Tuesday, October 17, 2017
Tyler Bartholome
Nathan Schaefer, a graduate student in biomolecular engineering, is this year’s recipient of the prestigious Jack Baskin and Peggy Downes-Baskin Fellowship.

Originally from Wisconsin, Schaefer came to California four years ago after completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I started college,” Schaefer explained, “I changed my mind a thousand times,” originally pursuing a degree in journalism.

By his junior year, however, Schaefer decided to pursue botany, reasoning that it was one of the few biology courses that didn’t have to do with medical practices. “I’ve always been interested in evolution,” he continued, eventually meeting students from the University of California, Santa Cruz who explained how they had an entire degree program for bioinformatics. At the time, he knew little about the subject as it was rarely offered as a course at UW Madison.

Soon thereafter, Schaefer spoke with professors Ed Green and Beth Shapiro who would later become his academic advisors. He became enthralled with the idea of extracting DNA from fossils. “I knew right away I wanted to come here,” Schaefer said.

“I knew right away I wanted to come here”

Once he arrived at UC Santa Cruz for his graduate studies, Schaefer joined the Paleogenomics Lab, working side-by-side with both Green and Shapiro on research that primarily has to do with admixture—the mixing of exclusive populations of organisms. Through this, they hope to investigate how certain species have diverged. Their recent research, for example, focused on the finding that brown bears have a surprising portion of polar bear ancestry.

Having first seen this phenomenon in isolated groups of brown bears in Alaska, Schaefer and his colleagues were intrigued to find that this also existed for every sequenced brown bear in the United States, even 1000 miles away in Montana. “Studying how ancestry is inherited could tell us something about what genes worked well together in hybrids and which ones didn’t,” Schaefer added, explaining that while these brown bears have some genes with polar bear ancestry, it is the genes that have no polar bear ancestry that indicate how the species began to diverge. These slight differences between the two started the gradual process of their becoming what we know today as the brown bear and polar bear.

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