My research has largely been driven by my interest in how functional genes evolve in unique ecological contexts, be they new genomic contexts (e.g. horizontal gene transfer) or new physical environments (e.g., toxic plants). The focus of my dissertation work has been on understanding how HGT led to adaptation to biotic interactions. For my postdoctoral with the Hadly Lab at Stanford, I will be broadening my training by studying insect responses to abiotic stressors, especially those pertinent to climate change. I intend to trace these using an interdisciplinary approach, including genomics and molecular biology through an ecological lens.
I'm particularly interested in the genetic and molecular basis of exciting adaptive phenotypes. Evolution has naturally created solutions to every conceivable problem: extreme cold (ice-binding proteins); extreme heat (heat shock proteins); toxic foods (monarchs sequester cardiac glycosides); inability to see (echolocation). Even severe environments like Antarctica are abundant with life! I think the budding fields of genomics is a wide-open playground to investigate all the ways nature adapts to problems. Applied researchers can utilize this knowledge to advance human causes. I do enjoy communicating with the public and students about my love of the natural world and how we can use genomics to study nature's mysteries (e.g. Field Genomics; Expanding Your Horizons (EYH); and through teaching and mentoring undergraduate and high school students). My motivation for being in academia is to be able to build a research and education program that incorporates my passion for animal evolution, adaptation and functional genomics.
PhD Dissertation Work:
While most of us are familiar with vertical transfer (e.g. I get genes from my father and mother), I find horizontal gene transfer (HGT) - exchanging genes between species - far more compelling. Imagine if you ate a jellyfish and the next day you glowed in the dark and had poisonous stingers! The prevalence of HGT in natural history, and its ability to suddenly create incredible phenotypes in animals, is becoming more apparent every year. I am currently studying HGT of cytolethal distending toxin B in insects in the Integrative Biology Department at University of California - Berkeley. I discovered that cdtB was transferred into the genomes of several drosophilid and aphid lineages (Verster et al 2019, Molecular Biology and Evolution). I also recently found that cdtB (in addition to other toxin genes) was transferred into an agriculturally devastating clade of insects known as midges - and, interestingly, that living in the same habitat may increase the likelihood of HGT between organisms (Verster and Tarnopol et al 2021, Genome Biology and Evolution).
Hobbies and Other Interests:
In my free time, I love hanging out with my dog, Pooch (who has been trained to bark, play dead, high five, and jump on command). I'm also a proud Cuban-American from Miami and can frequently be found dancing, teaching, and playing salsa!
For a summary of my PhD dissertation, please see the following Youtube video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7ChPxINTCg
Una breve descripción de mis investigaciones de doctorado y cómo llegué a la Ciencia, en español: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VPYgKNAaAAM
Otra descripción de mis investigaciones de doctorado con “Un Vistazo al Laboratorio”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iQz8rk7bDU&t=102s
Please contact me for a current CV.
- Gotta Catch ‘Em All: using Pokemon to Learn R. Summer 2022.
- Field Genomics (short course), Summer 2019, 2021
- Extraordinary Teaching in Extraordinary Times, 2021.
- Graduate Remote Instruction Innovation Fellow, 2020.
- GSI Advocate for Undergraduate Mental Health (ASUC Mental Health Commission)
- MCB104, Spring 2020.
- Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor, 2019.
- IB164, Fall 2019.
- MCB104, Spring 2016.
Verster, K. I. *, Tarnopol, R. L.*, Akalu, S. M., Whiteman, N. K. Horizontal transfer of microbial toxin genes to gall midge genomes. 2021. Genome Biology and Evolution.
Verster, K.I., J.H. Wisecaver, R.P. Duncan, M. Karageorgi, A.D. Gloss, E. Armstrong, D.K. Price, A.R. Melon, Z.M. Ali, N.K. Whiteman. Horizontal transfer of bacterial cytolethal distending toxin B genes to insects. 2019. Molecular Biology and Evolution.
Pelaez, J. N., Gloss, A., Ray, J., Haji, D., Verster, K. I., Whiteman, N. K. Evolution and genomic basis of the plant-penetrating ovipositor: a key morphological trait in herbivorous Drosophilidae. 2022. Accepted at Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Matsunaga, T. Reisenman, C. E., Goldman-Huertas, B. Brand, P., Miao, K., Suzuki, H. C., Verster, K. I., Ramirez, S. R., Whiteman, N. K. 2021. Evolution of olfactory receptors tuned to mustard oils in herbivorous Drosophilidae. 2021. Molecular Biology and Evolution.
Karageorgi, M. K., Groen, S.C., Sumbul, F., Pelaez, J. N., Verster, K. I., Aguilar, J. M., Hastings, A. P., Bernstein, A. P., Bernstein, S. L., Matsunaga, T., Astourian, M., Rico, F. Dobler, S., Agrawal, A. A., Whiteman, N.K. Genome editing retraces the evolution of toxin resistance in the monarch butterfly. 2019. Nature.
Gloss, A.D., A.C. Nelson Dittrich, R.T. Lapoint, B. Goldman Huertas, K. I. Verster, J. N. Pelaez, A.D.L. Nelson, J. M. Aguilar, E. E. Armstrong, J. L. M. Charboneau, S. C. Groen, D. H. Hembry, C. J. Ochoa, T. K. O’Connor, S. Prost, H. C. Suzuki, S. Zaaijer, P. D. Nabity, N. K. Whiteman. Evolution of herbivory revealed in a Drosophila genomes. bioRxiv: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/767160v1.abstract. In preparation.