A question & answer session to get to know the 2021 GG Scholar Sydney Harned, 1st year graduate student in the Biology Program. She has joined the Burford Reiskind Lab.

What aspect of genetics and/or genomics most interests you?

I am so fascinated by the complexity of genetics – how just four base pairs can combine to make unique species, populations and individuals. It’s so incredible! I’m also so excited about how quickly the field is moving – it seems like genomic technology is advancing by the day. I can’t wait to watch the field progress throughout my career.

What (or Who) influenced you to go into your field of study?

At 11 years old, I decided I was going to be a “marine biologist” after attending Seaworld camp. While my aspirations have shifted since then, my underlying goal remains the same: use science to conserve threatened species, especially in the marine realm. I fell in love with genetics during an introductory course while studying marine science at the University of Miami, and through advanced electives and my Master’s degree, I learned how to apply genomic tools to marine conservation.

Who or what do you hope benefits from your research?

I hope my research is used to implement effective management strategies for over-exploited, at-risk species. Take, for example, my current study species: the southern flounder. This fish is a huge food source for North Carolina and the east coast as a whole, and as a result of fishing, their populations have declined drastically. By using genetics, we can figure out which populations are isolated, which are contributing the most to the gene pool, and which are most at-risk of extinction. Using this information, we can implement stricter fishing regulations for the populations that are most threatened. These methods can be used for a vast range of species, and will ultimately contribute to conserving biodiversity across the globe.

How can your research be used to inform decision makers (e.g. policy makers, resource managers, health practitioners, K12 educators, etc etc)?

Conservation science is very interdisciplinary. Already in my first year, I’ve had contact with fisheries, government agencies and policy makers. In order to effectively conserve a species, it’s important to consider the needs and opinions of all stakeholders.

What do you think is the most pressing issue or problem in your field of study?

Currently, we are living through the Sixth Mass Extinction. We are losing biodiversity at unprecedented rates due to human activities such as land use/habitat degradation, pollution, and over-consumption of our resources. The goal of conservation genomics is to use genomic tools to inform best practices for conserving Earth’s biodiversity that is being lost so rapidly.

How do you expect the GG Scholars program to impact your work?

The GGS program has already impacted my work significantly! During my first year courses, I learned about topics in genomics I wasn’t familiar with, and my new breadth of knowledge has expanded how I think about my own research. My friends in the GGS program have also been so helpful – I love being able to consult them when I have a difficult research problem, as their diverse backgrounds lead to possible solutions I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.

How would you describe your research interests to a 3rd grader?

I study southern flounder, a type of fish that’s important for food in North Carolina. If the water gets too warm when the flounder are babies, they get stressed out, and the female flounder will turn into males! This is a problem, because if all the females become males, there won’t be enough female fish to have babies and the species will die out. Right now, we have no way of knowing if an adult male fish has always been a male, or if he started as a female. My goal is to use genetics to figure this out – once we can tell which males have always been males, and which started as females, we can answer lots of important questions, like how often does this change occur? and why do some females change to males, while others don’t?

What’s your dream job?

I would love to work in an upper management position at a government agency like NOAA or US Fish and Wildlife, where I can work directly with policy makers and use my research to make lasting changes.