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Meet the Council: Dr. Brendan J. Pinto

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Can you provide an overview of your background and experience in evolutionary biology? What motivated you to pursue a career in this field?

My interest in evolutionary biology broadly was sparked at a fairly young age while trying to reconcile what I was being taught as true in church and what I was observing to be true through my own experiences. However, evolutionary biology as a career path wasn’t even remotely approached until college. I went to an extremely small, primarily undergraduate school, Morningside College (now Morningside University) in northwest Iowa where resources were limited. Our few, but dedicated, biology faculty maintained that we were only limited by our own imagination (although money and facilities would have been nice also!). During my first undergraduate research experience in my second year, my professor, Dr. Chad Leugers, had recently seen a paper asserting that the focal protein of his dissertation work, microtubule-associated protein Tau (MAPT)—a protein associated with numerous neurogenerative diseases—was conserved between yeast and humans. This begged the question, could it be even more ancient than that extraordinarily ancient phylogenetic split? In collaboration with another undergraduate student at the time, (now Dr.) Kyle Kinney and we interrogated a protist, the slime mold (Physarum polycephalum), for evidence of MAPT conservation across all eukaryotes. Ultimately, the project failed to bear fruit, but it was my first time starting to think in an evolutionary framework, which I suppose never really stopped! Over the next couple of years I decided I wanted to go to graduate school for something and that I would incorporate these evolutionary concepts into that work somehow. Serendipitously, when I showed up to graduate school another new person had just arrived in the department for his first semester as an assistant professor. I rotated in Dr. Tony Gamble’s lab in January 2016, he officially accepted me as his advisee in February/March, and, as they say, the rest is history!

Evolutionary biology encompasses a wide range of topics. What specific areas of evolutionary biology are you most passionate about, and why?

Scientifically, I’m fascinated by instances of convergent evolution and mostly focus on sex chromosome evolution. However, I’m also extremely passionate about making science a better place for folks to actually do science. I’ve been enormously privileged in my career, mostly by virtue of being a straight, white cis-man, but I’ve seen how the academic system has failed, and continues to fail women and historically (and continually) excluded people across the board. I’ve been provided a platform to work on making a (small) difference here with the American Genetic Association (AGA), first as an at-large member of the recently established Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee and now as the inaugural Early Career Council member, who also serves as an ex officio member of the DEI committee. In this capacity, I’ve worked many hours and tried to express (rather loudly) how the AGA might better serve the next, more diverse generation of young scientists and we should be publishing another blog post in the near future focused on some of this work.

What role does computational biology and bioinformatics play in your research, and how do you use these tools to analyze genetic or genomic data?

Figure 1: One of Brendan’s Journal of Heredity covers (Pinto et al. 2023b)

My current work is almost entirely computational based. I’m trained in field, computation, and wet lab techniques; however, my home is at the keyboard and my other skills are means to the end of getting base pairs into bytes. My work has shifted since I started graduate school as it has for many. When I started graduate school in 2015, sequencing a chromosome-level genome for a gecko was simply a pipe dream. Since 2018, I, myself, have collaborated on the generation of dozens of chromosome-level genomes, two of which are published here in the Journal of Heredity (Pinto et al. 2022; 2023a). The field is absolutely bursting with enthusiastic people excited to sequence lizard and snake genomes, it’s truly an exciting time to be a genomicist in the squamate (lizards/snakes) space right now (Pinto et al. 2023b). To help folks from across the world better coordinate the sequencing of squamate genomes more broadly, we’ve recently established the Open Consortium of Squamate Genomics (OCSG). The overarching goal of this nascent organization is to increase “both the quality and quantity of lizard and snake genomic resources, as well as increase their utility, through collaboration and training efforts.” And is currently made up of over 60 researchers from approximately 38 institutions spanning 12 countries across the globe and we’re actively recruiting folks to join and collaborate on this initiative!

Evolutionary biology covers a wide spectrum of life forms. Do you have a favorite organism or evolutionary story that never fails to amaze you?

As I mentioned in the first question, my interests began vaguely with evolutionary biology, but I had never really given a thought to a specific model system that I wanted to work with. After joining the Gamble Lab, geckos became that system for me (Pinto et al. 2019). Since graduating, I’ve widened my scope of interest, but my heart will always be with the sprightly salamaquitas of the genus Sphaerodactylus!

Figure 2: Brendan’s first Journal cover (Pinto et al. 2019)

Collaboration is essential in science. Can you share an experience of working closely with colleagues or mentors who had a significant impact on your work?

None of my published works would have been possible without the help of my colleagues and collaborators. However, my advisors both PhD and current postdoctoral advisors have given me more than I could have possibly asked of them. Throughout my brief career so far, I wouldn’t be where I am today without their patience and encouragement. My advice to anyone thinking of applying to graduate school is to find a great advisor and ignore the name of the university attached to their program. In fact, you may, or may not, have noticed that this blog post doesn’t even mention the school where I did my PhD, only the lab I worked in!

When you’re not immersed in evolutionary biology, how do you unwind and recharge?

This has been a nearly all-consuming struggle for me actually! During my PhD, I stepped away from many pastimes that I enjoyed to focus on my studies. Since starting my current position at ASU, I’ve renewed my interests in a variety of sports (like Judo, ultimate frisbee, and sand volleyball) and non-sport activities (like video games, painting, and hiking). I now teach Judo to kids (ages ~4-10) 3x a week and strive to apply the two fundamental principles of Judo to my daily life, (1) maximum efficiency with minimal effort and (2) mutual welfare and benefit. These principles suggest that (1) by thinking through issues and applying previously learned knowledge most problems can be solved with minimal effort by everyone involved, and (2) by helping others (teaching/learning, etc.) you’re helping yourself better understand the concept(s). I view these principles as essential to how I try to conduct collaborative science.

Can you recommend a book, documentary, or popular science resource that you believe effectively communicates the wonder of evolution to a general audience?

I honestly view She Has Her Mother’s Laugh by Carl Zimmer is an essential read for every scientist, but is a great read for everyone – including my own mother who thoroughly enjoyed the book despite not being a scientist!

Articles mentioned:

Pinto BJ, Titus-McQuillan J, Daza JD, Gamble T. (2019). Persistence of a geographically-stable hybrid zone in Puerto Rican dwarf geckos. Journal of Heredity. 110(5):523–534. COVER OF J HERED

Pinto BJ, Keating SE, Nielsen SV, Scantlebury DP, Daza JD, Gamble T. (2022). Chromosome-level genome assembly reveals dynamic sex chromosomes in Neotropical leaf-litter geckos (Sphaerodactylidae: Sphaerodactylus). Journal of Heredity. 113(3):272-87.

Pinto BJ, Gamble T, Smith CH, Keating SE, Havird J, Chiari Y. (2023a). The revised reference genome of the leopard gecko (Eublepharis macularius) provides insight into the considerations of genome phasing and assembly. Journal of Heredity. 114(5):513-520. COVER OF J HERED

Pinto BJ, Gamble T, Smith CH, Wilson MA. (2023b). A lizard is never late: squamate genomics as a recent catalyst for understanding microchromosome and sex chromosome evolution. Journal of Heredity. 114(5):445-458.

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