Darko Cotoras

Chile native Darko Cotoras (SX 2011) is fascinated by natural history, evolution, and biodiversity. For his PhD in integrative biology, he is studying how spiders in Hawaii and other places have diversified over time.

Tell us about your educational background.

Since I was a kid, I have beenDarkoCotoras1 always interested in science and the natural world. During high school, at Colegio San Ignacio (Santiago, Chile), I took advanced courses in biology and chemistry.

I received a bachelor's degree in sciences with a mention in biology at the Sciences School of Universidad de Chile. Most of my elective courses were in neurobiology and evolution. I got involved in research in two lab groups. One was an evolutionary ecology lab (Professor Rodrigo Medel) where I worked with a graduate student (Marcela Vidal) on island-continent differentiation of Liolaemus lizards. The second lab (Professor Miguel Allende) was where I spent most of my time. I started helping another student (Pedro Hernández) on his thesis about the effect of copper in neuromast cells in the lateral line of zebrafish. Then, I started my own research project in collaboration with, at that time, Yale University postdoc Alexander Vargas. It was an evolutionary question about comparative gene expression between different types of fins in zebrafish.

After that, I earned a master's in ecology and evolutionary biology with professors Miguel Allende and Verónica Cambiazo at Universidad de Chile. My thesis work was an extension of my undergraduate research and it was titled: "In the Footsteps of Urbilateria, or Evolution of the Gene Network Involved in Appendage Development in Arthropods (Drosophila melanogaster) and Vertebrates (Danio rerio)." The aim of this work was to test the degree of conservation of the gene regulatory networks involved in the formation of appendicular structures in bilaterian animals. In order to do that, I combined data from various databases and primary literature, graph theory, bioinformatics, and experimental developmental biology.

Currently, thanks to a Fulbright/CONICYT scholarship I am working toward a PhD in the integrative biology department at the University of California, Berkeley. My advisors are professors David Lindberg and Rosemary Gillespie.

Do you have a particular teacher or professor who inspired your love of science? 

At different stages of my scientific education I have encountered mentors that have inspired me in different degrees. The love for science is an element that is pretty much always present in people that I consider sources of inspiration. However, to answer this question I will focus on the people who helped me get started in the path of science. 

My parents are microbiologists and both do research in environmental biotechnology. They have been a huge, positive influence to get me interested in exploring the natural world. They are a living testimony of what I consider true scientists. With their humble and perseverant work, they have been an example of scientific rigorousness and constancy. Also, their passion and enjoyment of nature has marked me since early childhood. I have also learned from them that the social recognition of your work shouldn't be in the center of your attention. Instead, developing good science and your contribution to create a better world should be always on the horizon.

What is the focus of your current research? 

I am studying the temporalDarko Cotoras2 dynamic of the adaptive radiation of the Tetragnatha spiders in the Hawaiian archipelago. This genus had evolved more than 60 species in less than 5 million years. A group of them, the "spiny-leg" clade, includes dramatic ecological shifts and convergent ecomorphologies. Taking advantage of the different ages of the islands, it is possible to examine different stages of the diversification process.

The questions that drive my research are: (1) How does a radiation get started? and (2) What are the posterior changes in the number of lineages and morphological variation? In order to answer these questions, I am using the Tetragnatha spiders as a system to test: (1) the effects of the volcanic history of the Big Island on the genetic and morphological variation, (2) evidence for past speciation processes in the Maui Nui complex, and (3) the biogeography and diversification patterns of the Tetragnatha spiders from different remote archipelagos in the Pacific Ocean.

This work aims to provide evidence for the understanding of how explosive diversifications develop through time. In order to do that, I am using population genetics and phylogenetics. For both genetic approaches, I am combining regular DNA sequencing techniques and next generation sequencing technology. For the last one, I am doing several experiments of exon capture. Also, I am quantifying color variation in my species of interests.

I am also doing phylogenetic studies on endemic spiders from the Juan Fernández archipelago and characterizing the spider community of Easter Island.

Tell us about something we might see in our daily lives that directly correlates to your work.

In different parts of the world there are groups of organisms that present the pattern of adaptive radiations. For example, Australia has marsupials, Africa has Cichlid fishes, the area along the Andes has the lupin flowers orLiolaemus lizards, the Bonin Islands have land snails, the Caribbean hasAnoles lizards and, of course, Hawaii has the Tetragnatha spiders among many other groups. By using one group of spiders from Hawaii, I am trying to address the big question of how these kinds of diversification events develop over time. Hopefully the discoveries of my dissertation will provide insights to understand this general phenomenon.

Give us an example of how multi-disciplinary research directly contributed to your work.

Even though I am studying the skeletal morphogenesis in a regenerating zebrafish tail fin, which is a field of developmental biology, our lab utilizes an array of molecular biology techniques to study gene expression patterns. Our lab also utilizes cell culture techniques, such as zebrafish fibroblast cell lines, to test various hypotheses under in vitro conditions. We also utilize various microscopy techniques and computational software for microscopy image analysis. The very nature of the work in our lab is a multi-disciplinary approach.

Give us an example of how multi-disciplinary research directly contributed to your work.

My work is centered in understanding temporal dynamics. The way to address this issue is by using the chronological arrangement of the Hawaiian Islands. The dating of different volcanoes and understanding of the geologic processes that shapes the landscape are essential to put into context the evolution of the new species. So, my research is enriched from geology and volcanology. Computer sciences and programing are also involved in the aspects related with bioinformatics.

What are your thoughts on the future of STEM education?

I think education in science is essential for society, not only for the people who will pursue science-related careers, but also for the general community. Science and mathematics are approaches to understand the world that surrounds us. A more educated society on these areas will also be a more responsible society.

Describe your patent/publishing experience.

The first publications in which I was involved, I was not the main author. For that reason my involvement in the publication process was very focused in my part of the work. Currently, I am trying to publish a couple of papers in which I am the first author. It has been a very difficult process! Both manuscripts have been rejected from several journals. Every time has been very disappointing, but at the same time I always have received very good feedback that has improved my work. Reading the reviewers' comments, it is a weird mix of feelings. On one side I feel very down because of the rejection, but on the other hand I am able to see improvements that I did not consider before. After making the improvements, it is a great feeling that people that you don't know helped you to make your work better.

What has the honor of induction to Sigma Xi meant to you?

It meant a lot to me because it opened the opportunity to interact with a global network of researchers. Also, it allowed me to access all the benefits of being part of Sigma Xi.

Has Sigma Xi helped further your career?

Absolutely! Sigma Xi has helped me during my PhD. I got research funding from its Grants-in-Aid of Research program, which I used for my fieldwork in the Hawaiian Islands. Working on Hawaii is very interesting, but expensive. The economic support of Sigma Xi allowed me to accomplish an important part of the most expensive logistics of collecting samples. Among those activities were taking a helicopter and renting a four wheel drive vehicle for several days. Without that economic support, I wouldn't have been able to get those samples.

What books are you currently reading for pleasure?

Currently I am not reading any book for pleasure. I am mostly working on my dissertation and doing outdoor activities for fun (windsurfing, sailing, and hiking). I recently read two books: Darwin en Patagonia and The Voyage of the Challenger. I really liked the last one because of the integrative view of the world during the time of that journey.

When you're not working on your research, what do you do in your free time?

I really like outdoor sports. I've been skateboarding and bodyboarding since before high school. I also like mountain biking and hiking. Since I moved to Berkeley, I have been doing a lot of water sports, especially sailing and windsurfing. Also, during the winter I go up to the mountains to do snowboarding.

What's your favorite movie?

I have a few favorites: Jurassic ParkThe BeachSeven Years in Tibet, and Avatar.

What is your favorite motto?

"In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught." 
—Baba Dioum 

What advice would you give to a young researcher just starting out in your field?

The most useful advice that I received was: "Be honest to yourself and enjoy what you do." The study of natural history is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful and rewarding activities. It is not directly related to economic interests, which creates a whole different dynamic than other areas of science. The funding is way more difficult to obtain, but at the same time it implies that there is more freedom to work and collaborate.

However, I would be honest saying that it can be an extremely difficult path to follow. Many times you will find yourself pretty much alone trying to pursue something that not many other people or funding agencies care about. This is not because that aim is irrelevant, but because not many people will appreciate it. Many people will still not be able to understand the value of these new discoveries.

Facing those difficulties is when it becomes more important to remember what really matters to you as a scientist and stick to that. I think doing biology or science in general is not a regular job, it is more a lifestyle. For better or worse, your research activity sooner or later will permeate all your life. Your questions and ideas will stay in your head all the time and perhaps you will even have to move to other places in order to answer them.

Because of that level of integration between your research activity and your personal life, I think it is essential to be honest with yourself and consciously decide how far you want to go and assume those benefits and consequences. Finally, as long as you are enjoying what you do and how you do it, you can be certain that things are going well.

What advances do you see in your field of research over the next 125 years?

In the field of evolutionary biology, the future seems to be getting closer faster and faster. New and cheaper high throughput sequencing technologies with the increase of computational capacity are giving us more data than we ever imagined. At the same time, powerful computational tools to visualize and organize big data sets are created and improved continuously. Also, the integration of sophisticated mathematical techniques allows exploring data in ways never considered before. The pace of change in evolutionary biology is absolutely overwhelming today so it is fascinating to imagine where it will go even in the very near future.

However, in parallel to all this new input of technologies and techniques there is something that has been lost: natural history. It is alarming how common it is to see biologists who haven't ever seen their organisms. As a graduate student, I have felt how the pure description of the natural world tends to be left behind. It seems to me that there is an "obsession" with the new technologies that is taking the place of what has been the foundation of biology for centuries.

I really hope that in the next years all these new approaches will be appreciated but not overrated. If not, I think in the next 125 years the only species that we will know something about are the ones that live in the lab.

About the Meet Your Fellow Companion series

Sigma Xi's motto is the Greek "Spoudon Xynones," or "Companions in Zealous Research." With that thought in mind, we like to highlight "Fellow Companions" to learn more about their work and what the honor of induction to Sigma Xi has meant for their careers.

The articles are published in the Sigma Xi Today section of American Scientist and here on the website.