My research focuses on the genetic and ecological factors that contribute to diversification in the phenotypic plasticity of developmental timing. Since environmental conditions fluctuate daily and seasonally, the onsets of major life history events--e.g. germination and flowering--are responses partly or wholly cued by environmental signals. These responses are often the products of adaptive evolution because as species expand their ranges, colonize new environments, or adjust to historical and recent anthropogenic changes, the combination of environmental cues predictive for the optimal timing of developmental transitions may change dramatically. By connecting genetic variation to phenotypes to survival and reproduction, this work aims to understand all levels of the evolutionary process, and consequently my studies range from molecular genetics to population and quantitative genomics to ecological studies in natural environments.
My work seeks to address three major questions:
1) How do organisms integrate environmental cues to trigger developmental transitions?
2) Through what mechanisms does developmental plasticity evolve?
3) What natural or anthropogenic factors drive or maintain variation in plasticity?
I have focused predominantly on two systems, sunflowers and monkeyflowers, that exhibit tremendous variation across broad geographic transects in how flowering responds to photoperiod and other environmental cues. Changes in flowering time plasticity coincide with speciation and local adaptation, and investigating the mechanisms involved in these transitions will aid our understanding of these processes. In sunflower, my work also examines the genetics of how flowering time and other traits evolved during its domestication because I have a strong interest in understanding the dynamics of how novel and complex trait syndromes evolve.