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Night at the Smithsonian

Picture of Earth & Ecosystem Science Doctoral graduate, Nichelle VanTassel

Nichelle VanTassel, a doctoral student in the Earth and Ecosystem Science (EES) program, accepts a job at The Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC. After defending her dissertation and graduating in the Fall of 2022, VanTassel will work as a research technician at the Center for Conservation Genomics. Here she will apply her knowledge of ecology and genetics to research honeyguide birds and avian malaria, a type of malaria that impacts endangered Hawaiian birds.

Before learning about the Center for Conservation Genomics, VanTassel hadn't yet considered The Smithsonian as an option for jumpstarting her career. She just knew she wanted to conduct research in conservation genomics (the study of organisms’ genetic information) and molecular ecology. When it came time to apply for the role of research technician, VanTassel jumped at the opportunity. She explains how her “challenging and rewarding” journey at CMU, gave her the confidence to believe in herself as a professional scientist and apply for the position.  

VanTassel’s interest in ecology and aquatic habitats started at a young age, sharing, “I always wanted to be a scientist.” Having grown up in Florida’s Gulf Coast, VanTassel fell in love with the ocean and its inhabitants. Driven by passion and curiosity, she began her academic journey and earned her bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology from the University of West Florida (UWF) and joined the workforce as a Benthic Ecology intern at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. Soon after, she decided to go back to school at UWF to earn her master’s degree in Biology and eventually pursue a Ph.D. at CMU.   

“I always knew that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. and I knew I wanted to study aquatic biology. During my undergrad experience, I volunteered for every research opportunity I could find and found out I really love genetics”, VanTassel explained.  

Currently, VanTassel works alongside Dr. David Zanatta and studies the conservation, genomics, and evolution of freshwater mussels. Her most recent projects include researching the genetic diversity and structure of mussel populations in North America. While working in the Zanatta Lab, VanTassel also became interested in improving mussel propagation efforts. In some cases, propagation can have negative effects on a population, such as a loss of genetic diversity. By bringing awareness to this, VanTassel’s research can be used by wildlife managers to improve propagation efforts.   

VanTassel expresses her gratitude to the
Zanatta Picture of Earth & Ecosystem Science Doctoral graduate, Nichelle VanTasselLab and the EES program, sharing, “I have gained so much knowledge about population genomics and conservation, but more importantly, I have gained skills in collaboration, data management, troubleshooting, and mentoring.”

VanTassel is excited to start her career as a research technician and contribute her passion and knowledge to The Smithsonian. When she’s not studying aquatic biology and genetics, VanTassel enjoys playing with her dog, spending time with her fiancé, and researching Greek Mythology. Best of luck!

At CMU, We Do Research, We Do Real World

Story by ORGS intern Hailey Nelson

April 2022