Personal Webpage: http://IrisIlenaLevin.weebly.com
2005-2011: Ph.D., University of Missouri - St. Louis. Advisor: Patty Parker
2001-2005: B.A. Bowdoin College (Honors in Biology). Advisor: Dr. Nat Wheelwright
I am interested in disease ecology and evolutionary biology, particularly in questions relating to how and when parasites move between different hosts. For my dissertation, I used a population genetics approach to understand host-parasite interactions in Galapagos seabirds and their parasites. One of the central questions in parasite biology is why we see such a range in host specificity and what parameters of the parasite, the host, or the interaction explain these patterns. Because many of the interactions between hosts and parasites are very tight associations, biologists have historically assumed that cospeciation was the most important factor shaping host-parasite assemblages; however, the more we learn about host-parasite relationships, the more we begin to understand that tight cospeciation is just one of many outcomes. One of the first steps in untangling the coevolutionary history behind these interacting players is to understand the genetic structure of the host and the parasite populations. Parasite-host congruence is affected by relative rates of host and parasite dispersal, host geographic distribution, and parasite host specificity. Host specificity of a parasite is determined in part by the ability of the parasite to disperse among host species, as well as the general ecology of the parasite (e.g., direct vs. indirect lifecycle). Finally, ecological factors that affect the distribution and abundance of both hosts and parasites will also influence the congruence between host and parasite population genetic structure. I explored these questions in Galapagos Island seabirds, particularly Great Frigatebirds (Fregata minor). These seabirds are parasitized by an obligate hippoboscid fly ectoparasite (Olfersia spinifera), which is the vector for a Haemosporidian parasite (Haemoproteus iwa). The Galapagos Islands have naturally replicated populations of closely associated bird hosts and parasites, providing a simplified system to explore community level dynamics underlying patterns of host specificity and population genetic structure of host-parasite assemblages. These types of comparative population studies are needed to help illuminate the microevolutionary processes that result in the macroevolutionary patterns such as cospeciation or host-switching. By comparing host (frigatebird) and parasite (hippoboscid fly) population genetic structure, we can begin to understand how parasites might be moving between individuals, throughout the archipelago, and between birds across their geographic range.