Jingchun Li, an EEB graduate student in the lab of Professor Diarmaid Ó Foighil, has been awarded a Rackham Predoctoral Fellowship. The fellowship supports outstanding doctoral students who have achieved candidacy and are actively working on dissertation research and writing.

 “The enormous biodiversity on earth not only provides humans valuable biological resources, but also serves as a crucial component of our highly interdependent ecosystem. How this great biodiversity is generated remains a central question of biology and my thesis research aims to help answer it,” begins Li’s personal statement for the fellowship.

Li’s research is one of the first empirical investigations of how abiotic and biotic factors affect the evolutionary diversification of a major marine lineage, the bivalve superfamily Galeommatoidea. She is inspired by the increasing realization among macroevolutionary biologists that biotic interactions cannot be ignored if theory is to be reconciled with natural systems and that the interplay of abiotic and biotic drivers has shaped biotas through time.

The role of biotic factors in driving species diversification has been extensively studied in terrestrial systems. Unfortunately, their impact on marine life is much less understood, even though 71 percent of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean.

“I address this deficiency by studying the evolution of the hyperdiverse clam group Galeommatoidea. It is a particularly apt group because it contains large numbers of obligate commensal as well as free-living species and is therefore amenable to comparative approaches.

Li tackles the issue on three levels: 1) on a global level, for the entire superfamily; 2) on a regional level, for a faunal assemblage of commensal and free-living taxa that span three well-defined biogeographic provinces in southern Australia; 3) on a microevolutionary level, focusing on commensal species with multiple hosts.

Construction of global molecular phylogenies allows Li to test if free-living and commensal ecologies have differentially impacted rates of lineage diversification and morphological evolution in this group. The regional phylogeographic analyses engage with endemic diversification among free-living and commensal lineages along a contiguous coastline containing multiple abiotic breakpoints. This will yield a high-resolution analysis of how abiotic and biotic factors interact to shape marine diversification. The microevolutionary approach directly examines the importance of host-shifts in promoting speciation of commensal species.

Li will receive $28,800 over three terms, candidacy tuition and registration fees for fall and winter as well as GradCare health and dental insurance coverage for 2013-14. An award reception is planned for early April. Congratulations!

Caption: Jingchun Li with classmates on a boat trip at the University of Washington's Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island, near Seattle. They were collecting marine invertebrates as part of a marine invertebrate class.