Crossing the pond

By the PhD student Aleksandra Marconi

My visit to Juntti lab at the University of Maryland, US (November 7-18, 2018)

I definitely did not expect that a mere month into my PhD at the Department of Zoology in Cambridge, I will be on my way to visit Scott Juntti’s laboratory at the University of Maryland (UMD). Scott’s work is at the forefront of development of the genome editing tools in Astatotilapia burtoni, a haplochromine cichlid and congener of A. calliptera, one of the three species I will be studying throughout my PhD research. I was fortunate enough for Scott to agree for me to shadow his group for a week and learn how to apply the technique of Tol2 transgenesis in cichlids, first demonstrated in Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) by Koji Fujimura and Tom Kocher, the latter also based at the UMD and who I had the opportunity to meet in person during my time there.


Juntti lab is located at the spectacular campus of the University of Maryland in College Park where I had my first sneak peak into the American college life, quite unlike the Cambridge one I am familiar with. During my visit, I learnt how to set up experimental crosses between the fish, extract fertilised eggs from mouthbrooding females, set up and conduct the microinjections and, finally, the nitty-gritty of post-procedure husbandry of embryos. Amazingly, some of the eggs I injected with Tol2 constructs were expressing fluorescent reporter gene several days after the experiments.

Apart from the work I did in the lab, I spent two weekends sightseeing the capital, Washington, D.C. It’s true what they say – everything is bigger in the USA. Coming from Cambridge, I was blown away by the vast streets and massive buildings on every corner. Among my favourite things I discovered in D.C. were the art collections in the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection, colonial Georgetown and HipVegCity, a 100% plant-based restaurant near Chinatown. I would definitely come back to these places given a chance!


DC_2Last but not least, I participated in the Bioscience Day 2018 – an annual event on the UMD College Park campus that features research talks, inventor pitch competition, poster session and networking panels. I attended the keynote lecture by Sean B. Carroll who recently moved his lab from Wisconsin to UMD. He shared an interesting story of hope for the efforts in conservation and restoration of the natural biodiversity and resilience of nature in Serengeti (Tanzania) and Gorongosa National Park (Mozambique). If you’re interested finding out more, I recommend checking out his book The Serengeti Rules: The Quest to Discover How Life Works and Why It Matters.


Overall, this short trip was truly an amazing start to my PhD adventure. I have not only learnt the technique I will be now adapting to my study species but also brought home with me some good practices and fresh ideas for my project and our growing lab

Mushroom hunting

Working in a Department of Zoology means interacting with very enthusiastic people that love nature and being outside. I was lucky that I got to hitchhike on someone else’s adventure. Prof. Bill Amos loves mushroom hunting for both research and culinary purposes. Apart from the rather early start, the outings are very enjoyable! We must arrive before the “other pickers” get all the porcini (Boletus edulis)! Sometimes you collect nothing, but that makes it all the more exciting…otherwise, they wouldn’t call it hunting.

In our foraging, Bill identified several other edible species, that ended up in a taster plate. My favourites were the wood blewit (Clitocybe nuda) and the saffron milk cap (Lactarius deliciosus). I am now a little obsessed about becoming a mushroom hunter gatherer….but mushrooms apart, it feels amazing to be able to fit in a forest walk before work.





Starting a research group

Soon I will be starting my own research group at the Zoology Department at the University of Cambridge. Exciting times ahead! I will be joining the exciting Cambridge Cichlid community, collaborating with Eric Miska (Gurdon Institute) and Richard Durbin (Genetics Department) groups. 


Lots of more pigmentation evolution work lies ahead. The theme of the lab is to use a mix of cellular and development biology with quantitative and population genetics within and between cichlid species. Current projects focus on eggspot pigmentation patterning, neural crest cells diversification and regulatory evolution. If you would like to join us drop me an email