Week 1: Who Am I?

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My name is Alex Wilkins and I am a Junior at Wake Forest University and I am a double major in History and Anthropology. I’m also in Kappa Delta Sorority and an active member of the Wake Forest Wesley Foundation, the Methodist campus ministry. I first became interested in Anthropology, specifically physical anthropology when I was a sophomore in high school. I volunteered at the Duke Primate Center in my hometown, Durham, North Carolina. I had fascinating discussions with anthropology majors at Duke and have been enthralled ever since. I have taken ANT 113, an introductory course to biological anthropology, Human Evolution and Human Osteology, which have been some of my favorite classes at Wake Forest. I have taken Comparative Physiology in the Biology Department as well as Social Psychology, which may have some overlap with this class!

I have been fortunate enough to extend my love of biological anthropology past the classroom. I spent the summer after my freshman year in a Paleontology lab at Duke. My job here was twofold. I got to spend time with Duke’s extensive (and quite impressive!) fossil collection, organizing, re-organizing, re-re-organizing, changing silica gel, preparing fossils for transport, etc… you get the idea. I also, however, did something we called “data mining” for the director of the Duke Primate Center, Anne Yoder. Dr. Yoder is who I want to be when I grow up, so needless to say I enjoyed working for her. I spend lengthy hours online on the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and the GenBank. The goal was to retrieve as many possible mitochondrial DNA codings for as many primates as possible. My job was to use BLAST (Basic Local Alignment Search Tool) sequences of DNA to find similar coding sequences that had been previously logged. It sounds complicated, but once I got the hang of it, it was really quite tedious. The final goal, you ask? Dr. Yoder’s paper attempted to address the problem in primate evolution of the fossil record and the genetic clock. So simply, we were collecting DNA to make a more adjusted and refine tree for primate evolution. The coolest part of my summer, however, was taking a behind the scenes tour of the primate center. I got to see Aye-Aye’s in action, feed Ring Tailed Lemurs (Lemur Catta) and meet Zoboomafoo, who is a Coquerel’s sifaka (Propithecus coquereli). The sifaka’s were easily my favorite; I like their movements, noises, and overall demeanor.

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Coquerl's Shifaka

And this is me feeding the Ring-Tails (I look a little too excited, because I was)

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The following summer, after sophomore year I worked with Dr. Yoder again. This time I worked as a paid employee (wohoo!!) in her lab on Duke’s Campus. I did a small amount of literature research for upcoming papers, but I mostly worked with DNA again! I learned how to extract DNA from a sample (I used muscle tissues of bats; not primates, but still cool), and then to run it through a PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) to target and isolate a specific sequence in the mitochondrial genome (I was looking specifically at cytochrome B) and then replicate it. I ran all my outcomes through a “gel,” which would pull the charged DNA through a gel that I made from a formula, and then put it under UV light to see the outcomes. I also was able to run the DNA through a sequencer, if the PCR worked (which more often than not it didn’t) 😦 The sequencer told me the coding. We could then cross-compare codes from varying specimens to determine evolutionary relationships.

I have had very fun extra-curricular experience with primate biology and the practical lab work behind evolutionary relationships, but I hope to eventually work with primates in a hands-on environment. Hopefully this class will further prepare me for any field work or research I find myself in in the future.

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2 thoughts on “Week 1: Who Am I?

  1. I visited the Lemur Center at the end of last semester and fell in love with the Aye-Ayes! I wanted to see Elphaba (because I show a video about her in my intro classes), and got visit with her and mom, as well another pair (Merlin and his buddy). Sifakas used to be my favorite, but now Aye-Ayes are definitely my favorite prosimian/strepsirhine.

  2. shawmk11

    I’m so jealous of your experiences with primates Alex! I can’t wait for our class to have some similar experiences throughout this class and the accompanying field trips!

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