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Street Trees

As global warming heats our planet, many cities are turning to planting trees to help keep their citizens cool. However, city trees are dying much younger than their rural counterparts–Boston’s street trees are dying twice as young as trees of the same species in rural Massachusetts. I am studying how urbanization impacts the microbes living on tree roots and leaves and in the soil, and I am looking to see if there is a correlation between the microbes and street tree mortality. I hypothesize that street trees host more plant and human pathogens and fewer plant symbionts.
Photo credit: Bill Wu, Northeastern University

Urban New England

Urbanization and forest fragmentation are increasing across the globe, disrupting forest ecosystems. I am analyzing how both of these factors impact the soil microbiome and its connectivity. I am using network analysis methods to quantify associations between soil microbes along both an urban-to-rural gradient and a forest edge-to-interior gradient. I hypothesize that urban forests and forest edges have fewer microbial connections than rural forests and forest interiors due to human-made disruptions.
Photo credit: Aubrey Odom-Mabey, Boston University

CTE & Genetics

Challenge Project, Fall 2019 – Summer 2020

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a neurodegenerative disorder that affects people who are exposed to repetitive head impacts, especially those that play contact sports. However, the severity and occurrence of CTE vary among those with similar exposure to repetitive head impacts, which suggests that genetics might factor into the disease development. We investigated the association between one’s genetics and CTE and found that APOEε4 was significantly associated with CTE stage, with the association size being similar to playing more than 7 years of football. Presented at AAIC 2020 and ISMB 2020 and was published in JAMA Neurology.
Figure credit: Atherton et al. 2022

Atherton, K., Han, X., Chung, J., et al. Association of APOE Genotypes and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. JAMA Neurol. 2022;79(8):787-796. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2022.1634

Butterfly Evolution Rates

Graduate Research Rotation, Fall 2019

The evolutionary speed hypothesis suggests that molecular evolution rates are faster in tropical climates than in temperate climates. I analyzed the transcriptomes of various species of admiral butterflies that live in both tropical and temperate climates to test this hypothesis, comparing evolution rates of highly conserved genes (which are assumed to evolve at a constant rate across all species) against the rates of pigmentation and chemosensory genes (which we hypothesized would evolve more rapidly in tropical butterflies).
Figure credit: Ebel et al. 2015

Coral Response to Thermal Extremes

Graduate Research Rotation, Summer 2019

Most tropical corals require algae to survive, and when ocean temperatures become too hot, they expel their algae in a stress response. However, some species of coral are facultatively symbiotic. We studied the stress response in thermal extremes to two facultatively symbiotic corals. I performed RNA extraction to prepare the coral samples for metagenome sequencing. This data was used to study the magnitude of the stress response for both the coral hosts and the algal symbionts.
Figure credit: Aichelman et al. 2019

Predicting the Soil Microbiome

Boston University BRITE Program, Summer 2018

The soil microbiome composition can affect ecosystem function. Different taxa thrive under different conditions, such as nutrient availability, temperature, and moisture. We created a model to predict the presence of microbes in the environment and found that microbiome predictability increases with spatial and taxonomic scales. Presented at ABRCMS 2018 and published in Nature Ecology and Evolution in 2021. The paper was named one of the Top 10 papers on Mycorrhizal Research published in Spring 2021 by the International Mycorrhizal Society.

Averill, C., Werbin, Z.R., Atherton, K.F. et al. Soil microbiome predictability increases with spatial and taxonomic scale. Nat Ecol Evol 5, 747–756 (2021).


Purdue University iGEM Team, Summer & Fall 2018

Benzene is a carcinogen that is found in vehicle emissions, cigarette smoke, and the byproducts of oil refineries and petrochemical plants. Our team developed BREaTHER (Benzene REduction THERapy), a strain of E. coli that expresses a pathway that breaks down benzene into compounds that are safe for the human body. Check out our work here.
Photo credit: Purdue iGEM 2017

My research has been supported by the following organizations: