together to change the behavior and characteristics of a pathogen.
Scientists make fundamental assumptions about how evolution works and how it can inform predictions about virus behavior, according to Ogbunu. However, he added that the pandemic has shown that the fundamental assumptions that frame current expectations may need refining. His research seeks to understand the shortcomings of these fundamental assumptions and create more accurate “rules” for the evolution of pathogens.
“My favorite part of the laboratory is the diverse, engaging culture, and the warm, encouraging atmosphere,” Andrea Ayala, a postdoctoral fellow in the Ogbunu Lab, wrote. “Dr. Ogbunu is devoted to the development of his mentees and is an inspiring and brilliant mentor. I am honored to have the opportunity to work under his leadership.”
Ogbunu joined Yale in 2020 and Muñoz joined in 2019.